Agile Coach – Agile Canary

In Victorian mines, the miners would have a Canary in a cage. If any lethal but odourless gases were present, the Canary would die and fall off its perch. On a transformation, your Agile Coach acts as the Canary.


When your organisation embarks on an Agile Transformation, you effectively create a new organisation with a new set of values within the existing one. Workers at the coal face have value in both organisations, however an Agile Coach only has value in the new organisation with it’s new set of values and associated skills and experience.

The surest sign of a healthy transformation is an Agile Coach who is a valued member of the team. Those embracing the new values will constantly reach out the Agile Coach for advice or more often a bit of encouragement before they try something new. The coach will help them understand how they can try the new thing in a safe to fail way, often pushing people to take on a little extra risk and stretch themselves. The value of the coach is their experience working in the new way that allows them to empathise with people trying new things. A coach with lots of qualifications but little or no experience is useful to no one other than the consultancies that sell them. In fact, good coaches tend to have very few formal Agile qualifications. A good Agile Coach will have an extensive knowledge of many agile practices and a solid network of other coaches that they can call upon when faced with something unfamiliar. This is a reason that home grow Agile Coaches need to be sent to conferences where they can build a network. The question should be “Who did you meet?” rather than “What did you learn?”.

I know a number of coaches that have been involved in “Transformation” projects where the environment has been toxic to Agile Coaches. The coaches are not valued as their experience and knowledge is not valued. Some transformations are outright hostile to Agile Coaches.

  • One coach was “uninvited” to meetings where they could add value, meaning they were invited but when they arrived, their entry to the meeting room was barred.
  • One coach was told to their face “We do not need any Agile Coaches here” when they turned up for a meeting.
  • One coach was replaced by a tame Agile Coach from the software consultancy, someone with lots of qualifications on their LinkedIn profile…
  • One coach was threatened with physical violence by a software vendor because they dared to call into question the capability of the vendor’s people, the ones with all the qualifications.

In all cases like this, the coach felt unvalued, preferring to be in an organsation that might value them rather than one that definitely did not.

As an executive responsible for an Agile Transformation, you should “Go to the Gemba” to see where the work is done. It might be a complete car crash but if the Canary is happily working with the team, then there is probably movement in the right direction. If everything is “perfect” but the Canary is disengaged, chances are you have problems with no movement or movement in the wrong direction.

The ultimate test of the effectiveness of a transformations effectiveness will be the metrics… business metrics, lead time and quality, however if you want an early indication about whether things are heading in the right direction, “Go to the gemba” and check on the Canary.


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

6 responses to “Agile Coach – Agile Canary

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