I am an Agile Coach. I am an Organisational Dysfunction

For nearly two years I have been helping my client do agile rather than do agile myself. I have been a coach helping teams adopt Scrum, Theory of Constraints, Specification by Example and other stuff. Although its my first attempt at “helping others do it” rather than “doing it”, I have been approaching management as a coach for almost a decade. Thankfully I am working with other experienced coaches who have been helping me learn the ropes.

For the past few months, the agile coaching team have been preparing for the day when the client will achieve sustainable agile. Sustainable agile means they will be self sufficient rather than needing to rely on external agile coaches. Thankfully, our team leader, Tony Grout, has some experience in this space and we are building “self-service” “first-aid” material for the organisation. But it’s not enough. We need the organisation to take on the yoke of coaching.

For the past few weeks I have been working with dev and test managers to prepare the way for a “Management Skills Matrix”. In technical parlance, preparing the management fitness landscape to make it less hostile to the “skills matrix” meme. (Note, So far all the managers love the idea). The management skills matrix would be a public skills matrix posted on the wall in one of the coffee areas…

Mgmt Skills MatrixThere is one big difference between the management matrix and team matrix. At skill level 3, the manager feels confident enough to coach a team in the skill. Now our target is to get at least three managers in every location who can coach each skill. As we achieve that goal, I can then retire from coaching for each skill until the organisation is self-sufficient.

This was the point that I realised that I was an organisational dysfunction.

Some of the more experienced coaches had suggested I should work for the team doing what was right, rather than work for management. It felt right because management did not have a deep understanding of agile but I had a stronger feeling that I should be aligned with management who represented the goals of the organisation. The management skills matrix helped me realise that I should not work with the team at all. Instead I should work coaching the leadership of the organisation so that THE LEADERS COULD COACH THE TEAMS. That way, there would be no misalignment. Management would know why they were doing each agile practice. There would be no disconnect between the teams and management. By training the teams, I am perpetuating a disconnect between the teams and their management… I am perpetuating an organisational dysfunction.

But training every manager in every skill is impossible. Some managers just do not want to know about the intricate details of Agile. Thats fine, training every manager in every skill is the wrong goal. The goals is to ensure that each skill can be coached by at least 3 managers. (On a process note, I’m using 3 as an illustration. The final answer might be 1,2,3,4,5  or who knows depending on context).

I should treat coaching skills in the same way I manage staff liquidity. When a coaching request comes in I should ask the managers who wants to take it on and get them to do pair coaching with me. Currently the way I work as a coach perpetuates me as the key man dependency.

It answers that age old question? Who should go Agile first? The team or the leadership?

GIVEN that management want Agile

WHEN they hire a coach

THEN the coach should start with management.

So now I have to change the way I work so that I’m no longer a dysfunction. For those of you who know me, you know how hard that will be. ;-)

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About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

6 responses to “I am an Agile Coach. I am an Organisational Dysfunction

  • Kent McDonald (@BeyondReqs)

    Chris, Great post. I have helped coach a few teams where one big question was always what do managers do. You have now given the answer, as well as a big hint to how to help an organization successfully adopt an agile mindset.

    What you describe is also a model that all agile coaches should follow, unless they are trying intentionally to set up camp somewhere to have guaranteed billable hours.

  • allisonpollard

    Excellent post. I was lucky enough to have the managers I work with attend ACI’s Coaching Agile Teams class with me, and it really opened their eyes to what coaching means and got them more excited about developing their own skills.

  • Peter Hundermark (@peterhundermark)

    I like this post a lot. And, as a CST, I definitely ‘help’ to perpetuate this dysfunction. And it remains a challenge to help managers to recognise their own blind spots and be willing to ask for the help they themselves need.

    In our coaching work we often ‘head fake’ it and coach the management while engaging with their teams. We have a long way to go. Your post encourages me to be bolder!

  • Illya Pavlichenko

    A good article. As an Agile Coach and Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) myself, I have to say that we usually work on both levels at the same time. Some of us is focused on the top level (mngt leadership coaching), other coach meanwhile is focused on the teams level. I’m sure it needs to be done simultaneously.

  • Robin Dymond

    Great points… except that the management are beginners just like the teams. Can managers coach what they don’t know? You are right, coaching managers is necessary, except that the first step is managers realizing they need to be students first.

  • yuvaly

    Great post Chris. I’ve been struggling with this challenge for some years now.
    I totally agree with the “managers first” / “thru managers” pattern you are talking about.

    One way I found that helps with this is to start your agile journey from practices that naturally involve managers more. For example visualizing managing end to end flow across teams using Kanban. I talked about this in http://yuvalyeret.com/2012/09/20/starting-with-managers-kanban-also-called-product-stream-representative-kanban/. Much of my client work since 2012 has been influenced by this pattern and other related lines of thought.

    It is a huge frustrating challenge to get managers to own capability building not to say do pair-coaching. It appears to slow down the improvement journey dramatically. But I agree the easy way out is a dysfunction that doesn’t lead to stickiness.

    Sounds like a topic for the next hangout ;-)

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