Why I find Agile Coaching so hard

During my LAScot keynote last year I explained that when we are immersed into a new culture we can see all of these things that are alien to us.


As we adopt the values of the culture around us, we no longer see the things that are alien to us. Adopting the values of the culture around us is important. It makes us one of the “us” tribe, rather than “other”. It means we feel comfortable and we can drawn emotional strength from being a member of the tribe. We feel safe.


When I was a practitioner, before Agile was considered “best practice”, I was part of the team. I was part of the tribe. We worked together to deliver using Agile. Everyone went through their own learning journey and understood the value of Agile to them personally. They were there because they chose to be. We were content to be allowed to work the way we wanted and did not care how others worked. Now Agile, or the Agile Industrial Complex as Dan Mezick refers to it, is imposed on Organisations as “Best Practice”. As a coach, I participate in this imposition of Agile on the Culture of Organisations. As a coach I try to help individuals understand the value of agile so that they can “opt in” to their own personal journey. The companies I work with do not force Agile on the teams as the teams self select into Agile. However we are introducing a new culture with a new set of values. A new culture that the existing culture supports in some ways but opposes in more significant ways.

As a coach it is important to live the values of Agile, such as self organising teams, which sets you apart from the existing culture. In fact, as a coach you lose your ability to see problems if you become part of the existing culture. You are no longer appalled that management imposes organisation or targets on the team. You are no longer appalled when management start estimating points for the team so that the team can hit deadlines that have been imposed. Management do this for expediency because doing it the Agile way is too hard and takes too long. Doing it the Agile way means winning hearts and minds. Doing it the Agile way takes too long for senior management who want results for their impatient executives. The forces and motivations are easy to understand, but real change is hard and takes time.

This inability to assimilate into the existing culture is hard, especially on long term enterprise wide transformations. It is this needing to hold firm to Agile values that is exhausting. It is made harder because as a coach you need to maintain empathy for those who have not yet started their learning journey, to maintain empathy for those who oppose you.

I find it is only possible if you have a support network of like minded people to understand and empathise with you. And that is why I’m so grateful to Tony, Marc, Kate, Jitesh and the crew for reminding me I’m not crazy. That there is another way.

Fundamentally it about understanding that an Agile Transformation is about changing Culture, which in turn is about helping people adopt a new set of value. The Agile Industrial Complex picks and chooses the Agile Practices it sees as important. It imposes those practices rather than promote the principles and value of Agile.

So as I start my two week of rest, I would like to thank all of you whose support makes the Agile Coach role bearable. Who provide the creative ideas and emotional support that make it possible. Thank you all and merry non denominational pagan based festival of peace to all.

NB. This is a personal experience. I make no claims that anyone else feels the same.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

2 responses to “Why I find Agile Coaching so hard

  • danielmezick

    Chris you focus on the ambient, unspoken norms and assumptions of the group- the culture. In THE AGILE INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX essay (seen at http://www.newtechusa.net/aic) I offer to assertions regarding the now-ambient, unspoken norms and assumptions (the culture) of the Agile industry. Here are the assertions about the actual here-and-now culture of the Agile industry as a whole:

    Assertion #1

    A nearly 100% tolerance of the coercive imposing of Agile practices on teams is a cultural norm of the Agile industry.

    Assertion #2

    Agile leaders have almost nothing to say about the dangers of this widespread tolerance of imposition. Specifically, they almost never issue protective warnings or protests from the Agile conference podium as leaders of keynotes, sessions, and workshops.

    Participants in the conversation are invited to refute these assertions by “falsifying” them. To falsify an assertion, simply produce evidence that is contrary to it, and thereby prove it false.

    My basic hypothesis is that producing contrary evidence to the assertions above is currently rather difficult indeed.

    The essay THE AGILE INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX essay (seen at http://www.newtechusa.net/aic) has a list of all the Agile leaders who have every issued a protective warning and/or a protest of The Agile Imposition in the PUBLIC square- in blog posts, essays, and especially conference sessions and conference keynotes. Etc.

    The THE AGILE INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX essay is very specific and defines an Agile leader, for purposes of discussion, as :

    “Those who are invited to speak at Agile conference keynotes, sessions and workshops, those who author books on Agile, those who arrange conferences and invite keynote and session speakers, those who lead “Agile enablement firms”, and those who are generally more prominent than the average member in the Agile community. Mostly, Agile leaders are the more prominent individuals at Agile conferences, showing up as leaders of keynotes, sessions and workshops.”

  • theitriskmanager

    Hi Dan

    You raise some really interesting points about choice (options) versus imposition (commitments). I agree that the Agile Community is too silent on this key point. However I have empathy for the situation many of my fellow coaches find themselves in. Their clients have a need that they want satisfied. Quite often its the wrong need, and they ask for the wrong solution. We normally have to build credibility with the client before they will listen to us about making the really big changes. This is often what causes the stress for the coach. The coach normally has the bigger picture in mind and hopes to eventually make life better for all in the long run. The equivalent of technical debt, perhaps cultural debt. And cultural debt just like technical debt is easy to accrue, and required focus and discipline to remove.

    The real problem I see is that there are a lot of people and organisations selling their clients Agile when they have no idea what Agile is. As an organisation, you are more likely to have Agile imposed on you by one of the established waterfall providers than you are by an established and respected Agile consultancy.

    I agree we need to hear more about this from the Agile “Leaders”. However remember that the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance were set up as trade organisations to promote Agile and Scrum… at all costs with no regard for the protection of the brand. And they have been very successful… apart from the fact that the Agile and Scrum they managed to sell is not those that early practitioners adopted. I agree that we need to hear more from the Agile leadership about the crisis we are in. The problem is that the Agile Leadership are doing very nicely thank you. They see no crisis… only better business.

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