Updated: Mar 10
How Agile Coaches can navigate difficult environments
A true Agile Coach puts their job on the line every single day. Not because they are making mistakes or advocating the wrong principles, but simply by doing what organisations hired them to do: coach.
As consultants and freelancers, we are used to the hustle, the long hours and the pressure to deliver the best possible results for our clients and their stakeholders. And most of the time the process as well as the outcome are straight-forward. More and more companies find themselves in the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, and look to us for guidance. One way of facing the future is by adopting Scrum practices and transforming into agile organisation.
Why Scrum seems to be the silver bullet
Ever since the industrial revolution, the world turns to technology giants for wisdom and best practices. Business Schools, Ted Talks and your uncle Simon all rave about how their practices should be adopted by mainstream organisations to grow faster, create better and last longer. Therefore, it was only a matter of time until experts and coaches everywhere would start to preach software development practices as new ways of working outside the world of software development.
From Taylorism to Agilism
Consequently, we find a wide spectrum of organisations ranging from waterfall-practicing conservatives to agile-preaching progressives; neither of them inherently “good” or “bad”. The main challenge are organisations in between, trying to change their position by copying what worked for others. They turn to Agile Coaches to guide them through the transitions, adopt Scrum as a way to deliver as well as a mindset.
Change is hard
Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters main quest is to be the change agents, empowering everybody around them to feel more confident and competent to work in Scrum. They give guidance on the administrative setup, the running of Scrum events and on how to best deliver value for the customers. The Scrum Master acts as the servant leaders, focusing on the teams, their adoption of Scrum and how to improve them into high-performing teams. The Agile Coach facilitates beyond the Scrum teams and is tasked to challenge the status quo. Not because the organisation had done it wrong all this time, but simply because they had decided to move away from existing practices and establish a new normal.
And just as there is a spectrum of waterfall to pure Scrum is there a spectrum from acceptance to refusal of the proposed changes. Not too seldomly do Agile Coaches find themselves in situations loaded with politics, misrepresentation of agile values and managers manipulating the new structure for their own benefit.
Why transparency needs to be a two-way street
via Unsplash (@sashafreemind)
Underlying most of these issues is a misconception or malpractice of transparency. Bad management practices use transparency to amplify control, by forcing teams to guarantee the delivery of a set value by a set date.
For them Scrum offers a clear roadmap to delivering albeit smaller pieces but more regularly. Failing to meet those goals is met with blame, cries of inefficiencies and increased measures of control, which translate to more administrative overload of the teams and their Scrum Masters. Good management would want to investigate why goals are not met and try to overcome any obstacle and resolve impediments to better ways of working. Scrum events such as Retros and Reviews are targeted measures to understand where obstacles are keeping the team from delivering and invite the teams themselves to figure out solutions to overcome them. These events, if done correctly, are proven to increase motivation through participation, increase flow by removing impediments and increase quality through regular feedback and testing.
Defeated teams and ostracised coaches
In organisations faced with scenario one, teams live off the hope that management won’t look too closely, giving them the option to hide short-comings and spill-overs in impressively creative ways. Once this seed has touched the soil it spreads from one team to the next. No one wants to be blamed or called out by management for under-delivery and missing deadlines. When transparency gets you penalised, you will try anything to muddy the waters. It is the Scrum Masters duty to counter-act these patterns as they go against the Scrum values. Yet a Scrum Master can only do so much as their primary goal is to focus on the team.
This is where the struggle of the Agile Coach becomes all too real. Their efforts to coach Scrum Masters and their teams to better manage problems, bring transparency to their challenges is met with lowered heads and defeated sighs. The teams don’t want to become more sufficient in Scrum, since it would only give ammunition to management to bully them further into submission. Some coaches will consequently accept an organisations fate and try to help the teams as much as possible to become stronger, better, and more motivated in supporting each other.
Why great coaches get fired
via Unsplash (@jasmund)
Great coaches, with hearts full of empathy and a head full of ways to help the organisation overcome such patterns, bring these issues to management’s attention. And that is where the true fight begins. Good managers will listen to the coach, validate the information with representative sources and start implementing a roadmap with improvement practices. But bad managers will view this challenge as a direct attack on their capabilities. How can an Agile Coach know better how to manage an organisation? How could they possibly hint at failures of the current management practices?
What follows are a couple of frustrating conversations, rising anger levels and an endgame, which usually ends in a powerplay — and the manager always wins. In the best case the Agile Coach goes back to managing the smaller scale issues, supporting the Scrum Masters and their teams. Slightly worse is the Agile Coach leaving the organisation, which is what coaches with options and pride tend to do. And the worst outcome is the Agile Coach being fired on the spot. Simply for doing their job.
Mindsets are hard to change
Some mindsets will simply not be changed, no matter how careful we craft the message or how valid our points are. In such cases we can try to give the teams and people around them the best possible toolset and practices to grow. If the agile mindset becomes prevalent and the results follow in the form of improved quality, faster time-to-market and happier customers it might just be enough to sway such a manager. After all, I find that such personality types tend to be part of a success story. This process can be tough on employees and coaches alike, as it does feel like an uphill battle, and some battles will be lost and some minds will remain unchanged.
Conversations worth having
via Unsplash (@cytonn-photography)
But to prevent such scenarios Agile Coaches can hold some difficult conversations at the beginning of a working relationship. As much as it might be counter-intuitive to risk a new consulting job by being honest about the difficulties some managers might face, those candid conversations can build the foundation of a more transparent relationship. Topics worth covering are how more decentralised decision making might feel very different from the current setup or how it might feel odd to not be an expert on such new territory as Scrum.
Also use the opportunity to align on a strategy on how you should bring insights and critical feedback to them. It might be as simple as an early warning system if the teams bring something to your attention or you spot a malpractice committed by management. If you can catch and resolve those issues early on, nobody needs to lose face and everybody can continue to build on their strengths while allowing the teams and organisation to move towards a brighter future through a successful adoption of Scrum.
In the end we are all human, struggling with our pride and unable to get out of our own skin. Some minds can be changed more easily than others, and some will remain locked on their long-held ideals. As Agile Coaches we owe it to ourselves to at least attempt our best at bringing everybody on the journey, and allow for the time for sceptics to change their minds. Because if everybody had already adopted the agile mindset our jobs would be far less rewarding and meaningful, and we wouldn’t be allowed to learn from our own failures and short-comings — which is what makes us truly great coaches.