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In a perfect world, members of a newly formed Agile team are highly skilled, and the role of the coach is to overlay Agile so the skills are employed in the right way, in the right place, and at the right time. But many of us don’t live in a perfect world.

As a coach, I have often been challenged with team members who lack fundamental software development skills. This can distract efforts to be successful with Agile…and when core skills are missing, there is risk that the organization will peg Agile as the culprit for poor results.

I have met a number of people who told me that Agile was abandoned at their company and dubbed a failure. Agile cannot ‘heal’ poor software development skills, rather, it helps teams that possess skills experience an order of magnitude improvement in results.

When tasked with coaching a team of underdogs, the first order of business is to assess the presence (or lack) of core software skills. If an underdog team is what it is, a successful coach recognizes the obligation to clearly separate Agile coaching efforts from those of teaching/mentoring fundamental skills. This will help a company balance it’s needs: To emphasize skills development, or to place more emphasis on successful delivery. If the latter is the emphasis, it may not choose to pursue that particular project with a team of underdogs.

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When helping companies adopt Agile, the first instinct is to start wiring in tools and processes. Ironically, some mentors tend to teach a highly prescriptive form of Agile. As an llustration, reflecting back on Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming, critics complained that it was prescriptive, inflexible, and full of “must do this”, “must never do that”. Having met and learned from Kent Beck years ago when I was a Smalltalk developer, I know that prescribing a process was far from the spirit of what he was trying to do. Perhaps he was pushing an extremist view, expecting rational people to bounce back a bit.

Changing the behavior of individuals, teams, and organizations is a tough row to hoe. At its core, the Agile Manifesto conveys principles that rational people would have a hard time disputing. Look at the picture posted with this article. The obvious elements of the picture are the four colored triangles. A Gestaltist perspective indicates that the cross can be seen too, even though it isn’t emphasized.

Similarly, the core elements of Agile: Collaboration, behaviors, teams, accountability, progress transparency, focus, efficiency, etc., are all concepts that few would dispute. So the real challenge for an Agile mentor is not to teach what these concepts are, rather it’s to help remove organizational and sociological blocks that prevent teams from employing them.