What is "Coaching"?

Anyone who knows me, or follows my posts on social media, will know that I have been studying for a Post Graduate Certificate in Personal and Business Coaching with Chester University. It is a fantastic journey, and has most definitely helped me understand myself in greater depth, as well as has helping my coachees!

But the term "coaching" seems to be creating some confusion. Which is somewhat unsurprising as someone who has marketed themselves as an “Agile Coach” since 2005, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume the “coaching” training I am doing has something to do with agile processes and teams. Except nothing could be further from the truth…

So if it’s not related to "agile coaching", what on earth is this "personal/business coaching" thing?

Let us start by describing what I do when “coaching” a software team in agility. “Agile”1 has a well defined set of values, practices and principles that define it2,3. Stray from these, and you are no longer “agile”.  Most of my work as an agile coach is actually teaching these principles and practices, then mentoring (or guiding) the team in how best to apply them to their own, specific circumstances. In other words, I have been invited to guide the team to a known destination.

Now, consider a situation when you have no idea of that destination. For example, someone is trying to decide whether to take a new opportunity, or stay with their current employer. Or they are feeling totally overwhelmed with work. Or are having trouble maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Or starting their own business, but don't know what to do next. In these cases, you need to unlock the intrinsic potential, but without allowing influence from your own opinions. You have to be comfortable in not knowing. You need the tools and techniques that will help the person clarify their own thoughts, and enable them to decide where they want to go without polluting it with your own biases. This is what I mean by personal/business coaching. It is “the unlocking of a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them4

The difference is obvious. In the first case, I am providing the answers. In the second, I am clearing the way to allow the individual(s) to find their own answers. This diagram from Barry O'Reilly and Kate Leto sums it up nicely. Agile Coaching is a mixture of Consulting and Mentoring. Personal Coaching is...well...coaching!

There we have it. Agile Coaching is not really coaching (in my opinion!) - but we are at the mercy of recruitment company search terms, so I'm afraid we still need to carry on using the term!

If this article has piqued your interest in coaching of either sort(!) then do get in touch for a no-obligation chat. I can be reached on Twitter (@thirstybear) and Linked In, or via email on coaching@<my company domain>

1 Agile and all its related cousins - lean etc. It's just faster to type "agile"!
2 Manifesto for Agile Software Development
3 Extreme Programming
John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance


  1. Well said!
    I think the more us "agile coaches" understand about what other people believe coaches do the better. Like you I have come to see the "agile coach" title as inacurrate.
    Problem is, I don't know what I can do about it because it is the term the industry has adopted.


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