Or: The plan I follo­wed — and that you are allo­wed to copy 😉 

The title says it all. After a year of being an exter­nal agile coach in a product area with four teams and one leader­ship team, here is what I have lear­ned and would recom­mend to any agile coach start­ing a new project: 

1. Assume that no matter what the issue is, it is solvable

Yes, no kidding. What I’m hearing a lot when­ever my colle­agues or myself are inser­ted in a new project envi­ron­ment, is: „Oh, you know, we’ve had this problem fore­ver, there’s really nothing you can do.“ While this is a valid perspec­tive and gives you infor­ma­tion on the moti­va­tio­nal status for a parti­cu­lar person, the key is to believe you can make a diffe­rence, no matter how small. Incre­men­tal change can be as much as an expe­ri­ment or adop­ting a diffe­rent mind­set — and as for the agile coach’s situa­tion: just the fact that some­body hired you to help means there is hope, reflec­tion, and willing­ness alre­ady. And your very first job is to take this gift and give it your all. 

2. Listen to all sides involved

Every agile coach with the least bit of good prac­tice knows that they are the Jon Snow of the system they just ente­red: they know nothing. So like them, a first step is to listen carefully, ask direct ques­ti­ons, take exten­sive notes, convert and essen­tia­lize them into a scrum master diary (observation/quotes, hypo­the­sis, possi­ble inter­ac­tions, desi­red state), and even while alre­ady inter­vening, constantly keeping on obser­ving and asking for what ever­yone thinks. 
Listening to all sides right from the begin­ning bears another important aspect: ever­y­body is being heard and is part of the process because the infor­ma­tion they share contri­bu­tes to the inter­ven­tion plan that is forming. Which means, this is the begin­ning of a (hopefully) good rela­ti­onship where ever­y­body parti­ci­pa­tes and shares control of the desi­red change. 

3. Foster empa­thy above all else

This is actually a no brai­ner. No matter what, you can never have enough empa­thy (not tech­ni­cally true, because studies show that too much emotio­nal empa­thy can stop you from func­tio­ning, while there’s not enough cogni­tive empa­thy, meaning the ability to take perspec­tive and under­stand others’ emoti­ons — that’s a whole diffe­rent discus­sion, let’s leave it at this: under­stan­ding other people’s emoti­ons and perspec­ti­ves is essen­tial to func­tio­ning in a work envi­ron­ment). The reason this is one of the first things to do is that while you’re still in your obser­ving phase — which is abso­lut­ely neces­sary in a new envi­ron­ment, this is some­thing you can do without caus­ing harm. Being a new player in the organization’s game is an advan­tage here: you have no prior asso­cia­tion with any party or person and no stake in the game, so sharing obser­va­tions and asking ques­ti­ons leading to a better under­stan­ding of other play­ers is the first helpful service you can provide. 

4. Foster colla­bo­ra­tion

Again, pretty much a no brai­ner. We all know that humans’ primary social need is connec­tion. The work term for connec­tions of teams is colla­bo­ra­tion. Colla­bo­ra­tion means how single humans work within a team and how teams work toge­ther. And again, as a new player, suggest­ing colla­bo­ra­tion is some­thing that you are extra­or­di­na­rily capa­ble of doing, as you are in no estab­lished social rela­ti­onship that comes with poli­ti­cal or other inten­tion. Use it. 
On a team level, one could say, foste­ring colla­bo­ra­tion includes opti­mi­zing and buil­ding struc­ture. No team in the world, no matter how high perfor­mant, is perfectly orga­ni­zed, as orga­niza­tion is a process that moves with the change of the envi­ron­ment it is in. 
Super­con­crete that would mean: look at the struc­tures the teams follow and where they serve them. Where they don’t or there is no struc­ture, ask ques­ti­ons and suggest first small expe­ri­ments. 

5. Reco­gnize what is alre­ady there

Making the decis­ion to ask for outside help usually means there is some very evol­ved brains at work and what they need most of all is outside perspec­tive. Make them feel empowered for what they have achie­ved. Cele­brate the things that exist and work well, thus encou­ra­ging the scaling and good prac­tice that needs none or very little support from you. This frees you and your teams up to focus on what needs impro­ve­ment. 

6. Enable where­ver you can

Espe­ci­ally because you know you will not be in this work envi­ron­ment for too long, use all your energy to create self-sustai­ning systems and even more importantly, mind­sets. The old quote from Maya Ange­lou is still true. She said: “I’ve lear­ned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And even better:  if they felt good and empowered, they will want to feel that way again and fight to keep it going. The less depen­dency on you is being crea­ted, the better. Or as Simon Sinek says: a good leader crea­tes more leaders. 
Your enemy here is your own ego: we all like being needed, it is human nature. You can forgive yours­elf for that and then let it go. This includes pulling out of situa­tions that have arri­ved at the desi­red state, espe­ci­ally when you have little time. (Which is hard, because by then you might have deve­lo­ped a rela­ti­onship with the people and might want to enjoy that a bit more, but no.) On that note: 

7. Under­stand that ever­y­thing is a team achievement

That means whate­ver you achieve is not yours. And while your ego should be checked at the door when you enter, it can be easy to forget that as a coach, you cannot take a single step on your own. An agile coach can only do their job as well as the people they work with let them. In my case, there was tremen­dous support from all levels from the very first day and I am still beyond grateful for that. 

8. Rely on the people who are involved

It is usually the people closest to the problem who need to be listened to for the solu­tion, as our head of product once wisely said. I want to add that they will also be entrus­ted to imple­ment the solu­tion, so both their moti­va­tion and need for it are the grea­test. A lot of the time, there might be no need to involve other than the people directly impac­ted by the problem in finding a solu­tion. That also includes to not count on anyone who hasn’t gotten invol­ved even though the issue at hand has persis­ted for a while. 

9. Align on needs and commu­ni­cate intentions

Alignment means commu­ni­ca­ting your obser­va­tions, hypo­the­ses, and inter­ven­tion plans and making sure you are on the same side with whoe­ver that plan concerns and impacts. Nothing is worse than an agile coach doing some­thing nobody needs or wants or giving work­shops that are not what a team needs the most. Again, we are humans too and like certain things or have prefe­ren­ces to do things a certain way, at the same time, in my under­stan­ding, an agile coach is a servant leader and needs to go with what is neces­sary from the client’s perspec­tive. Commu­ni­ca­ting inten­ti­ons means here to share what you intend to achieve via a certain inter­ven­tion and/or what you think the desi­red state is. 

10. Reco­gnize when you’re beco­ming a player in the system

The longer you are in an orga­niza­tio­nal envi­ron­ment, the more you will become a player in its game. That does not mean that your inten­tion to be neutral chan­ges, what it means though is that you will start forming rela­ti­onships and rapport that might influence who you listen to and how capa­ble you are of remai­ning in a neutral posi­tion. The only way, in my expe­ri­ence, to deal with that natu­ral process, is to address it and decide with your respec­tive teams what conclu­si­ons might be. 

11. Use time pres­sure as a motivator

Yes, time pres­sure sucks and most likely within a project dead­line, you will not finish ever­y­thing. You can, howe­ver, make sure to equip ever­yone in your care as best as possi­ble for your leaving. Nothing drives lear­ning and estab­li­shing new systems as much as time pres­sure. Treat it as your friend and let it help you prio­ri­tize. That also means setting expec­ta­ti­ons as to how far you can get in, say three months. And lastly 

12. Care consciously

This one is highly perso­nal for me. In my opinion, nothing beats a person saying „I care about you and about this, and I will help as much as I can.“ This atti­tude, again, enables empa­thy, and in the long term, trust. It may make it harder to let go (or avoid burn­out^^), but to me it is also what drives me and keeps my ego in check. In the end, even if you are an exter­nal agile coach, you have been given humans to care for and when­ever in doubt, this is your anchor.