Friday, August 19, 2016

Be careful of so-called "agile coaches"!

An agile coach is supposed to help agility "stick" within an organization. But that is not always the case. Unfortunately, the label "agile coach" is not a protected trademark. Anyone can wear that title. As such, there is a huge risk that the so-called "coach" will do more harm than good. Caveat emptor!
Here are a few stories of what "agile coaching" I have experienced so that you can actually avoid it. As a disclaimer: I do not consider all agile coaches to be quacks. There are a few whom I highly respect. But there's a lot of quackery giving them a bad name - and not many talk about it.

Purposefully unhelpful 

Probably the most idiotic phrase in the arsenal of an "agile coach" is "You need to find this out by yourself". Of course, that is supposed to inspire self-learning. But honestly. Not everyone wants to learn everything by themselves. Here's my story:
I just came into a new enterprise as a consultant. I asked the team coach "What's the wifi password?" - "You need to find that out by yourself"
This guy was serious that I should rather learn the WiFi password by myself than have someone "tell" me. Dude. I can paint a picture of a stick-man, label it "agile coach" and it'll be more useful than such a coach. Why do people even hire coaches who can't even discriminate when self-learning makes sense?

One trick pony

They say that for a coach, moderation, conflict management, coaching and mediation are key skills. This has the unfortunate side effect that we see "agile coaches" popping up who are domain experts in these exact subjects - and nothing else! Meaning: They are sociology or psychology majors who have never written a single line of code and are now trying to teach developers how to work better. Here is my story:
I was working with a team that faced numerous difficulties. One of these was the lack of a coach. So, they hired one who was really good at talking and creating a positive mood: Actually, too good. Unfortunately, this person had only ever attended a 2-day Certified Scrum Master course and NEVER worked with a software development team.
They had zero knowledge of things like technical debt, Continuous Integration, software testing or other engineering practices - not even PO stuff like backlog management, value prioritization or right-sizing the work!
The team was going in full circles, continuously struggling to figure out stuff "everyone knows" and caught management attention eventually because of high defect rates and unusually low throughput. It was blamed on the developers. The team got disbanded and forcefully rearranged. The "coach" never realized anything was wrong - because hey, the team was always happy and learning!

Feigned expertise

How can you coach something you're actually clueless about? It seems that for some "agile coaches", agile experience is truly optional. They think that having a couple certifications qualifies you and give themselves a label of expertise they do not actually possess. Here is my story:
I am occasionally meeting with an "agile enterprise coach" (CSP) to discuss about the various problems they face. Based on their CV, they've got a decade of "agile experience". At first I was befuddled when they started asking me trivial questions about stuff like backlog prioritization or why people limit WIP. I realized that this person had never really worked in an agile way: They had no idea what the real purpose of Continuous Integration was, they had never even attended, much less moderated a Retrospective - and they haven't actually seen what a workable Product Backlog looks like!
Oddly enough, this person is seriously working in enterprise agile transformations, introducing Scrum to teams, even coaching/educating internal Scrum Masters and managers. Looking behind the scenes revealed that things could have been done within weeks that their clients are still struggling with after years.
Seems like the old conmen statement "There's a sucker born every minute" still holds true.

Hiding incompetence

A coach can always conveniently hide between "stimulating self-learning". I'd call it more fair to say "Some things I know. These I will help you with. Other things, we'll learn together". Especially in the latter category, I personally call it un-ethical to climb on a pedestal and profess to guide others' learning journey. But here's my story. I heard it over a cup of coffee with an upper manager:
A large product group tried to adopt Scrum for the development of an important product a good decade ago. Long story short, 500-people Scrum is not the same as one team. So, they had, "challenges". And since they couldn't figure out any way of getting past a specific one, they spent major bucks and flew in a highly reputable "Scrum coach" to make progress. For two hours the coach answered every question with a counter-question or reframed it. But the client felt there was no substance. Finally, the manager's collar popped and he bursted out: "Now tell me, ONLY with a Yes or No: Do you know how to solve this problem?" Pushed into the corner, the answer was "No". At which point, the manager exploded: "Then this meeting was 100% waste." Not only did they never try to approximate a solution or give helpful pointers, they simply left the client stuck with an unresolved problem. Even years after, to that manager - and their peers - "Scrum coaching" is associated with that specific name and has a very sour aftertaste. 
It should be fairly easy to state what your competencies are and what aren't. It's fair game to state that you don't know everything. But when others rely on your help, it's unfair to leave them hanging.
Note how "problem solving" is not mentioned by coaches as a coaching skill.

Getting away from the stuff that I would actually call fraudulent, where the client's ignorance of one's own incompetence is used to make a quick buck, let us now turn to the softer area of mindset.

Unable to see the big picture

Good coaches should be unbiased, because bias prevents us from seeing the big picture. Reflection and self-awareness help us to overcome bias to serve others better. Or: So is the theory. Some of the most biased people I have met in my life bear the title of "agile coach". Their bias is so incredible that they try to convince me of silver-bullet solutions that simply won't work in context. Here's my story:
I was once working with a company that had a HUGE quality issue: Their legacy product was a technical garbage heap: Developers literally had nightmares about the code base. Some threatened to quit were they forced to dig into that mess any deeper. Customers were rioting, Customer support was desparate. Customer problems (such as: lost orders, missing payments, wrong products shipped) never got fixed. I like to name things the way they are. When a customer spends money for A and then gets B, that's a DEFECT. A failure that the customer does not want. Period. So, I was fighting tooth and nails with management to limit WIP and value-prioritize defects so that we could actually drive down defect rates. The results were splendid: Customer Service actually started giving names to developers that were no longer synonymous with "monkey". Anyhow. Comes along this veteran "agile coach" who suggested "You shouldn't call them defects. Wherever I go, the first thing I do is to remove that label. This will cause an important mindset change!"
I spent over an hour mostly listening to why it's important for the team that the PO treats all the work equally. They didn't even account for the fact that "defect", in that case, was not merely a label but a metric to draw attention to the horrible technical mess, so that we could have sufficient power to weigh the need for a long-term technology change against the need for short-term business evolution (i.e. new features).
I did get their point, but I saw they didn't get mine. And they didn't care to.

Misunderstanding assumptions

As I stated elsewhere, people can and do make assumptions all the time. We navigate in what we perceive as "reality" by making and deriving assumptions. And some of them are inconsistent with each other or with evidence presented. As such, we should always be ready to anabdon our assumptions in favour of better ones. "Five Why" analysis can help us explore our assumptions. But some people just don't get it. Here's my story:
A team gathered for their retro. Within a few minutes, they simply decided "We need to write more unit tests". So, the team dug out their Five-Why tool: "Why?" - "Beacuse we have too many defects" - "Why?" - "Because we don't have enough unit tests." - "Why?" - "Because we didn't think they were that important." - "Why?" - "Because we didn't know." - "Why?" ... - "Dude, shut up your food hole!"
This team had already learned their lesson, but the coach made it look like there was more to it - down to the point where they really just got nauseating. "Five Why" is one of many ways to uncover false or misleading assumptions, but there's a point where it's fairly safe to simply let it go. A coach should not dig out all assumptions. They should be aware which assumptions are reasonable and which are unreasonable.

Wrong focus

Agile coaches might focus on the wrong things when they miss the big picture. Especially when their understanding is limited, they will quickly optimize in the wrong direction. Here's my story:
I was working with an organization where a certain middle manager always tried to impose their specific ideas (such as: separated test team, using HPQC rather than spock etc.) on teams. As i was doing my best to rally management support for the teams' ideas, I got into the line of fire from that manager. Basically, he was undermining the techical quality measures built by the teams with an email to ALL the PO's and coaches. So, I replied to ALL, because I wanted ALL to take a stand. What happened? This "agile coach" suggested introducing business email etiquette rules, because they felt bothered by a Reply-All on a matter they considered personal between me and the manager. So, we had etiquette rules enforced. Great! Problem solved! ... About half a year after I left, the manager won - now they have a Test Department reporting test results in HP-ALM. But hey, at least they have formal email etiquette rules!
It's actually quite funny how often agile coaches propose a solution without engaging in direct dialog with the concerned parties - and without trying to understand the problem they are solving. There was no mediation sesssion held to uncover why the conflict actually existed. The real problem never got solved. Neither any of the many coaches nor any PO bothered to understand the fundamental problem.


Am I perfect and pointing fingers elsewhere? No. I undoubtedly have some communication issues and maybe many of the situations I encountered would have turned out different if I had known how to better communicate. But I learn.
However, I would also expect "agile coaches" to bring honour to their profession.

When the solution isn't known, approximate. But be straight about it. Never claim to help others with things you don't understand: That's fraud.

Especially from a coach, I would expect the following: Be fast to learn, but slow to judge. Engage in dialog. Never decide before verifying your own assumptions. Be ready to discard your preformed assumptions. Don't draw biased conclusions. Let people know when you don't know.

It's called PDCA for a reason: Never act before checking. And, from a coach, I'd expect that to be a double check.

Don't play games: a coach is not a mad scientist!

Final disclaimer: I do not consider all agile coaches to be quacks. There are a few whom I highly respect.

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