Coaching Smells

by | Jun 12, 2012 | Coaching, Experience, Stories | 0 comments

“Hi, I’m a coach and I am here to help” 

My spine stiffens and I can feel my hair on back of my neck.

“Thanks, K”

I respond tepidly

K: “I have been promoted, I am now your coach. I will do what it takes to help your team”

Me: “we need all the help we can get” 

‘When will management realize that we need time not help’ – my thought bubble

K: “I will start by observing your team ceremonies”

Me: “ok”

Over the next few days K swoops in and out, inflicting “help” and opinion-ating about the width of columns on our task board – all in pursuit of limiting WIP, he said.

I now regret denying my instincts – I should have, I should have, I should have done something different – when my spine stiffened.


The notion of smell within the agile community relates to an early indicator of potential dysfunction. It is similar to opening your fridge and smelling something unpleasant. You don’t know what is causing this odor but only after further investigation will you truly find out. This could be that take out from last week or the really expensive artisan cheese that you purchased in your yuppie moment.

Coaching is useful and there is much to admire about how coaching has helped with adoption of agile and scrum.But it will be ignorant to turn a blind eye to the stuff that gets peddled as coaching.

In the above interaction there is much to unpack. Good intentions of the coach and the team on the receiving end is not enough. Ability to recover from smells that inappropriate coaching inflicts is necessary.


The primary challenge:

To avoid thinking of a coach to be ‘better-than’ a scrum master. Underlying mindset that begs to be broken: Coach is to Scrum master that an Architect is to Developer.

This hierarchical mindset often sets up teams and coaches for failure modes.


If you are seeking to become a coach or interested in hiring one ask:

What would you do with a coach title that you cannot do right now?

Consider these questions as they may assist in revealing your mindset as a coach:

  • Was your feedback needed or invited?
  • Are you coaching a team for you or for the team?
  • As an agile coach do you have an agile agenda?
  • Do you view yourself as agile expert?
  • As a coach do you get coaching?

For many excellent coaches that I have interacted with, they cannot remember any distinct moment when they flipped a bit to now be a “coach”. Often times I hear that they had an all consuming desire to move their team or project forward and later realized, wow!

“I have been coaching.”

At our session presentation at Scrum Gathering 2012 in Atlanta, Valerie & I presented a catalogue of various coaching smells. The session was aimed towards recognizing our humility when coaching and developing techniques to recover from our unpleasant coaching smells. (session presentation link here)

Examples from our workshop


 Recognize  Recovery Options

Dictatorial coaching

  • team took off
  • visceral emotional response
  • When I (coach) get upset
  • Coach got fired by team
  • Look for support
  • Take a step back
Interrupting rhythm
  • unsolicited advise
  • team avoiding you or meeting without you
  • Rolling eyes
  • Own it
  • Allow team to give you feedback. ‘Be open’
Owning all things agile
  • People drop your name to justify their choices
  • team seeks your approval before trying something different
  • you are often asked “are we doing it right?”
  • Avoid tendency to hoard knowledge
  • People/teams define destination & their journey
  • Being and staying curious
Lack of trust
  • Forced on team, “you have a coach”
  • Disengagement from those around you
  • When you insist your solution is the only solution
  • Accept that everybody is not ready to go on a diet
  • Focus on relationships first
  • Focus on planting seeds

What are some of your coaching smells? How do you know/recognize this smell? What are your options to recover? 

ps: This blog is authored by Dhaval Panchal and based on the session Dhaval Panchal and Valerie Morris led at Scrum Gathering 2012 in Atlanta, GA. 


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