The GREAT Enterprise Agile Coaching Mistake

The GREAT Enterprise Agile Coaching Mistake

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I have a good friend and colleague who works in a rather large enterprise. Among others, she’s tasked with bringing “agile” into the organization and “transforming” their work. She’s largely leading the effort, so has a tremendous amount of responsibility for its success.

They’ve chosen Scrum for this effort.

They’ve engaged a rather large agile coaching firm to help them “go Agile”.

So far their strategy has been along the following lines:

  1. Hire full-time agile coaches
  2. Do a little training for “Leaders and Managers”, less than a ½ day, usually 60-90 minutes
  3. Spin-up Scrum teams (a little training), with Technical Leads as ScrumMasters and limited Product Owners (time and skill)
  4. Start sprinting
  5. Hire more agile coaches
  6. Spin up more Scrum teams…start sprinting
  7. Rinse & repeat…

To-date, there are more than 50+ newly minted Scrum teams who are dutifully sprinting away creating lots and lots of “stuff”.

It would be fair to say that ALL of the focus in the organization is team ward. Check that, that’s not fair. It’s only 95% of the focus.

The other focus is towards: buying tools and scaling frameworks. I think they’ve settled on Rally as the tool du jour and SAFe as the scaling framework du jour.

And of course all of this has been under the direction and guidance of the coaching firm. I’m guessing that the primary SLA here is # of coaches and # of teams sprinting. But that’s just a guess based on their focus.

In fact, the next steps are going to be measurement, because they’re struggling to measure the effectiveness of all of those teams and the value of the stuff they’re producing.

And since there are some agile maturity frameworks starting to surface on the market, I’m sure they’ll find one that strikes their fancy and can adequately measure their teams’ (and their organizational) success.

If I were to categorize her overall strategy, I would call it:

  • Team-driven or downward driven
  • Tools driven
  • Scaling framework driven

And relatively frenetic from the perspective that the overarching goal seems to be getting as many teams “Scrumming” as possible.

This approach is certainly making the coaching firm happy and its certainly generating momentum…

I’m not saying that this isn’t a reasonable strategy. But, I am concerned about a few things they are not doing. And overall, I think the flow and balance might be a tad…off.

A major misstep?

First of all, I believe they’re missing a very large constituency in their efforts. That is – middle management. They’re basically ignoring them in significant introductory training and, more importantly, in ongoing situational coaching.

You see all of these teams ultimately “report to” someone and that is the middle management tier. So these folks have tremendous influence on the success (or failure) of the teams’ transformation.

Not only that, the messaging from this tier;

  • Setting the Vision;
  • Setting the Mission & Goals;
  • Individually coaching their direct reports;
  • Aligning their messaging across management peers.

Is crucial in “connecting” the overarching transformation goals with the “on the ground” teams making it happen.

Where am I coming from?

I’ve talked about this coaching focus problem before – in several posts.

I think the strategy is often adopted because it’s easy. You train the teams and then start sprinting. It’s like winding up a toy and letting it go. Sure, you get a sense of movement and progress, but in my experience it’s often unbalanced and dangerously leaves the leadership team out of the transformation equation.

I’d be fine with it IF the teams could make it “on their own”. But in all of my experience, I’ve never seen a “grass roots” only adoption succeed in the long term.

However, in a balanced agile transformation, the leadership team often needs significantly more help and guidance then the teams.

Take for instance:

  • In helping them learn how to build solid agile teams, and if they have distributed teams, better options for handling them;
  • Or helping them move from a command-and-control style to more of a coaching style;
  • Or adjusting their silo-based measurements to healthy agile-centric ones;
  • Or changing how the PMO interacts with the teams and how cost accounting and governance occurs.

And these are just a small sampling of the challenges that leaders face in making this organizational transition.

I’m glad you asked!

I’d make the following critical adjustments to their strategy:

  1. Do more involved training with the leadership teams first. Perhaps doing a 1-2 day leadership boot camp. And if the leadership team doesn’t have the time for it, defer the engagement. Point being – the leadership team (direct management and senior leadership) need to be fully onboard and an active part of the transformation.
  2. Early on, set up an agile steering group and include active middle management / leadership coaching as a significant part of the ongoing effort. This would include hiring agile coaches who have experience coaching at this level – something many “agile coaches” lack.
  3. Spin up a handful of Scrum teams, say 5-10, and give them ample time to ramp-up and show successful behavior and results. The point here would be to demonstrate that they can get the recipe for forming teams and show the patience for the teams to form, mature, and deliver.
  4. Downward coaching is important, but I’d put some emphasis on coaching the coaches (ScrumMasters and Product Owners) rather than coaching the teams themselves. I’d also place a prime-directive on the coaches…coaching themselves out of a job. I.e., on getting the teams to be self-directed ASAP.
  5. I’d defer major tooling and framework decisions until there was significant traction to warrant the tools and frameworks. Certainly not at 5-10 teams. And once they do start to need both, I’d engage the teams in the tools and framework decision-making. Importantly – I’d work hard as a coaching team to ensure they kept things as lean and as simple as possible.

Once all of this has happened, then scaling can occur. And please don’t think this all has to take forever. It doesn’t. I’ve seen organizations able to scale quite quickly, but the goal should be balanced organizational scaling and not simply spinning up as many Scrum teams as possible.

The essence of my strategy adjustment is:

  • Focus on leadership (training, coaching, mentoring) with as much enthusiasm as you do your teams.
  • Craft an agile transformation strategy and steering team that leverages iterative techniques, an agile/lean mindset, and continuous learning to grow your transformation.
  • Get a coaching firm that is valuated on results and balance, not frenetic scaling and long-term embedded coaches.
  • Keep initial tooling simple and defer major tooling decisions as long as possible; oh and, do forget to ask the teams what they think.
  • Scaling frameworks, see above.
  • Put your teams first, that is, give them a fertile space to be created and grow and learn, before you go crazy creating gazillions of them.

Is my colleague wrong? Perhaps not. Most of the enterprise level transformations I see nowadays follow her strategy. Can she end up in the “right place”? Sure. But it can often be an unnecessarily painful journey.

Is my strategy always right…in all contexts? No. But I’ve found it to be better balanced than other approaches.

The point of this post was not to shove one or another strategy down your throat, but to get you to think about your own transformation strategies and whether you might need a “balance adjustment”.

Do you?

Stay agile my friends!


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