The Agile Coaching Dilemma

The Agile Coaching Dilemma

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I’ve recently been reading about and discovering some agile coaching firms who have different views towards client coaching.  To be honest, I’m struggling to understand and accept some of their perspectives. So as is often my practice, I thought I’d write something about it to clarify my thoughts and position on the matter.

But first, let me share a story from a close friend of mine in Southern California:

I’m one of the best, most experienced personal trainers on the planet. If you view my website, you’ll see testimonials about my:

  • Helping transform the health of large groups by running health camps;
  • Assisting incredibly famous actors and actresses increase their physical performance to get ready for challenging physical roles;
  • Serving as a lead fitness consultant on The Greatest Loser show;
  • There’s even a rumor that the President will be inviting me to serve on the Council for Physical Fitness.

In a word, I’m one of the countries top Personal Trainers and High-Performance Coaches. My clients approach me because I have a track record of inspiring excellence and significantly improving their health and welfare.  

This is what I do and I’m good at it. I get results and quickly.

But lately, I’ve found that if I push my clients too far or too hard, that they won’t engage me for very long.  Finding that if I “raise the bar” too far, it damages my relationship with them, but also importantly my revenue stream.

So, I’ve started to “meet them where they are”.

I’ll give you a for instance. Bill approached me. He’s fairly obese and is just starting to suffer from diabetes and hypertension.

I know I could “push Bill” or better put “inspire Bill” to a fairly high-degree of weight loss and improved physical health. But it will stress Bill out a bit and I may risk losing him as a client.

So, I’m at a crossroads. Do I coach Bill the way I would normally do it and push him? Or do I change my normal behavior and take an easier road. Knowing that it’s not even what Bill approached me for in the first place.

I’ve decided to only push Bill so far. Up to his comfort zone and then no more. I need the clients and the income and if I trade-off a bit of my overall professional integrity, reputation, and client results – so be it.

In other words, and I’m struggling articulating this, how far do I deviate from my professional principles?

I feel like I’m “faking it a bit” with Bill and I’m not delivering on my capabilities as a trainer. I’m compromising as a trainer and coach. And I’m uncomfortable with it, because it’s not really in my DNA.

I got into this business to make a difference. But what are my alternatives. If I “walk away” from clients like this, who lack sufficient commitment, then my revenue will drop by 50%. And I’ve got a business to run and people depending on me!

So, I’m incredibly torn…

Do I hold to my principles and the behaviors that got me where I am today OR do I compromise myself because some folks just can’t be held to those same principles?

All right, I need to come clean. This scenario, if you didn’t realize it by now, is a fantasy. I made it up.

But it aligns with how I see many agile coaching and consulting firms behaving with their clients. And it illustrates the “dilemma” that we all face as we’re approached by potential clients.

Under the banner of some of the following mantra’s:

  • They’re simply too big to apply all of the agile practices;
  • We’re meeting our clients – where they are right now and we hope to
  • We’re not practicing “academic or purist” agility, our clients live in the real world, and so do we.
  • We’re moving them along the path to agility – eventually they’ll get there.

These and many others, I see many firms compromising on many of their (the core of) agile principles.

Usually not compromising in a heavy-handed way, but more subtly. And I’m convinced that most of their hearts are in the right place and that they are honestly trying to help their clients. And indeed they are, little by little.

But I do think the revenue potential is getting in the way of the decision-making as well. As agile coaches, we have a responsibility to our clients.

But we also have a responsibility to the Agile Manifesto, the Agile Principles behind it, and to the larger Agile Community to do no harm.

As in my opening story, at some point the fitness coach needs to decide if they’re aligned with the principles and performance goals of an outstanding coach or not. In other words, are they pushing their clients as far and as hard as possible for their best interest? In the fitness area, this is accelerated fitness and wellness.

In the agile arena, this is accelerated adoption that is balanced across team and leadership, while driving significant change and business results. It’s not taking a “safe” route, but inspiring the organization to higher insights, practices, and behaviors. And often this involves pushing everyone outside of their comfort zones and traditional ways of doing things.

In both cases, I believe the true measure of the principled coach is their willingness to “walk away” instead of overly compromising their principles.

Another Perspective

Daniel Gullo is a friend and colleague of mine. He’s a Certified Scrum Trainer and a Certified Scrum Coach. He recently went into private practice and is building his own agile services firm. So revenue generation is important to him and his family right now.

But I find it interesting that he recently wrote the following blog post – Agile is Not for You. I think it aligns incredibly well with my theme in this article and I encourage you to read it.

All I really want is honesty and transparency.

If your model is to meet your clients where they are and spoon-feed them a few agile practices – only the ones that they can accommodate or are comfortable with. Or ones that are more targeted towards leadership than the teams, then simply be honest and just say that!

Say it in all of your client conversations and in all of your company marketing and branding. Make sure that everyone knows that you’ll be taking a “doing the best we can” approach in your efforts. That compromises and trade-offs, often some that create suboptimal results, will be made.

For example, clearly say that you’re an Enterprise Agile Transformation coaching firm, but you’ll do it slowly, comfortably, and fairly expensively. But that in 3-5 years, perhaps each client will get a return on their agile investments.

Also be clear that you’ll cow-tow to leadership over their teams. Why? Because they are the ones that will be paying the bills and surely you don’t want to push them too far out of their comfort zones. Otherwise, they’ll get upset and look for someone else who will do things “their way”.

I know. I just went a little too far!

As an aside though, can you imagine Mike Krzyzewski of Duke engaging his future recruits in this way?

Come to Duke. We won’t work you too hard. And when you feel like you’ve had enough, of course you can stop and relax. We’re in the business of coaching you in your comfort zone…so please, come to Duke.

I wonder what kind of recruits would be attracted to a “let’s work hard to be mediocre” message?

I’m of the feeling that this dilemma will continue in our community. My only hope is that we become more transparent in our coaching principles, both to our clients and to ourselves.

Stay agile my friends,


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