Do you need an agile catalyst? by Jon Ward

In an agile transformation, you may need an agile catalyst not a coach!

Without a doubt, the role of an Agile Coach is complex and looking at job advertisements recently, the Agile coaching role seems to embrace everything from working with a single scrum team to working with a sizable enterprise. 

Looking at the tasks outlined in the advertisements, I realised that the skills demanded were radically different. At one extreme, the recruiters emphasised servant leadership at the other organisational change, c-level visioning and transformational direction. While comfortable with the term Agile Coach for individuals working with a single scrum team or a large team. It is clear that the title Agile Coach needs clarification when working with many teams or transforming an entire organisation. I chose to call this transformational role an Agile Catalyst.

So what are the skills which Agile Catalysts need to employ? Broadly all agile coaching is leadership, at the team level, at the programme level and the organisational level. By analysing the type of leadership, I hope to find a degree of commonality across the levels. To a degree, I found this the difference appears to lie in the emphasis or importance placed by the advertisers on certain essential skills.

I found that a catalyst should display a combination of the agile mindset, servant leadership, the transformational leader and catalytic leadership is probably a sensible starting point. These definitions overlap so taking common elements, and some of the unique behaviours probably give a single skill set which can be applied to the role description Agile Catalyst.

I could not find a single definition of what is meant by the term an agile mindset; however, it seems to be resultant behaviour from a set of values:

  • A focus and pride in the creation of customer value.
  • Respect for people and the team.
  • The desire for collaboration. They realise that the efforts of one person or within one part of the organisation is not enough.
  • Recognition for the need for continuous improvement and that there is always room for improvement.
  • A desire to learn and encouraging others to do the same.
  • The ability to embrace change.

Being a Servant Leader, as defined by Robert Greenleaf, gives a focus on the needs of others, recognising the importance of the team over self. It is about providing people support, helping them to achieve their goals, and building a sense of community within the team. The consequence is that individuals are more engaged, trusting and energised.  Generating results with collaboration, teamwork, productivity, and innovation.  So many people talk about an Agile Coach as a Servant Leader, I felt I had to include this concept in my list of components. However, I find Greenleaf’s assertion that the individual is primarily a servant and secondly a leader. I find this a problematic concept if thinking about transformational behaviour. Since the team may act to resist change and the coach may need to adopt a different response to effect the transformation.

Nevertheless, I found some commonality with the other definitions I had selected more compelling, and I believe that these mostly embrace Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership concept. For example MacGregor Burns’s definition of transformational leadership or Lalande’s catalytic leadership

Transformational leadership is a theory where the leader works with a team to identify the need for change. James MacGregor Burns states that a transformation leader inspires commitment to the goal through the creation and communication of a vision being a role model connecting with an individual’s sense of identity and challenging teams to accept greater ownership of their work.

According to Joseph Lalonde, a catalytic leader Is a team leader who is a visionary who facilitates.  They believe that leaders articulate innovative, inspiring visions and bring together the right people to transform that vision into reality. Catalytic leaders empower others and actively facilitate their development. They are:

  • Adept at balancing assertive and accommodating styles as needed.
  • They are likely to articulate and question underlying assumptions.
  • Genuinely interested in learning from diverse viewpoints.
  • Proactive in seeking and utilising feedback.
  • Intent upon creating highly participative teams.

So what is an Agile Catalyst?

Being an Agile Catalyst means having the ability to inspire others to adopt and pursue new ways of working. You will observe that I have replaced the traditional servant-leader ethos with respect for people. I have blended skills from the remaining frameworks and established the following set of ten critical skills for an Agile Catalyst.

  • A focus and pride in the creation of customer value.
  • Respect for people and the unique contribution each may make.
  • Aware that the efforts of one person or within one part of the organisation may not be enough.
  • Capability to build commitment and energise participative teams.
  • They recognise that there is always room for improvement, cautious of agile arrogance.
  • They are hungry for learning and encouraging others to do the same.
  • They readily embrace value-adding change.
  • Use data-based decision making.
  • Are Risk-aware.
  • Have exceptional listening and communication skills.

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Jon Ward is an agile catalyst; helping organisations to produce improved bottom-line when adopting agile. 

A Change Management expert for over thirty years- Jon believes in contextual agile. Rather than using a single framework or set techniques, Jon introduces appropriate ways of agile working enabling organisations to achieve their strategic goals. For Jon, this contextual focus involves tailoring agile approaches and blending them sometimes with traditional techniques. For example; recently, Jon combined Benefits Management approaches with components from SAFe and Disciplined Agile. Consequently, Jon has a reputation as a pragmatist; and for implementing agile ways of working, which increase performance and productivity. Jon is a director with Beneficial Consulting based in London, UK.