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Weeknote 17th May 2024

7 min read

Weeknotes are supposed to be a quick download and not a polished article. You can probably tell I end up in the middle quite a lot. This week is another example that starts and ends as a weeknote but diverts into discussing three different levels of being an Agile Coach.

The TechJam[1] at the weekend was satisfying. The weather was good and TechJams are always a bit quieter on those days. I don’t mind the quieter sessions. We get time to grab a cup of tea now and again and spend more time with each of the attendees, helping them come up with ideas or fix bugs in their code.

I also helped out with the micro:bit Mentors scheme being run by TECgirls[2]. It is a really interesting scheme which, not only aims to encourage girls into tech, engineering and creative subjects, but also create a community of mentors. Next year the mentors will be able to help teach a new cohort and get some valuable experience in team leading.

I’ve had mixed feedback this week. Some of the things I’ve done have gone well and prompted requests for more of my help. That is satisfying, but so is finding out where I have missed the mark and can improve. It is best to get this feedback directly but, even if it is second or third hand, I can still use it. What I really find stressful is no feedback at all. It is like crossing a space blindfolded. You might be making good progress, or about to fall down a hole, but have no idea which it is.

Some of the teams I’ve been working with are now pretty much self-sufficient. I’m staying involved to provide some support, and be a point of escalation, but soon the teams won’t need me on a day to day basis. I’ve been working with my boss and some other key stakeholders to agree my next priorities. Whilst we do that, I am getting involved in new work where there is an obvious good fit.

Sometimes I need to provide quite basic support. If this counts as Agile Coaching at all it is probably at level 0. This sort of work involves creating the conditions for a team to work well together. Declaring that, “we need to work as one team”, is a pretty good signal that we aren’t working that way now and we wont soon, unless we work at it.

It starts with identifying who is in the team and introducing them to each other - yes, really. Next comes getting the team to feel safe sharing their unfinished work and finding a place to share it. That place is never email. Email is the worst tool for collaboration we have yet invented.

We need to make time for some low pressure interaction, so that people can get to know each other better. This helps people deal with the emotional effort needed to confront issues, reach agreement and make decisions together. It is possible to put aside emotion in making decisions, but most people in a team won’t have had the training and conditioning need to do that. It will take time and effort to help people in the team work through the emotions, and help people outside the team accept that it is necessary.

Beyond level 0 is the kind of Agile Coaching most people expect, for example, introducing tools and techniques so that the team doesn’t get stuck. At first, this can be exhausting. It can feel like you are having to drag the whole team along. Eventually, with some trial and error, things will work out. If the level 0 topics have been addressed, frameworks like Scrum[3] are a fairly safe bet for getting started.

This sort of coaching continues to the point where the team is comfortable to pick and implement their own tools and techniques, and research new ones when they need them. Part of the art of Agile Coaching is spotting when the team is pulling ahead of you, and you are becoming the drag and need to get out of their way.

I also have quite a lot of level 2 coaching to do. These are topics that are beyond the scale of a team, or the collection of teams in a project or programme. It includes things like funding and budget allocation, design in its broadest sense, the flow of information, organisation culture, leadership and line management, contracts and procurement, business cases and benefits.

Level 2 can be a disputed area. Many people, including some professional Agile Coaches, think these topics are out of scope, and avoid working in situations where these agile foundations are not already in place. I consider them fair game for an Agile Coach. I don’t think my job is just about “agility”. My purpose is to maximise the “flow of value” so, if these level 2 things are getting in the way, it is my job to do something about them, or at least try.

Some of the feedback this week concerned these level 2 things. I had forgotten these are disputed topics and I hadn’t created the right conditions to work in those areas. That sounds like pretty basic level 0 stuff, and I’ve not been taking my own medicine. Still, the feedback helped me see that, and I’ve already started to do something about it.

From the archives

A thread that ran from the end of 2022 and through most of 2023 was the DLUHC Future Councils scheme[4]. We were very lucky with the timing of this scheme. We had just got formal approval for our digital strategy, and the business case for the initial phase. This meant that we already had a clear, persuasive story and a sensible plan. We had strong backing from the executive team and the full Council. This gave us great foundations for our bid to join the scheme. We also had a pretty good idea of where we needed help and those gaps were also a good fit for Future Councils.

We had to wait ages for a decision, but we were delighted to be chosen as one of the 8 councils for the pilot stage[5]. Yes, I did a dad dance on one of our teams calls to celebrate.

The first few months were quite frustrating but there was a good reason behind this. Everyone in the local government sector knows that things can’t go on as they are. We’re at, or close to, the limits in many ways. We can’t get much more improvement through the techniques we traditionally use. Future Councils was about breaking away from what we know to find something new. It was risky and, to be honest, it didn’t work very well at first. That’s ok for an experiment like this. In a sector that is worth £100 Billion or so a bet of a few million isn’t outrageous. Together with the central team in DLUHC, we regrouped a couple of times and eventually found the right ingredients.

The pilot phase officially completed late last year, but the scheme is continuing in several ways. The funding, skills and insight from Future Councils allowed us to start some projects that are on-going. DLUHC are planning the next phase based upon the feedback from the pilot[6]. I’m really excited about this but it is taking a long time to materialise. Understandably, it isn’t the most important priority for the Government right now.


  1. Cornwall TechJam ↩︎

  2. TECgirls ↩︎

  3. A bit more about how Cornwall Council uses Scrum ↩︎

  4. DLUHC Future Councils ↩︎

  5. The 8 pilot councils ↩︎

  6. The pilot report provides some clues about where the programme will go next ↩︎

Originally published on by Richard Barton