Friday, July 29, 2016

The Cost of Learning

Time and again, I read stuff like: "The role of the coach is to guide a client in solving their problems, rather than providing a solution". Well, it's good that so-called proponents of Coaching can manage to simplify the world down to binary decisions about what a coach is. Reducing complexity is a talent. But here's why I personally disagree.

Cost of Change

One basic premise of agility is the value "Responding to change over following a plan". Basically, this value is made real by constantly reducing the cost of change, to the point where you'll never need to follow an invalid plan simply because it costs less to continue doing the wrong thing. A low CoC is a premise for "being agile".

Correlation between agility and Cost of Change

But there's a problem here: Change does have a cost associated, and you can't simply declare that cost to be Zero, in disregard of every evidence to the contrary. You must understand what the cost of change for a given change at a given time actually is.

This is where the coach/consultant comes into play. Both have the responsibility of inducing change. The coach would work on getting the responsible people, for example the teams, to embark the change process by learning by themselves. However, you need to understand that especially in the initial stages of agility, the cost of change may be extremely high.

Cost of Failure

There's a problem in the learning process: Learning, obviously, means that you haven't done it yet. And that can pose a problem: You might fail. Well, failure is not inherently bad. A coach might argue that failure is an essential part of the learning process. That may be true, but you need to be aware of the failure costs.
Expected Cost of Failure
The danger that a person/team/organization is exposed to is a correlation of likelihood and incurred damage. For example, it's low danger to "learn" that putting salt into a cup of coffee is bad and therefore, you should use different containers for salt and sugar next time.
It's a completely different thing to "learn" that it's a bad idea to first pull the pin from a hand grenade, then put the grenade into your pocket: There won't be a next time.

In both cases, we assume that failure may occur. In the first case, we will assume that we can safely let people find out what happens, because the cost of failure is low. In the second case, however, it would be highly immoral to know the cost of failure and still let people figure out what happens.
Even worse, a coach might be completely unaware of the potential cost of failure due to lack of  knowledge or fails to consider this cost. In that case, it's fraudulent to claim "coaching by facilitating self-learning".

Impact on the approach

A consultant will always consider the cost of failure for any potential course of action. Low-risk topics that pose little danger to organizational health are not typical scenarios for requiring external support. Hence you wouldn't hire a consultant for that. People are more likely to ask for help the closer they feel to being to the Point of No Return.
A non-prescriptive coach would simply let people figure out what to do, and if it goes wrong ... tough luck, there's other clients!

Self-learning is a better course of action only when two conditions are met: 1) We will not cross the point of No Return and 2) It's a positive long-term business case.
Even though, I do admit that 1) automatically invalidates 2), but it's easier to figure.
If those conditions are not met, a prescriptive course of action is more appropriate.


It is very convenient to simply lean back and "encourage self-learning", but that's not always appropriate. Just like a parent would not encourage their two-year old kid to "discover the miracles of 220V AC", a consultant might become quite prescriptive when self-learning is inappropriate.

Personally, I find it more fascinating to work close to the Point of No Return than within the safe haven of low risk.

I would never "facilitate self-learning" that causes irreversible damage. I would intervene, and if I couldn't, I would tell you.
I am an agile consultant. I don't have Snake Oil for sale.

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