Growing Internal Coaches – A Scalable Approach to Agile Transitions

Sam Laing and Karen Greaves


A few years ago we were approached by someone who asked us how many agile coaches it would take to transition a company of 10,000 people. We told him we didn’t know, and couldn’t help him anyway since our company only consisted of two coaches.


When we started our coaching business, we focused mostly on small to medium sized companies with 2 to 4 teams that we felt we were capable of coaching with only 2 coaches. It’s now 5 years on and we are encountering more and more large corporates who would like our help, so how is it possible for two coaches to help a large organization? The secret we have found is in growing internal coaches in an organization.

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The first time we did this, it happened by accident. We helped one division of a large global company start two agile teams, and coached those teams through their first three months. This was not a software team. It was tough. There were many challenges, like unreasonable deadlines, differing priorities from various managers and different agendas to navigate. However, at the end of their first three months of being an agile team, they achieved the impossible, they completed all the work their team needed to achieve for the entire year! Great. Now what. The team realized they suddenly had no work left to do. They grinded to halt, and stopped doing Scrum.


This cause some fear about losing their jobs, but fortunately they had an understanding and enlightened manager. He knew the company was at the beginning of a long agile transition, and he now had two teams that had an idea what agile was about with nothing else to do. The team was repurposed as internal agile coaches, to help other teams get started on their agile journey. With 10 teams just in a single department, it would have taken the two of us years to transition all the teams. Instead we focused on how we could upskill this team of agile coaches and support them as they helped to transition other teams within their organization.


Since then we have helped a number of companies grow their internal coaching and training capacity. Here are the key lessons we’ve learned along the way.


  1. Internal coaches need to opt in.

They will be the internal change agents and champions for change. They need to be passionate about agile and have resilience. This will be a long difficult journey.


  1. Coaching is a full time job.

Although coaches can come from anywhere in the organization, once they have decided to become agile coaches in your organization it is a full time job. Make sure to free them up from previous responsibilities. It really helps if there is a group of coaches who then become an agile team, and plan their work using either Scrum or Kanban. Eating your own dog food is a great way to learn.


  1. Pair up coaches and trainers internally.

Sam and I pair work, which means whenever we coach or train we do it as a pair. We model this behavior for our clients, so it is no surprise that most of the people we have coached, then chose to work as a pair as well. This has great benefits especially if you are new to coaching or training. It allows you to reflect and improve together.


  1. Three times is the charm

For both training and agile ceremonies, we have found a good pattern is for internal coaches to first experience the training (or ceremonies) that we facilitate, then to facilitate it themselves, with us observing and giving feedback, and then finally to facilitate on their own. This pattern of doing things in three helps ensure coaches know what each session should be like for the participants; get a chance to try it that is ‘safe’ (since we are in the room); and get immediate feedback on what they did well or could change.


  1. Expert advice on call

Although we are not always on site, we have an ongoing relationship with internal coaches. We are only a phone call (or email) away if they need some advice. We always ask first what they think they should do, and encourage them to trust their own instincts. Having a sounding board like this can help coaches grow their confidence in their own ability quickly.


  1. Experiential training beats a lecture

When we first taught someone else to run our Scrum training we were anxious if they would get it right. We know there are many nuances to Scrum which we felt it was important for a trainer to know. Observing the first one in action though made us realize that people don’t learn much from what the trainer says, they mostly learn through experience. It’s more important for people to experience it, and it’s okay for the trainer to say they don’t know the answer, and encourage the group to find an answer for themselves.


If you are transitioning to agile in your company, make sure you aren’t just relying on external coaches and trainer. What can you do to build your own internal coaching competency?



Growing Agile

Karen Greaves and Samantha Laing are agile coaches and trainers at Growing Agile.  Together we have a combined 25+ years in software development, ranging from development to testing to managing. Of these, more than 15 years have been dedicated to our combined passion for agile software development. We are committed to continuously learn and grow our skills through conferences, reading, blogging and local community groups. Our goal as a company is as simple as our name: to keep growing agile, starting in the beautiful Cape where we live.