Coaching: When to be Prescriptive


I recently got into a discussion with a fellow coach at my latest engagement about this topic. I have recently started coaching two new teams. They have had some Scrum training but no application. Typically, when engaging a team with these characteristics, I use a prescriptive approach upfront and preach best practices with the caveat that they can be adapted going forward. I explain the why behind everything and probe with questions to make the team think so they can better understand the mindset. This approach has been successful for me. However, my fellow coach believes that the approach is to hands on, and creates risk that the team will not self organize or be able to stand on their own when I walk out the door. The analogy I used to explain my stance referenced the fact that I would not send a football team out on the field without any plays. I get the sustainability comment and I typically take step back after the first sprint to allow the team to self organize. What are your thoughts on prescriptive coaching? When do you apply it? When do you think it is detrimental…


On the recent-ish episode of Agile for Humans, they made mention of the shuhari adaptation to coaching. Some of the panelists were pro, others con. For me, I look at agile adoption as a major learning event. Just like most other learning events for me, I like to have something to model. I have found that teams also adapt well to this. At the end of the day, all you learn in the two-day trainings is what to model. Its not until you are actually applying and adapting to the models that you start to evolve and are more stable to be more innovative and adaptive.


Shu ha ri FTW.

Wax on wax off for the new comers.


My going in position with new teams is prescriptive (Shu), but that being said every team is different. Some teams will give you full latitude and just trust you from the get go…while others will question and push back on everything. It’s a wide spectrum. That’s part of the fun!


I am prescriptive on the basics with new teams to get them going. Like riding a bike as kid most need the trainning wheels at first. You get them doing scrum and going thoroughly the motions. Who cares the stand up goes 30 min for the first few sprints. It’s all about the learning on the way and some retrospectives.

Eventually the confidence is there and the training wheels come off. They will likely have some bumps and bruises but you will be there to encourage them, dust them off and get them going again.

After a few more sprints and some good retrospective. The teams should have the confidence to try to do some sweet wheelies.

Investing in people that care about what they are doing is never a waste of time !


I’m right there with you Mccallam in that I tend to be rather prescriptive early on in an engagement (assuming the team or teams are new to agile). I’ve been challenged on this approach, with my response tending toward something like “I am here to guide you down the agile path, to which you are somewhat (mostly?) blind. I’m your dad running behind you as you learn to balance your bike on your own. I will do my job well and keep you safe; I’ll let you choose your own path, so long as it is an agile path. If you stray from agile, I will “catch you” and steer you back. As you gain experience, you will stray less and will need my help less.” As a recovered PM, I sometimes “relapse” into a PM role as an educational tool, half-jokingly. “If I were your PM, here’s what I would say:” as I step to the side and take on my “PM demeanor” and explain what I would have done back when I was a PM. I then step back to where I was standing previously and acting like a SM or Coach again, I ask questions of the team member or members like “Do you get why PM Pete might have done that? What do you think about that approach? Might it be a good thing to try? Do you have any ideas that might make it work better?” and so on. I use this to be prescriptive without being prescriptive… LOTS more thoughts on this but that’s a start… :wink:

Thoughts on Scrum-ban Approach?

Scrum Alliance had a “virtual coaching clinic” this week.

Facilitators were: Michael de la Maza, Bob Galen, and Jim York

Really great session. Some of my take aways from the question:

How do you know when you should be prescriptive vs as acting as a coach/mentor?

Common mistake of a coach is to assume team is further along they they are.
Make sure team is where you think they are.

  • “Prescriptive” can be a positive reaction, when the team really needs it
  • Try to start with a ‘Story’ that parallels their problem, but doesn’t prescribe a solution
  • Then help them develop their own options.
  • If they are still stuck, provide/reinforce boundaries and let them figure it out
  • If they are still stuck, co-create options
  • If they are still stuck, provide advice on ways you’ve solved similar things in the past.