The Gorilla Coach: A book review of Coaching Agile Teams, by Lyssa Adkins

Coachin Agile Teams

 

“You’ve got to do something! We can’t keep going like this, the entire project is going to collapse in on itself.”
Eric certainly had a way of getting my attention. I had instant visions of red project dashboards and burn down charts flat lining like a patient in the ER. Eric was one of the canaries on the project. There are always those certain team members that reflect the state of the project or are the first to see a major issue. Like the miner’s canary of old, they are the first to notice or raise the issues and a smart manager learns to pay attention. These are not to be mistaken for the Chicken Littles, who can give a hypochondriac a run for their money. When a canary sings, you listen to their song.
I held up my hands and spoke in a calm tone. “Okay, Eric, calm down and tell me what the problem is. I’m sure we can get this addressed.”
Eric took a deep breath and paused for a moment, as if suddenly unsure he wanted to continue. I gave him my best supporting smile and waited.  Finally finding his voice he said, “It’s Greg, he smells.”
I blinked. “Smells?”
Eric nodded, perhaps a bit too energetically. “No one wants to pair program with him. Heck no one wants to be within six feet of him. It’s like a mouse crawled into his shirt and died. Given the last time he changed his shirt it could well have.”
I sat back in my chair, a frown threatening to crease my brow. “This can’t be happening to me,” I thought. My next thought was to look across the table again. If Brenda were sitting there, this would have been another “The sky is falling” moments and I could have dealt with that like all the other times the sky didn’t really fall. Only this was Eric, the most reliable barometer of the teams health available. It meant that either Eric had gone off the deep end or the problem was very real.
So now what? This wasn’t a slipped schedule, we didn’t have a shortage of test machines,  it wasn’t even the completely useless requirements or product manager owner was foisting on us. No, I was being asked to deal with someone’s smell.”
They didn’t cover this in project management training…
“What would coach do?”
I turned to cast a baleful look at Hogarth.
“This isn’t a football game.”
My gorilla gave a little nod. “Good thing too, cause you stink at football.”
“Hogarth you are not helping me solve this problem.”
He nodded again, a brilliant white smile splitting his face. “Nope, I’m not and you shouldn’t be either. Solving Eric’s problem isn’t going to help him solve it in the future, now is it?”
Dang… he was right.
BOOK REVIEW: COACHING AGILE TEAMS, By Lyssa Adkins
Summary:
This book had been recommended to me many times, by many people. It forms one of the core study books for PMI’s new agile certification and you’d be hard pressed to find a conversation on agile coaching that doesn’t reference this book or the author.
Like me, Lyssa Adkins is a recovering command and control project manager and this is one of the things that makes this book resonate for me. While many agile authors have always been on the revolutionary/evolutionary end of the innovation scale, Lyssa had worked in the trenches of traditional projects and speaks to all audiences. Whether you are an eccentric software coder, turned agile visionary, or a former art major, turned project manager, turned aspiring agile coach, this book will speak to you. Very importantly, it speaks right to project managers “in transition.” Based on the traditional roles that project managers have filled, the scrum master role often ends up being a place project managers end up gravitating to as they journey into agile (or are shoved feet first by events, company, etc.) so this book is a great asset to them.
With 302 practical pages of content, there is a lot to absorb. It is not an evening’s light reading. Some of the concepts and mental challenges they raised had me setting the book down so I could process. All in all, it took me several weeks to read the book as there was so much to absorb and my mind wasn’t ready for it all at once.  But there was no way I was not going to finish this book.
The book is broadly laid out into three sections and the first hint you have on what it takes to be a good coach is that two of the three sections have to do with you.
  • It Starts With You: Starting with the obvious “will I be a good coach?” question, this section lays down the ground work to open yourself up to what is needed for you to be a good coach. Along the way it teaches you a lot about yourself.
  • Helping the Team Get More for Themselves: This section covers six aspects of being an agile coach, from the high level mentor concepts to the details of how a coach can help resolve conflict in a team.
  • Getting More for Yourself: One of the things I truly appreciate about agile, is its stance on failure. Lyssa’s book is no different and this section tackles head on the mistakes you will make and that it is okay to make them as long as you learn from them. It touches on the journey and knowing when you finally get there (Hint- you never do).
The Good:
Approachable Style: Lyssa writes this book in a conversational tone and weaves in direct experience throughout the book. You constantly have a strong sense that she is speaking from her own hands-on experience and her light style makes absorbing the deep content a lot easier.
Failure is okay: She knows that the journey to being a coach is going to have its bumps and bruises and she makes that okay. Instead of feeling like you are facing an insurmountable journey to be an agile coach, she reassures you that the potholes are just part of the journey. The most wonderful experiences are not found in the well manicured aisles of a department store, they are found out in the wilds of the world.
Lots of practical tips: The book isn’t just theory and platitudes. She provides solid tips, actions and exercises. She also provides tailoring to help you deal with all aspects of an agile organization, not just the agile development team.
The Not So:
No punches pulled: This could arguably be in the good things, you just need to be aware about it. Lyssa doesn’t pull punches and she’s not going to white wash this. If you are not ready to let go of your control freak nature, this book will be hard to read. You’ll put it down more than once and walk away. You will also learn really fast if you really want to be an agile coach. It is not a job for everyone. I still want to be one, but this book certainly tested my mettle.
Broad base may not appeal: If you are a hardcore scrum master, who is totally focused in on the artifacts of scrum and only scrum, you may find this book to broad for your tastes. Lyssa comes off fairly agile agnostic. This book is about helping any team, in an agile way, and this may not be pure scrum enough for some. Again, this could be argued as a good thing. I would hazard a guess that is part of why it ended up on the PMI reading list.
The Bookshelf Index: (Where does this book when I am done reading it?)
In my computer bag: This book speaks so much to what I want to be and how I want to engage with teams that it has not left my computer bag since I started reading it. It has quickly become a well worn copy and I will continue to refer to it regularly for some time to come.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? mailto:jbancroftconnors@gmail.com
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

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