Ask the Expert: Agile Coaching

As always, our knowledge is your knowledge, and the next article as part of our ‘Ask the Expert’ series is all about agile coaching and project management. For some practical insights and tips, we caught up with Claire Brown, Qualified Agile Coach & Advanced Scrum Master.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what has your career journey been so far, leading you to where you are right now?

Claire: I’ve worked in Financial Services since the age of 17 and experienced my first project in my early 20s. This inspired me to take my career in the direction of project management, where I spent the next 20 years working for major blue-chip companies delivering all kinds of change initiatives.

I was asked to lead a client’s pilot of Scrum and that move into the agile world has been the most transformative, exciting and fulfilling of my career. It quite literally feels that work should always have been this way: gone was command & control; in came empowerment & self-management – and with that collaboration & focus on people. That people focus has enabled me to develop my coaching skills and I am fascinated by all I am learning and experiencing in the world of coaching. I have chosen a market-leading Postgraduate Certificate in Business and Personal Coaching which is accredited by a University and the Internal Coaching Federation to pursue as soon as I am able. Once completed, I will have the opportunity to continue my studies into a full Masters, which I find truly motivational.

ADLIB: In your words, can you explain what the Project Management Lifecycle is, and why this is crucial to successful delivery?

Claire: The project management lifecycle is a series of stages or phases, taking an idea from concept, through design, then build, then test and eventually implementation followed by a period of warranty. This is known as a waterfall delivery method where the value of the work is delivered at the end of the project and milestones are planned at the beginning then regularly monitored throughout the lifecycle.

Feedback from customers is only possible once the project has been implemented – if what you’ve delivered doesn’t fulfil their needs, it’s too late to do anything about it. Likewise, if something happens at any point during the lifecycle that causes the project to be aborted, nothing of value will have been delivered to the customer as the work did not complete. This waterfall approach is best suited to change initiatives where the work to be done is straight forward, well understood, been done before, risks known and it is clear what skills & resources are needed to complete the activities – meaning a plan can be created from a position of prior knowledge and experience with a reasonable degree of certainty of achieving the ultimate outcome.

However, it is NOT crucial to successful delivery where the work to be done is complex, not well understood, not been done before, risks are unknown and the skills & resources needed are yet to be identified. In that scenario, an agile approach would be more suitable. This is because agile frameworks allow you to move forward in small steps, learning more with each one and delivering something of value from each of those steps, getting frequent feedback from your customers.

You build upon that value and your knowledge with each step, taking regular opportunities to check what you are doing to ensure you’re delivering the most valuable thing to your customers and are still on track for achieving your ultimate outcome. This is known as empirical process control and incremental & iterative delivery. If something isn’t right, you’ll know quickly and be able to respond in the best way to reposition yourself for successful delivery. And if you really can’t get back on track or the ultimate outcome is no longer strategically viable, you can stop the work and know that everything you’ve already delivered so far is adding value. No work up to that point has been wasted and you’ve prevented waste on future work at the earliest opportunity.

ADLIB: Can you share the top 3 best processes and agile ways of working?

Claire: The most popular waterfall methodologies are PRiNCE2, APM (Association of Project Management), PMI (Project Management Institute) and MSP (Managing Successful Programmes). Agile ways of working currently encompass hundreds of different practices & tools, across circa 9 different frameworks (e.g. Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming, Crystal, DSDM, Lean, Six Sigma) and it is entirely up to each team to determine which of these works best for them – even if that includes taking a hybrid approach to best suit their needs, or inventing their own (they are the experts in what they do, after all!).

The emphasis on agile ways of working is to continuously improve what you do and how you do it, so teams are likely to constantly evolve their use of practices & tools – and go on to actively share their experiences, hints & tips across the agile community for others to benefit and build upon. It would, therefore, be remiss of me to state the top 3 best agile ways of working because that would only ever be opinion and context-based at a moment in time.

ADLIB: What is the biggest trend in the digital market right now?

Claire: The most popular thing you’ll hear every company aspiring to right now, is to move all their services into a cloud solution. It makes perfect sense – saves money, is instantly scalable, is much more secure and easier to change.

ADLIB: In your opinion what is the best way to stay up to date with industry trends and changes to the tech world?

Claire: Identify & follow leading tech companies and/or active individuals on LinkedIn, subscribe to newsfeed on company websites, find local meet-ups and build a network of like-minded people, generally research the internet to see what you can find that’s of interest to you, follow blogs, subscribe to relevant YouTube channels and podcasts.

ADLIB: For those who are looking to get into Project Management as a career, what would your top tips be?

Claire: My advice would be to seriously consider what drives you, truly drives you. A good read to help you with this is Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”. Closely followed by Dan Pink’s “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us”. If you like being the one to make decisions, to direct a team, to determine how things should be done, then a traditional Project Management role may be the route for you to go. If, however you like motivating and empowering people to be their best, are willing to serve them in any way you can to lead them towards the achievement of their desired outcomes, then perhaps a Scrum Master role may be more suitable. And if Scrum Master roles do sound like your thing, I’ve pulled together a one-page overview of a development path you could look to take.

There are many choices out there (the world’s your oyster!) so this is just a guide, based on my personal journey. Either way, identify someone you respect and ask them to be your mentor. The study material that’s freely available on the internet (i.e. LinkedIn Learning or Degreed), ask for book recommendations & read them, watch YouTube videos on related topics, listen & subscribe to suitable podcasts, attend local meet-ups to build your network.

If you can, ask to shadow someone already doing your target job to see what a day in their shoes is really like. And through all this, take a few minutes to write some personal reflections of each experience (set a timer for 6 mins and just write without stopping, not worrying about spelling, grammar or punctuation) – when you read them back after a period of time, you may well spot patterns or themes that appeal to you and could well guide you towards your ideal role.

Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!

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Aaron Drury