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Do Organizations Fully Leverage Agile Coaches?

11 June 2014

You may be in a large organization that wants to start an Agile transformation across the entire organization. You are unsure on how to start and execute your plan for enterprise Agile adoption.

The solution is very simple: Hire an in-house Agile coach to do the magic. . . .

According to Gabrielle Benefield, who wrote on Yahoo's Agile transformation:
Agile coaches can be very expensive, but we observed that you get what you pay for; as a result, our preference was to sacrifice quantity for quality, even if that means having fewer coaches overall. . . . Based on compelling data, one Agile coach saved the company around 1.5 million dollars per year.

While Agile coaches come on board with significant experience and a broad knowledge base, there are organizations out there that are bad at leveraging Agile coach capabilities. Based on my experience, here are few areas where in-house Agile coaches are grossly misused in various organizations:
  • The organization force-fits Agile coaches into a strict command-and-control hierarchy, just like every other employee in the organization.
  • The organization keeps the coaches' hands tied and busy with too much process overhead.
  • The organization's top management offers limited or no support to Agile coaches, with complete bureaucracy built in.
  • Senior management adopts a "My way or the highway" approach on everything related to Agile.
  • Someone with a non-Agile mind-set and behavior patterns drives Agile initiatives throughout the organization.
  • The organization dictates that coaches prepare detailed Agile process documents.
  • Senior leadership forces Agile coaches to align to non-Agile organization initiatives.
  • Top management does not keep full faith and trust in the capabilities of Agile coaches.
  • Senior leadership is not fully aware of the roles and responsibilities of Agile coaches.
  • The organization asks Agile coaches to generate complex metrics that confuse everybody in the organization.
  • The organization uses Agile coaches only to give various trainings to fulfill audit compliance needs.
  • The organization humiliates Agile coaches when they suggest improvements for the good of the team/organization.
  • Senior management tries to undo agility by forcing teams to adapt to a "Deliver at any cost" mind-set, rather than investing time in building good teams and promoting self-organization.
  • Middle and senior management are resistant to change, retaliating against coaches and creating polarization.
  • Agile coaches receive a mandate to own organizational impediments and resolve them.
An enterprise Agile transformation may be too difficult for many organizations. However, an Agile coach is someone who tries to steer a giant ship with a small paddle. It is important that organizations realize and understand that Agile coaches often wear various hats to help the organization to create sustainable agility, thus increasing the competitive business advantage.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.1 (9 ratings)


Zach Bonaker, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/11/2014 10:35:27 AM
I'm not so sure that simply hiring a coach will make "magic" happen.

Agile transformation can be a massive undertaking. My favorite quote on this subject is, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."
Gene Gendel, CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/11/2014 10:45:54 AM
When I read you post, first, I thought that my a year and a half white paper, that I hope will soon be published on Scrum Alliance site, somehow found its way to you :)… I know it did not as I barely socialized it with anyone, so this means that your personal observations are almost identical to mine…. This makes me wonder (NOT!) as to ‘why’ given our recent mutual involvement with “beta….”… we already think alike ;)
In my back-dated paper I also explicitly talked about the same topic: issues that organizations face, while using agile experts.
Specifically, I was trying to shine light on two known problems:
• Problem of heavily relying on external agile expertise (agile coaching vendors, agile transformation firms). Just to give an idea about what I was describing in my paper: value added vs. associated transactions costs, perpetual dependency, excessive business development
• Problem of heavily relying on in-house coaches. And here…I am not going to recap my old bullets because you have done it just perfectly. At least, a half of them are spot-on, in my book of records.
So, once again, your observation is very accurate and brings to light some important things that organizations need to be aware of: how to strike a healthy balance between remaining economically smart and not spending gazillions of dollars on external coaching help (while gradually cultivating agility from within) that does not always translate into value (one side) and not becoming completely ignorant to holistic views and multi-company wide experience that good external consultants can bring to the table. What we - “free space coaches” consider as effective and coaching and what some companies expect from their in-house coaches is not always the same. What can we do to make this delta smaller? :)
Great post. No hard feelings for beating me to the punch with the topic:)!
Jayaprakash Prabhakar, CSM,CSPO, 6/12/2014 12:38:16 AM
I agree that Coaches are misused. This is one side of the story.
I am also an Agile coach. So, let me play a "Devil's Advocate" role here and bring another aspect to it.

From my experience, I see that agile coaches play a typical process coach role, stay away from few areas:
1. Quality improvement in true sense
2. Increasing technical practices
3. Bringing self-organized / cross-skilled team

Majority of the coaches focus on exact agile/scrum process implementation. While I agree that it does show some improvement, it is also agile coach's role to improve on the above areas that I mentioned.

Let me give you few examples.

1. We, as agile coach, are enabling the team to follow DOD, how much of focus is given on the outcome of the DOD items? Did the defect rate reduce / Code coverage increase / defects found early in cycle etc... because of DOD? If not, we are not doing our job.
2. Are we responsible for the failure of the project after they move to Agile? If not, we play 'Outsider' role and don't connect with the team well. I feel, as an agile coach, like anyone else in team, I have a big stake in releasing world class quality product. I somehow feel this is missing. Coaches should not exit the team till the product is stable and is of much better quality.
3. Technical practices are not the focus on majority of the team. We train them on process and move them to 2-week / 3-week sprints. We should have ownership on driving technical practices - like continuous integration, good design / dev practices, automation etc. Without these, the team will not improve. What I mean by "ownership" is having this as part of agile transformation goal. Training and coaching the teams on scrum process alone will not be enough.

This is my little experience, feel free to debate !:-).
Sekhar Burra, CEC, CST, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 6/12/2014 2:35:30 AM
Gene! Glad that we think alike and I agree that there should be balance somewhere. While external consulting companies drain the financial resources, and in-house coaches are not given a free hand to operate.
Sekhar Burra, CEC, CST, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 6/12/2014 2:39:51 AM
Jayaprakash, One point I think worth mentioning, many organizations fail to set the right expectations from a coach.If you hire a coach to implement XP practices, let him do that, do not pull him in multiple directions. So Agile is knowledge areas are very vast and being specific to coach on which area he can contribute works best in this situation. While your examples are valid, I still point back to management for not setting the right expectations before hiring in-house coaches.
Gene Gendel, CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/19/2014 6:49:00 AM
I agree with Sekhar, that "SLA of Agile Coach" is something that needs to be discussed upfront: rules of engagement/disengagement, success/failure indicators, finally 'timeboxing' an engagement and then do an assessment/retrospective.

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