Back to the roots: 5 action points to reinvent agile coaching

tranquil footpath in the forest

We are now at a different point with agile coaching than when we started about 20 years ago. Back then, I was a freelancer and newly qualified Scrum Master and was still mourning the lost light-heartedness that comes with simply developing software and not having to worry about much else.

I had looked into development methodologies and processes from time to time, but nothing had really worked for me – until I came across Extreme Programming and, a little later, Scrum.

For me, dealing with processes and teams, then with the organizations behind and around them, was paired with a bit of a spirit of rebellion: this can’t be right – and I sensed this spirit in many like-minded people.

That has gradually changed and the situation is absolutely no longer comparable. This gives rise to the question of what the common goal was and how this translates into today’s situation.

I can identify two currents and one problem:

The two currents are

  • Making product development more effective and efficient. This is a huge generalization based on software development and is further complicated by the fact that it is an issue in a sector ranging from start-ups to large corporations.
  • Changing work and making it more compatible with human beings. This started with the idea of a self-organized team in Scrum, which was developed from the semi-autonomous groups in Lean. Over time, the aspects of team spirit, leadership and many others were added. One specifically problematic trend is the absolutization of the discourse around mindfulness and mindset, which in some cases leads deep into the depths of psychologization.

The problem lies in the role ascribed to coaching and the scope of coaching: it is too broad, the term is hopelessly overstretched.

As you can see, there is more than one reason why the profession is looking for a new foundation and why its clients are confused or doubt its effectiveness. If Agile is at least mainstream or even commoditized, you can’t be effective with the same approach that helped Agile take off 20 years ago. I propose here a five-point plan to give Agile Coaching a new solid position.

All of these points revolve around the questions

  • Where is the customer benefit?
  • what are the right tasks for the coaches?
  • Is the quality of the work appropriate?

1. A coach’s value proposition is the basis for their role

The benefits that clients derive from the work of coaches is the defining guideline, the North Star – as for any other business. This gives rise to a few questions for coaches and companies alike

  • Coaches: How do you avoid becoming part of the system and tending to form a shadow structure? In Part 1, I showed the tendency of the consulting industry to do this. Instead, empower the people and the structures. Answer the question: how can we measure the medium and long-term benefits of my contribution
  • Company: Is the coaching engagement worth the money, is there progress? This question is an important catalyst in various dimensions: for the joint development of the answer with the coach, short and long-term effects not only on financial results, but also sustainability and viability of the organization
  • the coaching system, i.e. everyone: why are there so many mediocre coaches? I do not believe that this is only due to inadequate training. It is also due to unclear or exaggerated expectations. This leads to unclear job descriptions and therefore rather random effectiveness.

2. Coaches, only do things you are qualified to do

You don’t become some kind of coach/therapist or organizational designer or both in a five-day course – some people invest years in learning one of these disciplines. Be more careful with your claims.

To make the field clearer, I now separate different types of coaching activities for myself, which have very different characteristics – mind you, these are categories of activities. A specific coaching assignment can cover several areas, but the categories help to make the direction clear:

  • Domain specific consulting, for example: what are best practices for ABS systems
  • Process consulting, e.g. value stream mapping or the introduction of Scrum
  • Personal consulting. This includes classic coaching (which has therapeutic roots), conflict counseling, etc.

To this end, I am abandoning the distinction between the job titles of consultant and coach. The toolboxes and working methods become more and more blurred for me the more I get involved.

With such a distinction, as a coach I can make my value proposition clearer and as a company I can look for the specific competencies.

3. Search for a solid body of knowledge

To put it provocatively and bluntly: if the 26-page Scrum guide is the body of knowledge, we are all doomed. And if we rely on SAFe to provide us with more than a glossary and a starter kit, we are stuck at a beginner’s level and are more confused than before as to which tool from the large catalog fits…

The hammer and saw don’t build a table, it’s the joiner.

Or however I gender it.

There are excellent candidates out there beyond agile – old and new – that can help develop a broader picture than just the agile methods. Here are just a few:

  • Lean and a wealth of experience in all types of use cases and industries
  • a variety of organizational design concepts and systems theories, from the Viable System Model to Human Systems Dynamic.
  • Complexity theory and its own contribution to understanding causality and intervention options

This is not a catalog – that would be a somewhat absurd claim in the context of an article. It is an invitation to look for one’s own profile and not to stop there.

4. Companies, re-connect decision-making competence with accountability

Competence, accountability and trust-building cannot be delegated to a shadow structure. Don’t let managers off the hook.

Coaching is just a tiny tip of the iceberg here. There has been a tendency to outsource work in many companies for years. In a complex world, however, it is an illusion to think that you can still retain control.

A manager once described it to me as organizational dementia that his company had an outsourcing rate of 80 percent and even used subcontractors to evaluate tenders.

It all starts with managers’ reluctance to get directly involved in the work and get their fingers dirty.

Dear managers, that’s your job!

5. Treating people with respect and dignity is universal

Finally, one more controversial point. For me, the self-image of some coaches is pure hubris: they claim a moral mission in addition to the process or helper quality and justify this with their agile roots. To put it mildly, I see no reason for this link.

The principle of treating people with respect and dignity goes beyond methods, frameworks and titles. It is a universal value that must be embedded in the structure of every organization and not a bullet point on the skill list of agile coaches.

The role of an agile coach is not specifically to outsource humanity. Creating an environment in which respect, dignity and genuine collaboration thrive is integral to organizations, and thus at the core of the responsibilities of leaders.

On Key

The VSM Quick Guide: the model

The introduction to the series on Jon Walker’s VSM quick guide. It describes the simplified VSM vocabulary as used in the rest of the steps.