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How agile coaching resembles conducting an orchestra

Ask musicians whether an orchestra can perform without a conductor, and they will most certainly give you a wary eye and a firm ‘no’. Conductors are indispensable, they play a crucial role in bringing the interplay and sound of the ensemble to the next level. On the contrary, ask people whether they see the merit of an agile coach for a team, and the chance is real they shrug their shoulders and tell you that they do not believe in this ‘marketing buzzword’. But what if both professions share more characteristics than you would think?

Spoiler-alert: this article is not written by an agile guru trying to convince you that agile is the only pathway to go. Rather, it shakes off any ‘buzzword vibe’ by drawing parallels between the main engagements of an agile coach and an age-old profession we all know: the conductor of an orchestra.

Five responsibilities conductors and agile coaches share

1. Envision

Whether in arts or in business, one of the foundation elements to obtain solid teamwork is guidance by a shared vision. Be it the conductor inspiring the musicians on how a music piece should sound eventually, or the agile coach engaging a team on adopting the agile mindset and values, they both draw an inspiring pathway for their team. Conductors and agile coaches are thought leaders in their field, and both possess the skill of using their experience and knowledge to clearly envision a team and paint a shared future. Essentially, this vision adds an extra layer on top of individual meanings. Hence, the shared vison should attract every member of the team, regardless their background or experience, ranging from junior profiles to C-level managers, or from amateur flute players to violinists with 15 years of experience.

2. Empower

The conductor is in fact the only person on stage who does not make any sound. His or her power is not in the dramatic poses or swings with the baton, but in the ability to empower people. Likewise, agile coaches use various coaching and communication techniques and provide the tools to make the team shine. Therefore, both the conductor and agile coach need to have the ability to be responsive to their environment, understand the challenges of those they support and be empathetic. Only in this way, they can shape a group of musicians into a great orchestra, or a group of colleagues into a star performing team.

3. Mirror

No mirror on the wall more accurate than a good agile coach or conductor. As an individual in a group, it can be hard to assess the impact of your way of working on the whole group. Conductors and agile coaches can hold this mirror for you, using their external viewpoint to analyze individual’s group behavior. By taking a step back, they can identify behaviors, mindset or cultural aspects that hold the team back. With the skill to name those, they enable individuals and teams to act on them. For example, if a team does not realize that the absence of cross-departmental work stems from a lack of transparency, no initiatives on transparent communication will be taken. Similarly, as a trumpet player, it will be hard to realize on your own that your enthusiastic trumpet volume is in fact distracting the attention away from the main melody of the clarinet.

4. Problem-solving

Sometimes, something does not sound or feel completely right, but is hard to put your finger on. Conductors and agile coaches are masters in finding out the cause of dysfunctional teams and help them get better. This also implies that both should be utterly comfortable with acting in uncomfortable situations. Rather than be discouraged by these complex situations, their curiosity to identify the potential reason wherefore the team or an individual is holding back prevails. The value of the coach or conductor is not in having an expert view to solve the problem, but in bringing out the best of each individual. Hence, a conductor is not expected to be able to play all the instruments of the orchestra, and likewise a coach should not be more of an expert than his or her team member.

5. Challenge

Great plays are not made by orchestra members playing the same piece over and over, and winning business plans are not authored by colleagues who have been comfortable in their job for years. The conductor and agile coach play the essential role to challenge the team, getting them out of their comfort zone by motivating them to learn new musical skills or seek out new experiences that will enhance their abilities. Next to that, they see the value of team members’ already existing skills and coach them to optimize these for better outcomes.

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