Reinventing agile coaching: The crisis in the industry

Coaching situation

Why agile coaches are being fired and how the landscape has changed

Agile coaching reinvented: Part 1

The noble origins of consulting

Once a system has been created, it wants to justify its existence.

I’m talking about the consulting industry: it started out as a good idea – providing knowledge from experts to companies – but quickly became an industry selling consulting products like McKinsey’s overhead value analysis, leading to large-scale destruction of corporate cultures.

The consulting industry had its golden age with business process reengineering, the attempt to standardize business processes – the ultimate “one-size-fits-all” PowerPoint reuse.

Today, there are a huge number of consulting companies, some of the big companies that want to generate stable revenues.

The beginnings of coaching: the agile rebels

Now let’s talk about agile coaching.

Agile coaching began as the antithesis of the consulting industry, with some new requirements:

  • We are the good guys, we want the best for everyone
  • We are changing the world of work and we have a revolutionary approach to the humanization of work.

But agile coaching has taken the consulting industry as its model and is now a consulting industry itself

  • with standardized products such as LeSS and SAFe
  • SAFe in particular has snowballed, following in the footsteps of business process reengineering, standardizing agility into a commodity and paying lip service to every related concept on the planet

The agile coaching industry has become a system that wants to justify its existence.

Agile coaching has a particular problem

The most remarkable result of agile and agile coaching was a large-scale restructuring of the industry using lean principles. The two most noticeable shortcomings are the overly process-oriented approach and its origin in the software industry.

The focus on processes limits the possible insights. Incidentally, this was the main reason why I started looking for more general concepts and ended up with organizational design in general and the Viable System Model in particular.

The origins in the software industry led to very specific ideas of operating models, which can be found in prominent frameworks such as LeSS and SAFe.

However, the agile industry has a specific problem: its claim – remember: we are the good guys. This leads to a very interesting dilemma: there is a growing disconnect between the pursuit of mindfulness and the pursuit of effectiveness, and as the agile coaching community as a whole has an incomplete understanding of the relationship of these two poles, the disconnect grows.

These developments are changing the landscape for both companies and consultants/coaches. Let’s start with a look at the coaches.

What happens with coaching?

First: a look at what has become of the aspirations

  • Agile companies are given fixed contracts, and they have to supply a large number of employees at all times. This changes the way they act
  • they also change the effect on their customers: from temporary scaffolding to a permanent crutch
  • Coaches become a counterproductive shadow structure in which they act like managers, but without the accountability of managers

We are currently seeing a growing irritation and even a certain amount of despair among both clients and coaches who are looking into the direction of agile coaching:

  • If the main result of the transformation is a lean organization, then this transformation is finite: what is left, and more precisely: what is left for agile coaches?
  • Is there really a fundamental change towards a new way of working? Are the changes we are seeing signs of lasting change or just a tactical move in times of labor shortages? Some say the latter.
  • In many cases, the system tries to make more effort instead of solving the actual problem. Job titles are renamed.

This sometimes leads to questionable or even unethical decisions in the way coaches work:

  • A misunderstanding of the factors that influence people’s behavior: trying to influence the mindset of the individual rather than talking about behavior, relationships and opportunities for action.
  • Focus on mindfulness rather than fair relationships and healthy conflict, rather than seeing conflict as a fact of life
  • All in all: interfering in people’s brains instead of changing the system. This is a sign of a sect, not of a modern organization in a democratic society.

The agile industry system has become a shadow structure that leads to a growing conflict between the benefit of customers and the pursuit of primarily personal goals. This results in the need for some changes both for the consultants/coaches and for the individuals and organizations being advised.

We are currently seeing a kind of standard reaction from organizations when they see problems: Fire scrum masters and coaches, then the problem is no longer visible. But what about the benefits?


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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.