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How to Spot a Bad Agile Coach

How To Spot a Bad Agile Coach

Anthony Mersino

Wed Nov 22 2023

12:00 AM

I’ve written about agile coaching before including how to succeed as an agile coach, what makes an agile coach effective and the top 10 traits of an agile coach. This article is about bad agile coaching and being able to identify a bad agile coach.

The inspiration for this post was an agile podcast. On this particular podcast, there were two agile coaches talking about their expertise and how frustrated they were that some clients just didn’t listen to them. They spoke condescendingly about how much better off the client would be if they would just listen to the coach. They were bummed because the clients just didn’t get it.

The post really irritated me. Sure I’ve been frustrated when coaching clients and when clients ignored my advice. It is difficult to not feel discouraged when that happens. But there was something about the attitude of these coaches that I thought was representative of bad agile coaching.

Can’t You See That I am Only Trying to Help

What these coaches seemed to be saying was that they knew what was best for the client and there was one only thing standing in the way of the client’s success and that was the client. It was as if they were saying, “Can’t you see that I am only trying to help!?!”

There are some benefits to being an external change agent. You can suggest things that others have proposed and because of your “expert” status, you are taken more seriously. You don’t have to be around to sweep up later. You really don’t own anything.

There are some downsides as well. Many people will view you as temporary. Your power and influence and ability to affect change are limited based on the level of leadership you are working with. You are the most easily fired.

Organizational Change is Difficult

Simply put, the status quo is incredibly powerful. It is a boat anchor, slowing things down and resisting change.

Homeostasis is the term used to describe the maintenance of the status quo in biology and social sciences. It is the tendency for forces to balance out so that everything remains in a steady state condition.

Attempts at changing a system in equilibrium can be viewed as minor oscillations. Usually, when a change is attempted, the system will naturally over correct to bring itself back in balance.

Depending on the feedback loop, these over corrections can be separated by time (think about when you try to get just the right water temperature in the shower).

In terms of organizational change, attempts at change often result in overreactions in the opposite direction. So the same organization may be charging ahead with Agile and Scrum one year, and the very next they are firing their coaches, re-building their PMO, strengthening governance, and supporting PMP certification. Old-timers have seen this pattern enough that they know that they simply need to keep their head down and wait it out.

Given this context, is it possible for Agile Coaches to affect change?

Good Agile Coaching vs. Bad Agile Coaching

I think I can say that most if not all Agile Coaches are striving to do what is right and affect positive change. The challenge is, sometimes the way they go about it undermines their effectiveness and doesn’t achieve their goals. The end doesn’t justify the means.

Here are some specific examples of Bad Agile Coaching I have seen:

Bad Agile Coaches Drive Change and Push People

Driving and pushing is one style of leadership. Rarely does it work for any length of time. When you push, the system tends to push back. And when you the coach stops pushing, sometimes this change stops.

Bad Agile Coaches Are Highly Prescriptive

Some coaches truly believe they know what is best and have no reservations about prescribing those solutions. Rather than ask questions, they simply dictate what the methodology says or what they’ve seen work elsewhere.

A Bad Agile Coach Will Talk More than They Listen

Most coaches (me included) know a lot and are enthusiastic to share what we know. We are problem solvers and pride ourselves on being experts. The dark side of this is that we probably talk too much! And we probably offer unsolicited or un-needed advice!

And a related item, coaches who don’t build relationships before trying to influence or lead people.

A Bad Agile Coach Knows the “Right” Answer

I am amused by coaches or leaders who when working with self-directed work teams comment that the team ‘came up with the right answer on their own’. What they are saying is that the team came up with the answer that the coach or leader thought was the right answer.

In other words, even in a self-directed team, there is a tendency to think the coach or leader knows best and is able to judge the team based on his or her belief.

What is behind this behavior: A sense of knowing what is best. Of knowing more than others. Of being right, and others being wrong. That is what makes them a bad agile coach!

A Bad Agile Coach is Anxious and will Jump in to “Help” the Team

I have also seen coaches who are so anxious about the team succeeding (whatever they think that looks like) that they jump in to help, they meddle, and they interfere with team processing. This runs counter to the things that agile coaches can do to be effective.

How Bad Agile Coaches Can Improve:

  1. Stop assuming you know what is best. You don’t. No one does, it is a mystery. There are only experiments that can be run. Stop hoping the team will come up with the “right” answer. Stop offering unsolicited advice.
  2. Start building relationships. Get to know people; their hopes and fears. You cannot coach someone without a trust relationship.
  3. Align coaching to the maturity level of the team. Use Shu Ha Ri as a guide to whether you are training, coaching or advising.
  4. Master the art of asking powerful questions. Encourage those being coached to come up with the answers on their own.
  5. Hold everyone in positive regard. Rather than making assumptions about others based on their actions (or lack of actions), assume positive intent. Don’t attribute the behavior of others  to individual traits like laziness, or lack of motivation. And know that people behave the way they do because of the system. Don’t errantly assume that in the same situation, we would be more courageous, motivated, or that somehow we would behave differently

The AYSO Coaching Model

A coaching colleague of mine tells the story of when he coached youth soccer for his daughter’s team. The most difficult part of his coaching in this context was not the children, but the parents. Many of the parents got overly involved in winning and losing and often took the fun out of just playing the game.

The coaches would need to constantly remind the parents to stop yelling at their kids. They literally had to coach the parents to stop. They would tell them that instead of yelling at their kids, they should give them a thumbs up and say something like “You Are Doing Great!”.

Is there something those of us who are coaching can learn from this?

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