How do you Coach in An Organization that Doesn’t Want Change?

Anthony Mersino
January 27, 2017

Are you coaching uphill?

January 1 is a time that many people make resolutions about the new year. Lose weight. Work out more often. Eat more kale. Read more books. Be nicer to people. Don't kick the dog as much. And those are just a few of the things I had on my list.

Statistics show that nearly half of us abandon our resolutions within the first month of the year. Life and the inertia of old habits get in the way. So within a few days, weeks or months, most people will have abandoned their resolutions. 

And so it goes with Agile. Many Leaders proclaim in January that they want to move to Agile and that by year-end, "X% of our projects will use Agile". Yay! They get excited, send out edicts and they hire trainers, Scrum Masters and coaches like you and me. And then within a month or two, they lose interest or hit a crisis. Or they begin to understand just how much work it really is to change. They begin to understand that they need to do quite a few crunches to get those six pack abs. 

And then leaders quietly shift focus to something else. Maybe they only wanted Agile because it sounded good or because all the other cool kids were doing it. Maybe they thought it was a way to get things done faster (see below). Whatever the reason, they begin to act like they never wanted Agile and they treat their coaches and Scrum Masters like red-headed stepchildren. 

But you didn't lose focus. You were hired to implement Scrum and "Change the way things work around here". Unfortunately, you now find yourself without leadership support in an organization that isn't very receptive to your ideas and is fighting against you like the human body fights some sort of infectious disease. That’s not a great place to be.

We all know how hard change can be. As a coach, you didn't expect things to be easy. But what do you do if you begin to feel that change is impossible, and everyone in the organization is working against you? What if it looks like things are actually getting worse instead of improving?

 In a client where I worked recently, "Coach Bob" was hired as a Scrum Master for two teams. The thing was, his organization didn't understand or want to use Scrum. So Coach Bob was relegated to hosting the daily standup (er daily status meeting). The organization was using 4-week development "sprints" followed by 4-week testing "sprints". Coach Bob's 20 person "Scrum" teams were silo'd by skill set and handed off work to other teams to get to done. Development and test was followed by an 8 week integration and regression test before production deployment. The teams were not empowered. Coach Bob was ignored, powerless, and rendered ineffective. It was a tough situation and I wasn't surprised when Coach Bob left. 

A.I.N.O. (Agile in Name Only) and fake Scrum live on in many organizations, not only because of short-lived leadership goals but also because the desire to claim to be something is more important than actually being that thing. Who doesn't like the sound of being Agile? In Coach Bob's case, the leadership team was inspired initially but over time, they were pulled in other directions. The middle managers weren't all that interested in change and they were very reluctant to empower and trust team members or to change the existing culture. Without continued strong leadership from the top, agile initiatives will fail.

I don't think Coach Bob's experience was isolated since I have seen it multiple times. What should you do if you find yourself hired to Coach in an organization that is not receptive, willing or able to change?

  • Acknowledge it is tough -  It's a tough situation when you are hired to do a job that no one wants you to do. Whew, there I said it. 
  • Be Willing to Have Some Difficult Conversations - You probably need to have some tough conversations with people and challenge them. Don't say "why are you wasting your money on my coaching" but something like "I can help the teams and help the organization if you will let me." Cast and recast vision.
  • Find an Agile Champion - Perhaps there is someone who really gets it and is willing to back you up. Look around and talk to a lot of people.
  • Create some Small Successes - Nothing succeeds like success. Go underground if you need to with your team. Run some experiments. If your team is thriving with guerrilla Agile, that will make everyone look good. 
  • Leave - As a coach, if the organization is not using your talents you have no reason to stay. In fact, it is better to leave than to be associated with a fake Scrum or A.I.N.O. initiative. You'll sleep better at night, and you will love yourself a lot more. 

True change is difficult. If you find yourself coaching uphill, do what you can to make a change. If you can't, leave gracefully with a smile on your face.

Cheers!

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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