The Agile Coaching Dilemma – An Addendum

The Agile Coaching Dilemma – An Addendum

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I get bombarded with different points of view from agile coaching firms all of the time. This one crossed my screen from Mike Cottmeyer just this morning.

and here’s a snippet from Mike’s post, just to give you some flavor:

So… I want to say this one more time for emphasis… either you create the conditions to do agile well… or you do something else. SAFe is that something else.

We can say that SAFe is a cop out… or isn’t really agile… or that it’s the second coming of RUP… but don’t underestimate the complexity, the risk, or the cost of totally refactoring an enterprise to be the kind of organization that can really do agile at any kind of scale. Some organizations simply can’t or won’t invest in this. At the end of the day small batches are better than big batches. Iterative and incremental is better than waterfall, even if it isn’t agile.

It made me think again about the article I wrote regarding coaching options…and responsibilities. There was a story that I neglected to share in that post that I think is relevant, so I’ll share it now…

There is a large staff augmentation firm that has gotten into the agile coaching business over the past 3-4-5+ years. At the moment, they are quite active, mostly in the US, and growing quickly.

About two years ago they approached me to join them as an agile coach. I’ve been running my own coaching firm for a number of years, but it sometimes gets “lonely” and I was intrigued by the offer. So I opted to have an interview with their managing director of agile practices.

It started out nicely enough, as we exchanged our histories and experiences “growing up” in the agile community. But as the interview progressed, I could sense that he was feeling me out as to my ability to “play well with others”. In particular, was I able to coach to someone else’s view to agile strategy and approach?

It was an interesting question for me. And I tried to explore it with him.

Then I asked him a fundamental question. Have you ever walked away from an agile engagement because the client wasn’t interested in supporting something that you considered important to their success in adopting “Agile”?

I wasn’t asking for how often. I was simply inquiring that, in the history of the firm, had they ever turned down an agile gig because the client wasn’t truly up for it. To me this might surround the company’s culture, or leadership style and willingness to change, or simply the overall maturity of the organization from a requisite agile readiness perspective.

And not done it in a rude or condescending way, but simply as a discovered fact or reality and then politely moving on. I view this, as a highly congruent outcome when approached as a coaching partner and I wanted to hear his views and experience.

His answer, while not entirely surprising given how hard he was pushing on my “flexibility”, was disappointing. It was no. In fact, he started explaining that he couldn’t envision a situation where they wouldn’t engage a client. And began justifying that by saying “some agile” is better than “no agile at all”.

Of course I “get” the fact that not everyone will exhibit ultimate readiness. That wasn’t my point. My point was that there are many conditions where we, as experienced agile coaches, know that a client isn’t ready for it. They may simply need more time OR they may actually never be up for the challenges associated with a successful agile transformation.

That’s ok. The challenge is actually ours. Do we:

1.     Walk away from the work with a nod to perhaps a future reassessment?


2.     Do we take the work knowing the outcome will be poor to horrible? Dare I say it, engaging the client simply for the revenue opportunity?

In my case, I used this question to determine whether I was a “fit” for his firm. It wasn’t as simple as – could I adapt and coach to their agile approaches. It was much more fundamental. Did I want to work for a firm that generally took on ANY client regardless of the situation? And the answer was no.

More than a year ago I wrote a helper-guide around selecting an agile coaching firm. It was based on my own experience searching for solid agile coaches, but also what I think most companies should consider when selecting a coach.

I was surprised by how widely it was read and how well it was received. I received numerous email replies from firms thanking me for putting it into the public domain. I have a link to the whitepaper here on my website. I actually encourage firms to use it “against me” when evaluating my capabilities.

But now I want to add an additional qualification check to it—basically just two simple questions:

  1. When have you failed? And how did you respond?
  2. When do you walk away from agile coaching business? Give me specific conditions AND examples.

While they may seem innocuous, I think the resulting coaching conversations will help most firms in making a final decision.

I feel like a madman railing against the machine in some way. Over the past year, I’ve written several articles around agile coaching practices. I’m going to try and capture the entire list here for re-review.

My intent throughout has been to “call out” agile coaching and coaches to a higher level of congruence, transparency, and accountability to the essence of the agile methods. There are some wonderful coaches and firms in the universe. And then there are some others. And no, I used Mike Cottmeyer’s example in the beginning just as my “trigger” for this follow-up. I’m not evaluating him or his firm at all…because I don’t know them or their intentions.

Personally, I don’t know where my own firm fits on that continuum, but I know we aspire to get better every day. And we’re also not just in it for the money, but instead we try to stay agile-client-value principled in everything we do. And yes, we have “walked away” from coaching business if we felt the client wasn’t “ready” for a commitment to agile approaches.

I also know that leading organizations down the path of agility is an honor and a privilege – one that I want all firms to respect in their own journeys. In other words, I think we need to keep raising the bar in the agile coaching industry.

Here’s my list of “rants” in this area.

  1. June 16, 2014 – Agile Coaches, We’re Coaching the Wrong People
  2. July 20, 2014 – What the World Needs is More Prescriptive Agile Coaches
  3. September 14, 2014 – Actively Coaching Organizational Leadership
  4. December 14, 2014 – Agile Coaches & Trainers, Have you Walked in the Shoes of “Technical Management”?
  5. April 7, 2015 – The Agile Coaching Dilemma, which is the article that this one connects to…

While I didn’t intend this to be a “series” of any sort, I do think there are common threads throughout. I’d recommend going back to the beginning and reading through the progression in time order.

Now I need to focus back on my own coaching business, our clients, our performance, and continuous improvement. So hopefully I can stop throwing stones at other houses and concentrate on my own for a bit.

Stay agile my friends,


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