Agile Coaching is a Fool’s Errand

2 minute read

I just spoke to a couple managers who rightly see a need to modernize their organization, and whose CEO is rightly skeptical of Agile Coaches1. They both have legitimate concerns. Our obstacle is the long history of magical management fads leading to today’s fad: the “Agile Coach” role.

There’s a reason I stopped calling myself an Agile Coach years ago.

What is Organizational Design Consulting?

To quote Craig Larman:

what am suggesting is NOT a “method” or “process” or “way of working”. rather, this is about org design – the remit of senior mgmt – to be consistent with Adaptiveness (low switching cost (low cost of change), low transaction cost) in the service of learning/discovering what is most high-impact in your product, through an org design with strong feedback loops and a culture of intellectual humility and the scientific method applied to product discovery, rather than through speculation and “we know” and “delivering predefined projects.”

We want to help people discover principles of organizational design, (the organization’s policies and structure), and how to optimize that organizational design for adaptiveness. Does our organizational design promote out-learning our competition about our customer’s needs? Does it allow us to constantly adjust our direction? Everything else flows from that. Failing to address organizational design means the impact of an Agile Coach will be temporary and superficial.

This is rarely what a company expects – or gets – when it hires an Agile Coach. More often than not, management and the Agile Coach are playing a game Eric Berne2 would call “Look How Hard We Tried.” Agile Coaches push processes and ways of working on teams while trying to “change management culture.” Upper management, middle management, and workers rarely share the same system optimization goal. And who needs a clear system optimization goal when Agile has been sold as something to just make everything better? (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t make everything better.)

What is Coaching?

A respectable coach named George writes:

That doesn’t sound like coaching to me.

Indeed. “Agile Coaching” is not coaching as we learn from Gerry Weinberg, Edgar H. Schein, or Roger Schwarz. Pure coaching is a legitimate profession with no agenda. Tacking on “Agile” corrupts it with an agenda.

What To Do Instead?

Hi Michael - Your post caught my eye since I’ve been wrestling with the challenge of how to improve the agile operations of a couple of our teams. They’ve had a hard time adopting best practices, so my thoughts went to agile coaching. I took a course with you a number of years ago and got a ton out of it, so I value your opinion. If agile coaching is a fool’s errand, what would you suggest?

I would suggest starting with a clear system optimization goal stated again and again from upper management, including what attachments we’re willing to let go of. Also we usually need to broaden the product definition. If these things are done properly, it will imply an organizational design and the desire to learn practices that suit your situation. Practices that are consistent with a system optimization goal of broad adaptiveness include things like Test Driven Development, continuous integration, and mob programming. But calling those things “best practices” does not promote worker ownership of their own methods and tools, or any understanding of why we should learn them.

  1. Caps intentional here. 

  2. Author of Games People Play. I don’t know if it’s a good book, but when I was young it helped me realize that human interactions cannot be taken at face value.