Lyssa Adkins on Agile Coaching (Scaling Tech Podcast Ep9)

Oct 4, 2022 | Agile

On episode 9 of the Scaling Tech Podcast, Lyssa Adkins joins us to discuss Agile Coaching and Agile Transformations. Lyssa Adkins is a truly inspirational voice in the Agile community who co-founded the Agile Coaching Institute in 2010 and has been a leader in working committees for ICAgile and the Scrum Alliance. She is author of Coaching Agile Teams, which is a foundational text for anyone interested in agile coaching.

In this episode, Arin and David discuss how they were both influenced by Lyssa early in their agile coaching careers. Lyssa shares advice on how to frame transformational change in the agile context, and how agile coaches help an organization to install their new “agile operating system.” She discusses how to know when your organization is ready for agile transformations and the importance of having a vision for the change you want to see in your organization. We also discuss the human element of change, how rapidly life is changing around us right now both personally and professionally, and the importance of “honoring the familiar.” Be sure to listen to this episode, Lyssa’s insights and experience will change how you approach leadership in general, not just during an agile transformation!

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Show notes with links to jump ahead are below

Show Notes from Episode 9 – Lyssa Adkins on Agile Coaching
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  • 00:00 Arin and David introduce this episode with noted Agile Coach and Consultant Lyssa Adkins. Arin talks about how powerful this conversation was with Lyssa, and how he will likely go back to this many times to revisit her lessons on change management, and how that can impact you both personally and professionally. David talks about how self-aware Lyssa is, and how that has allowed her to become such an exceptional leader.
  • 03:38 Arin introduces Lyssa as a truly inspirational voice in the Agile community. She co-founded the Agile Coaching Institute in 2010, and has been a leader in working committees for ICAgile and the Scrum Alliance. She is author of Coaching Agile Teams, which is a foundational text for anyone interested in agile coaching.
  • 04:15 We start with a definition – what does an Agile Coach do? Lyssa says that depends on who you’re talking to. The coach’s background changes what they work on, and what they care about. Arin notes that our audience is generally engineering managers who are leading growing tech teams, and who come from a technical background. Lyssa notes that for that audience, an important thing to know is that an Agile Coach will help get the engineering manager out of the middle between business decisions, and help the technical team to focus on the technical decisions, which is where that responsibility lies.
  • 07:15 Lyssa notes we cannot do everything we want to do. Agile creates a bridge between business and IT for delivery of software, and helps them to work on things in small bites so that we know we are working on the most important things. Agile creates safety for change.
  • 08:31 Lyssa describes how Agile runs on a different “operating system”, a different set of values then before. The Agile Coach helps the organization to get out of its own way, by helping to install that internal operating system in the team and the people. Doing that is better than simply setting a bunch of rules to blindly follow.
  • 9:35 David notes how he admires how well Lyssa is able to set the frame of a conversation. He notes to Lyssa, before you engage with an organization, you must have some certainty that you can help that organization. How do you qualify that organization is ready for you? How do you know they are ready to be coached? Lyssa talks about the 2 contexts she works in. One is as an expert in the agile field, and the 2nd is as an expert in human system dynamics work with leadership teams. The tell tale sign she looks for is do they have a vision for the change they want to make? Why do they want to make this change? Will that vision pull them forward through the hard times?
  • 12:29 Lyssa notes that many clients don’t understand their “Why” when they first engage with her as an Agile Coach. She knows that if they don’t, then she needs to help them understand that “why” first. Lyssa then needs to decide if she can align herself with what that organization is trying to accomplish, and where they are headed. This can be a matter of intuition and inner wisdom, and she has to decide if she can help them or not. How can I as an Agile Coach be of service to this organization? The work of an agile coach is about long term sustainable change, and the organization may not be ready yet.
  • 15:50 David notes how interested Lyssa is in the values of the decision makers. Lyssa notes that she doesn’t care if decision makers know the “What” of they’re trying to do, as long as they understand the “Why”. Some organizations will back into their “Why” through a series of “Whats” that sound more tangible but usually are not as scientific as claimed. That’s ok if that provides a security blanket to the organization.
  • 18:00 Sometimes the Agile Coach becomes the scapegoat, especially if that human system is not ready for change. That’s ok too, and Lyssa will talk to them about when they will be ready to engage.
  • 19:15 Arin tells a short story about how he learned the importance of the human element of coaching. He approached agile from an engineering perspective and at first believed that as long as he presented good metrics about agile to a client, then of course they would agree to do it! But this ignored the human element – that change is hard! Arin worked with a client and saw a project manager really struggle emotionally to transition into a scrummaster role. This person wanted to be there and wanted to do the work, but moving from a task-assigner to a servant-leader was very difficult. Arin saw how hard it was to coach this individual, and realized he personally needed to learn more about the human side of change management. That realization was how he stayed to work with Michael Spayd and Lyssa at the Agile Coaching Institute and learned a tremendous amount that still impacts his leadership style today.
  • 22:55 Lyssa talks more about the human element of coaching. Lyssa notes that agile coaches need to be leaders, especially now in our world, we all need to be leaders. It’s important to recognize that all change is hard, especially if someone in the workplace did not ask for that change. Lyssa realized in her experience that it’s important for many people to confront the identity crisis that agile may bring for them as individuals. If they don’t confront that, then they will fall back into old habits easily. Lyssa realized she needed to learn more about professional coaching skills (outside of agile) if she wanted to have more of an impact in organizations, so she can help facilitate those human interactions.
  • 26:25 For those listening to us, Lyssa asks you to consider how much change you have experienced in the last 5 years (even before covid). Things are changing very quickly for most people. Change is happening on all fronts at once right now. Arin notes that the people who are thriving in these complicated times are those who are most well adapted to change.
  • 28:00 How do you recommend an engineering manager lead their teams through all this change? Lyssa asks us to consider the safety that agile gives us to change. She also discusses the edge theory of change, which encourages you to imagine a mountain top. On one side is what’s familiar and comfortable to you, what makes you feel safe and valuable. On the other side of that edge, is what’s emerging. You may be able to glimpse what’s emerging on the other side. As you climb to that edge, and try what’s coming on that other side, you may start to lose your personal sense of value because you’re leaving behind what made you comfortable in the past. People tend to zig zag between those edges, because they will go back to their old behavior.
  • 31:00 Lyssa talks about “honoring the familiar.” The engineering leader or agile coach can talk to people about what they appreciated about “the familiar”, the old way of doing things. People will note what’s good, but also frequently mention what they did not like. When they mention those downfalls, that is your opportunity to connect them to how the new way will help improve that downfall. Then you can craft experiments with them, to help them see how the new way works, without feeling like they have to leave the old way behind. As they zig zag by the edge, the coach/leader should help to support them in that identity crisis.
  • 34:21 David notes an assumption in this conversation is that the person Arin worked with wants to make the change. In order to make a change, you have to be convinced that the change will help you achieve a value in the future. David asks for Lyssa’s experiences with people who do not want to make a change, and just say “everything is fine, I don’t want to make a change!” How do you deal with pockets of resistance?
  • 35:45 Lyssa responds that the worst thing you can do when there is resistance, is to push or cajole the person. If you push back, then both of you are pushing against each other. Instead, relax your resistance, and they will tend to come towards you. Name the situation with a statement like “there’s a lot of resistance here, and that’s ok, let’s talk about what you hate the most about this?” By entering their familiar territory first, you help them to honor the familiar, which is necessary before they will consider something different.
  • 37:30 When someone will not consider change, then you can help them to figure out how to survive while the change is in their environment. You can say something like “sounds like you’re not ready to move over to this new environment, that’s ok. But what you don’t get to choose is that agile is in your environment now, so how do you want to arrange your relationship with agile so that you survive and so you don’t hinder others?” That allows them to do the work, and come up with a personal plan they can own. Lyssa talks about practicing this pattern of agile coaching.
  • 39:55 David notes you cannot change a mind. When he has been in that situation before, he has said something like “Ok, I won’t push you. But can we at least recognize the decision you are making, and let’s be intentional about it?” Lyssa says that David has just demonstrated an important technique, which is “Naming What’s Going On.” It’s a powerful skill that helps people to stop arguing back and forth, and focus more on the meta pattern that’s happening.
  • 42:42 Lyssa notes how tech people are amazing at spotting patterns. Agile coaching is about spotting patterns at the human level, and recognizing what we do. David tells about a video that he once saw of Lyssa where she talked about encouraging people to do experiments, and Lyssa noted that sometimes people resist change just because they are in such desperate of some things to stay the same. This is because change is now persistent, pervasive, and exponential. That observation came from an HBR article which identified that this is something new, that we are now facing more change than ever and this trend will continue. That is why we need to help people manage change, because it is unavoidable.
  • 46:10 Lyssa comes back to a point she started to make earlier about Safety in agile. We need to learn to metabolize change – take it in, get the nutrients, and let the waste go. Agile helps with this, by helping us to focus on the Why and the most important things to do right now. Just make progress in a short period of time, and then we can better deal with the next round of change. It allows us to cope with change by constantly asking the question “What is most important to work on now?”. We only let the change in at the end of each sprint, and so that creates some safety from the change during the sprint, and we have time to focus on getting things done.
  • 48:05 Another way there’s safety in Agile is through the constant feedback loops like the stand up, the retrospectives, etc. That helps the team to constantly consider how they can do better and cope with change.
  • 48:45 David notes that the positive side of all this change, is the realization that you can master change and learn to welcome it in your life. You can handle it! Lyssa agrees and notes how resistance to change is what’s causing so many problems we face today. We can learn to control our own internal turbulence, that’s the only thing we can control! David agrees and relates it to Stoic philosophy, and how Agile is based on the magnificence of the human mind, and that’s something that he loves and finds very powerful. We end on David’s observation that Agile is a standing ovation to the human mind.
  • 51:40 To learn more about Lyssa’s work, visit

Links from Episode 9 – Lyssa Adkins on Agile Coaching