Try the Veal, and Other Agile Coaching Tips

Anthony Mersino
March 29, 2017

Imagine that you have a favorite restaurant and that you go there all the time. The restaurant's specialty is the veal chop. You love the restaurant and the veal and you recommend it to everyone.  You have a good friend who visits your restaurant based on your recommendation. But rather than getting the veal, she orders the spaghetti and meatballs. Her husband orders the vegan burger, which BTW is terrible. They wind up very dissatisfied with the restaurant. 

So it goes sometimes with Agile coaching. There are many patterns for success and failure with Agile. Quite frequently, the best pattern for success is the exact opposite of what the client has been doing or has used to be successful with more traditional development approaches. The client's experience and intuition would actually be a poor guide to what would be best when trying to adopt Agile methods.

One reason that experience and intuition are poor guides is because they are usually wrong when it comes to predicting the future. When we are dealing with large organizations, we are dealing with systems. We rarely perceive systems behavior accurately, and systems frequently behave in ways that are counter to what we believe.

Peter Senge introduced the 11 laws of Systems Thinking in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline. Here are a few examples of Senge's 11 laws that apply when introducing Agile (or any change) into organizations:

  • Behavior grows better before it grows worse. - When we first introduce change, things will seem to get worse. Skeptics will point at this to confirm their opposition to the change. And it will lead people to pine for the way things use to be and to lose their determination to push through the change. Few leaders today can ignore the pressure for short term results and gut it out for changes that take more than a month or two. See my previous article, We are Using Agile - Why are Things Getting Worse.
  • Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."- An example of this is organizations that have a heavy PMO culture and onerous compliance documentation. This current "problem" was probably introduced as a "solution" to a past project failure.
  • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. - Changing an organization is not easy or simple. Like stretching a rubber band, often your change efforts will simply result in the rubber band snapping back into place as soon as you let go.
  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. - What this means is that there is separation between actions and the results of those actions that makes it difficult to judge whether the actions are you took were successful. It also leads to attribution error where we connect the results to the wrong actions or causes.

The purpose of bringing in an outside coach is to help with seeing the whole system, to support change, and to introduce known patterns for successful adoption. Good Agile coaches will teach systems thinking and help the organization to see the system at work. They will teach Agile Values and Principles. They will make recommendations based on known Agile success patterns. Some coaching recommendations will run counter to what people believe, or will be a change that pushes people outside their comfort zone. When this occurs, it is easy for people to resist the coaching and fall back on their own intuition or experience. Change is difficult.

Experience and the ability to lead change is the reason most clients hire Agile Coaches. You need help to get you there and a good coach will teach you how to run small experiments and learn from them. They will also support systems thinking and introduce tools that will help you to optimize the whole. Good coaching should lead to experimentation and thinking patterns that empower you and your team to continually improve on your own. 

I don't think coaching should be followed blindly. You are not a mind controlled zombie who cannot think for yourself and needs constant input from a coach to know what to do. Rather, you will benefit from learning and internalizing systems thinking, the Agile Values and Principles, and other tools and applying them in your decision-making. 

If 'trying the veal' represents doing something different or running an experiment, then by all means try the veal. If you aren't interested in moving outside your comfort zone, well then I recommend that you save your coaching dollars. And order the vegan burger. 

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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