Agile is broken … that’s quite a statement isn’t it? Bearing in mind that many people I come into contact with report higher levels of stress when they are “forced” to work in an agile team. Doesn’t this make you think that something is wrong. I believe that this is wrong. Part of the wrongness lies at the feet of the Agile coaches and how they are deployed and utilised. The model needs to be changed if organisations truly want to get more from their people . 

Here’s a hint: Agile Coaches who act like the protagonist in the Dilbert cartoon above is NOT the way to go!

Don’t blame the coaches … but hold them accountable

It doesn’t take much to be an Agile Coach and in a market where coaching is unregulated the agile coach is a position that I feel is causing more organisational dysfunction than it solves. This isn’t all the fault of the agile coach I have to point out: I worked as an agile coach for many years; in fact I was one of the first here in the UK, helping high profile government departments to utilise Agile processes way back in 2003. 

It’s more a problem of collusion between the person who hires the coach and coach themselves, and I’ll be generous here and posit that the collusion is a subconscious one, i.e. the coach and the sponsor are not aware they are colluding with each other in a co-dependent relationship. 

Co-dependence will kill any hope of growth

The relationship is co-dependent in that the Agile coach relies on the organisation to provide them a temporary, full-time, high paying position. (In fact, the day rates for agile coaches are tumbling right now as the market is awash with ersatz agile coaches.) To my thinking I don’t believe the Agile Coach role is necessarily a full-time role especially if you have a Scrum Master or Team Leader; but yet that is how many organisations go about hiring Agile Coaches. There is another issue that I could discuss here but it is outside the scope of this article and it is the fact that if an Agile Coach works in an organisation full-time for over 6-months they will “go native”; the coach will start to become part of the problems they are trying to solve. Of course, this doesn’t apply in in-house agile coaches … a model I more readily support. The coach would be working, in my view with key stakeholders of the team including the scrum master, project manager and product owner. The coach may be also used as an independent facilitator for team events such as the retrospective allowing the Scrum Master to participate in the event also. 

The other end of the co-dependence equation is the sponsor, the individual who hires the coach. They depend on the coach to “make those guys agile” or to improve the performance of the team. The fact here is that outsourcing change to an external party is less than ideal. I feel a better model is for the leader to become the Agile Coach (or variant of) and to then be coached themselves on evolving/improving the culture of the team while working on their own personal development.

It is my personal belief that this model of utilising coaches is not fit for purpose and this is one of the causes why I think agile is broken. Let me break it down a little more for you. For me there are four main issues which I will describe briefly after a cautionary tale to set the scene.

  1. The agile coaching model (in many cases) assumes a remedial coaching stance
  2. Coaches who aren’t “supervised”
  3. Coaches not held accountable
  4. Leaders abdicating their responsibility for change

A cautionary tale

“Derek” was having a problem with his team; the work wasn’t getting done. There were people problems in the team, in-fighting absenteeism, presenteeism. People wanted to talk about solutions rather than implementing them while others want just to have BMW sessions (Bitching Moaning Whinging). The incumbent agile coach (moi) identified a number of sources for the issues and provided a number of suggestions to how these challenges could be resolved. Some of these suggestions were unpalatable as it involved having uncomfortable conversations with “difficult” characters on the team. Because the suggestions provided weren’t useful/appropriate/easy (call them what you will) Derek decided to bring in another Agile Coach, “Stella”, to run a workshop for the team to help resolve the difficulties. (See issues 1 and 4 below)

Stella ended up creating more problems for the team than she solved. In part of the session she decided to use some TA (Transactional Analysis) interventions and called out one individual as “acting like a victim”. This intervention caused further issues down the road as it gave “permission” to other team members to treat the individual like a victim (which in my view was completely inappropriate) Incidentally I wasn’t invited to said session because the difficult characters had now refused to work with me … truth hurts … even when shared privately. The issue I have here is when untrained individuals such as “Stella” think it’s a good idea to play the role of psychologist and inadvertently lob a grenade into the team and then run for cover! (Issue 2 and 3 below).

The net result was that the issues went unresolved and resulted in many good people leaving the team and the square root of nothing was delivered by the team. The difficult characters (smugly) remain and are still considered to be the “cream” by Derek and his managers, “thank goodness the snowflakes are gone!!!” was one comment I heard. As I remind people often, never underestimate the power of denial.

I’ll now explain the problems in a little more detail.

1) The model assumes a remedial coaching stance.

I know I am generalising here because in some cases the coach is hired in a developmental capacity rather than a remedial one. However, if the sponsor assumes the position above and wants to fix the people in the organisation then this is considered a remedial stance. Allow me another generalisation if you will but one that is borne out of almost 20 years coaching experience: developmental coaching is more effective than remedial, especially in group situations. When a coach is brought into fix the team this causes issues. People aren’t stupid and they can see past the ruse of remediation masquerading as development.

2) Coaches who aren’t “supervised”

Stella clearly wasn’t supervised by a more senior coach (psychologist) properly trained in TA interventions; if she had of been then she wouldn’t have intervened in the way she did. Too many coaches, with albeit good intentions, read books like TA Today or whatever and think they can legitimately experiment on teams and individuals using pop-psychology as their cover.

3) Coaches not held accountable

Complaints were made to Derek about the actions of Stella, but to the best of my knowledge nothing was done except to say “Thanks anyway you did your best … here’s your fee”. I bang on about this all the time: coaches have to be held accountable for what they advise their clients to do or not do, yet in my experience this rarely happens. Who will hold the consultancy accountable for advising their client to take on the newest trendy agile process, when tweaking what they already have may be the more responsible and legitimate thing to do … we all know the answer to that don’t we???

4) Leaders abdicating their responsibility

Finally, the real problem and root cause of many organisational issues is when leaders abdicate their responsibility and leave the difficult problems to be solved by the coaches. Agile coaches lack organisational authority, and I think that is the way it should be. But is the leader won’t act on the advice of the coach then where can the coach go next? The sad truth of the matter is that many people are ready for what agile mindset means: figural to this is taking on board feedback and working towards improvement. Very often these are the teams who don’t value retrospectives and have them down the pub … seriously!!!! 

Agile does work … people who don’t use it properly give it a bad name

Agile won’t fix these teams but instead agile breaks as people make lame excuses for their behaviour and don’t take responsibility. Nothing will change, except good people will go where Agile does work. 

In short as I said above Agile does work but is takes a particular mindset (personality/attitude/belief and values system) to make it work. Sometimes organisations, teams or individuals aren’t ready for Agile in which case the job of the coach is to coach people into a state of agile readiness by raising awareness around current realities rather than dictating what process to use and how to use it properly.