Backfires of Agile Coaching

I was recently listening to episode 39 of Agile for Humans, which is all about how to become an agile coach, featuring several guests who are professional agile coaches. During the episode, one of the guests indicated that while consulting as an agile coach with various teams, he noticed that some team members picked up on the agile ideas very quickly while some did not. Likewise, he saw that in some engagements he succeeded at transforming the organization to agile, and in other engagements he didn’t produce a lasting organizational change. After the attempt, in those organizations that didn’t succeed at the transformation, all of the programmers who took strongly to the agile lessons quit. The other coaches on the episode all had similar experiences of their own, where once a transformation backslides, people would leave.

I had never put this idea into words, but it makes sense intuitively. Once you understand agile ideas, working using other methodologies is less satisfying. I know I have left a job due to a backslide in the project management practices at the organization. The backslide was the difference between how the team was operating and how the organization was operating. The team was operating in an agile way but the management of the team moved to a new executive who wasn’t with the transition and it created undue friction in the organization.

An agile team does their work in small iterations and produces workable changes. An agile organization must therefore be capable of accepting changes from the team at the same rate. An agile organization can make decisions about what it wants in order to keep up with the team. It understands that building comprehensive documentation doesn’t benefit you if there is no working software. An agile organization does status reporting to match the structure and cadence of the team, whether that is sprint-based or continuous flow.

Considering the specific example raised by the podcast, on one hand, the coach succeeded at influencing someone in a way that moved them to action and that is a great success. On the other hand, the organization that brought in the coach lost valuable talent because they were exposed to ideas that the organization wasn’t ready to implement fully. If a coach does right by the individual they may do wrong by the organization in the process.

In my experience, an agile transition starts at the team level with the team learning the agile processes without much focus on the theory . Sometimes the theory is explained, but since the team doesn’t actually need to understand the “why” for the transformation to continue, it’s not a point of emphasis. Therefore, the change to the team processes happens pretty quickly, but the individuals may or may not understand the rationale behind the situation fully even though the processes often resonates on their own with some team members. Meanwhile, the greater organization has its own transition where each part of the organization adapts related processes to the respond to the faster movement driven by the agile processes.

But, the theory matters much more to the organization, since the same processes that resonate with individual agile team members are a much more significant procedural change at higher levels, wherein it often feels like control is being lost. If the broader organization doesn’t really respond to the agile ideals, it creates an impedance mismatch between the happy agile teams and the rest of the organization. Most people aren’t ready to handle being of a different mindset than the organization, or inclined to personally be change agents to pull the organization forward. They prefer that the organization match their level of understanding of how things “should” work; if they have not responded to the agile ideal then they will resist it. This friction is what happens when you have an agile transition at the level of how the work is done but budgeting and planning still happen at a radically different cadence. The desire to resolve this friction leads into ideas like Beyond Budgeting and open allocation which try to push the agile ideals out into the rest of the organization.

I’ve been places where individual teams had a strong agile tradition but the higher levels of the organization and other departments did not embrace the concepts. Being on those teams was harder than being at an organization where everyone was working from a similar mindset – even when those organizations weren’t using agile. Just being on the same page is a huge benefit to morale because you don’t feel like you’re swimming against the current. At my current workplace, all of the development teams across the organization are working in an agile fashion but the executive level hasn’t fully changed their reporting processes to be aligned with the team’s agile structures. The friction this causes is mostly absorbed by mid-level management and kept away from the developers, but if we were more strongly aligned at all levels of the organization, there would be further efficiencies gained.

Ultimately, a half-hearted agile transition is just like any situations where you are uncomfortable with how things are being done – you want to resolve that discomfort, and the simplest way to do that is often to leave. If a particular person transitions to the new way of thinking you’ve started a clock on when they will be unable to put up with the difference and will, if it doesn’t seem like real change is being made, leave. At my current organization the agile coaches we have are working with the teams but we don’t have any coaches for the executive level, to meet its different needs. In my opinion, the transition as a whole would be well served if there were coaches at that level as well to ensure things continue to evolve toward a more agile situation. I’m sure that’s true for other organizations as well.

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