Agile Coaching Theatre

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Agile Coaching Theatre

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In this article, Tanya Snook talks about the notion of UX Theatre. Essentially, if I read it right, this is when an organization is going through the motions of UX research, study, analysis, etc. but with no real goal to change.

Here’s a quote from the article as several snippets—

There is a strange phenomenon in the world of user experience design.

It happens when designers are asked to pretend to do the work of design and aren’t actually permitted to do the work of design. It happens when we are asked to conduct research that never gets used. When we deliver findings that get shelved because they don’t align with executive or shareholder expectations. When we’re asked to facilitate workshops in which staff pretend to be users because it’s cheaper and faster than doing research with actual users. Or when we only get to review the design when the product is about to hit the street, and it’s much too late for any actual design improvements.

This frustrating reality is an open secret within the user experience industry and one we have long accepted as a normal consequence of working in a field that balances creativity and research.

We call this UX Theatre.

So how does UX Theatre happen? I believe it is the result of two fundamental problems in our practice.

First, user experience design is a vague concept and isn’t as well defined as something like accounting or law. When executives adopt the term “user experience,” their teams aren’t necessarily empowered to do all the work that user experience design entails. Designers find themselves on understaffed, or wrongly staffed, or underfunded teams. Or worse, working as a team of one (the solitary “UX unicorn.”) Budgets and schedules are cited as excuses to fast-track design and user research.

The second issue that leads to UX Theatre is that design is touted as something everyone can do. In Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Victor Papanek wrote, “All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity.” This sentiment was meant to convey that all humans have the ability to think in a designerly way and that design is an inherently human activity.

However, just because everyone can do math doesn’t mean everyone is an accountant.

The article immediately made me think about whether there is something similar in the agile coaching community. Where…

Individuals, leaders, and organizations go out and get them some…Agile Coaches. In a show of force and intent that they are:

  • Serious about their agile transformational efforts;

  • Making serious investments for their teams;

  • Putting large scale strategies in play;

  • Purchasing tools and frameworks to support everything;

  • Bringing in sufficient mass to do whatever it takes…

But when it comes to:

  • Hiring courageous coaches who aren’t just “Yes, people”;

  • Listening to the coaches; Taking their advice;

  • Changing their own behaviors; changing themselves;

  • Being willing to reduce WIP, challenge norms, challenge their leaders, focus less on projects and more on products;

  • Encourage their people with safety, trust, empowerment, and diversity…

Well…that’s not part of the script, part of the theatre…

And I believe the drivers Tanya highlights for UX Theatre are the same for Agile Coaching Theatre:

  1. Agile Coaching is a vague role, with vague operational characteristics;

  2. Everyone is an Agile Coach; or at least thinks they are.

And the sad part is that the agile community has some control over these two drivers.

As I read Tanya’s article, I began to think that Agile Coaching Theatre is alive and well in most organizations.

I’m not saying that people are intentionally bad or trying to waste time. But the theatre is essentially doing it to say you’re doing it as opposed to committing to it and really doing it. Going through the motions.

Now, my journey is one thing, but what about yours. Have you seen Agile Coaching Theatre before? If so, how have you reacted to it?

If you’re a consulting coach, do you continue or do you leave the stage? Or, if you shift it, how have you done that?

From my part, Tanya’s article has inspired me to be more aware of whether I’m in Theatre or Reality. I needed that push on my intent. Thanks, Tanya! 

Stay agile my friends,


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