Growing Coaches in the Dojo

Dirty  hands - learning through doing

Skilled coaches are critical to the success of any Dojo. The specific skills needed will vary. A Dojo focused on DevOps requires one set of coaching skills. A Dojo focused on agile and product discovery capabilities needs different coaching skills.

Staffing a Dojo with coaches can be a challenge. There’s an abundance of agile coaches but many of them know only process. The Dojo can be an effective place for improving development processes. But, the investment required to run a Dojo should return a bigger payoff. Most organizations want to improve engineering and product discovery practices. Coaches who can help teams improve these skills are hard to find. You may need to hire skilled engineers and product managers and develop their coaching skills.

Here are four ways we help grow coaching skills in the Dojo.


Observing, Pairing, Leading

We onboard new coaches following an “observe, pair, lead” progression towards competency.

As soon as possible, new coaches observe other coaches working with teams. During breaks and at the end of coaching sessions we have debriefing conversations. The coach leading the session will ask the observing coach—what did you see, hear, and observe? What might you have done differently if you were guiding the session? What questions do you have about the way I coached? The coach guiding the session will then explain what they saw, heard, and observed. They explain the choices they made in coaching the team.

After a few “observing” sessions, new coaches pair with an experienced coach. They might take turns guiding the team or the new coach may take the lead. The more experienced coach focuses on keeping things on track. She will step in if the new coach “gets stuck” or has a question. The pair of coaches will continue having debriefing conversations during breaks and at the end of the session.

Once the new coach has paired on a specific practice a few times, they will then lead the practice with an experienced coach observing. The experienced coach may jump in if the coach leading the session starts struggling. However, they are there mainly to observe and offer guidance during the debriefing conversations.

This is an effective way of onboarding new coaches. It’s impossible to replicate the experiential learning that comes from working with teams through training.


Running Simulations

We help coaches grow their skills by practicing in simulated scenarios.

In a simulation, coaches and Dojo staff will roleplay various team roles. Those include manager, developer, testers, designer, product owner, customer, etc. A coach will guide the "team" through a session while the rest of us play out behaviors the coach might meet. This is useful for practicing problematic behaviors - a manager who wants to control everything the team does, a product owner who insists on delivery of a feature faster than the delivery team’s estimate, or an entire team with a weak and nebulous vision for their product.

We use the debriefing conversations described above to review the simulation once it’s finished. We talk through what we saw, heard, and observed, what were effective ways of guiding the group (or ineffective), and other ideas for handling what came up during the simulation.


Practicing Teaching

One of the most effective tools we use for developing coaches is having the coaches teach in practice training sessions.

For example, before teams come into the Dojo a coach leads them through a Dojo Chartering session. We teach coaches how to do Chartering and then they observe a few Chartering sessions. The next step in developing their skills may be having them teach the rest of the coaches how to do Chartering.

This is also an effective way for the coaches to stay in sync.


Reflecting on the Role of Coaching

Periodically, the coaches will get together and reflect on what it means to be a coach.

In a coaching workshop we gave recently, we discussed the various roles coaches play in the Dojo. We had an interesting discussion about the timing and triggers for moving from one role to another. For example, when do you move from a teaching role to more of a partner role as teams are adopting new skills?

One of the new coaches started the discussion by asking if there were standard coaching roles and how you knew when to adopt each role. You could use questions coaches have as opportunities to bring the coaching group together to discuss the questions, share information with each other, and develop coaching skills.


Skilled coaches are critical to the success of any Dojo. Experimenting with new ways of developing coaching skills is part of running a Dojo. Just as we ask teams to adopt a culture of continuous learning and experimentation we do the same inside the Dojo. We’ll continue to share new techniques for developing coaches. What are the ways you develop coaching skills?