Wed Nov 22 2023
This article explores the possible reasons behind the recent trend of companies reducing or eliminating their agile coaching staff including:
Improvement and Mastery: The article suggests that agile coaches should focus on continuous improvement and work towards mastery of their skills to provide tangible value.
It sounds like a strange question to ask – Should we fire all the Agile Coaches?
This year it has not seemed so strange a question. Capital One announced in January that they were cutting 1,100 agile positions. Recently Chicago parking startup SpotHero cut their agile coaching team. There have also been extensive cuts in technology teams that included agile roles at Roku, Spotify and Farmers Insurance.
I don’t think there is reason to panic or to think that Agile Coaching has run its course. Let’s look at some of the reasons why it may make sense for an organization to get rid of their agile coaches.
Disclaimer: Vitality Chicago Inc. provides agile coaching.
I think there are several factors at play here and I have engaged with some of the experts in the industry to weigh in with their thoughts.
It happens, sometimes companies need to cut costs and they do that by eliminating staff. Does that shrink their workforce? Not always. This tactic could also be used as an opportunity to remove those perceived as low performers.
Rarely are the positions in agile called out the way they have been this year. The explanation from Capital One when they cut 1,100 agile roles? We have embedded that knowledge into the teams.
The economic conditions that the firm is facing could be driving the cuts, as explained by fellow coach Jeff Singleton:
“When the economy gets tight, it’s not unusual to see the itchy trigger finger on the cost cutting mechanism. Again, a short term response to current stimuli versus taking the view of where to invest for long term outcomes. I don’t know the particulars and true drivers in the Capital One example but if indeed the knowledge (and hopefully the cultural behaviors) have been truly embedded and infused throughout the organization, then great – maybe this made sense. Hopefully they will periodically have an outside coach come in to observe, assess and make recommendations.”
There has also been a trend for the last 10 years or so to expand agile throughout the enterprise. People recognized that agile and Scrum worked well in application development and other technology teams and started to promote it everywhere.
So we have Agile HR, Agile Marketing, and Agile Finance. And I have seen some success in these areas though I also saw a sales team stumble when trying to use Scrum and 1 week sprints.
Coaching expert Chris Stone believes that the trend to apply an agile label to everything has resulted in a stigma about it:
“Agile isn’t the destination, it’s a way of helping you get there. I believe we’ll see more examples of companies being pragmatic about their approach to ways of working, leveraging approaches from beyond just the agile world and this may see more people being let go as a consequence. To this end, I’ve pivoted my own title to ‘The Continuous Improvement Coach’ because it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, continuous improvement will always be relevant.”
Coaching should never be permanent IMHO. I believe that Coaches, particularly external coaches, should be working themselves out of a job.
At Vitality Chicago we often place coaches temporarily with clients. The average tenure is 3-6 months. The longest one we have placed has been at the same client for nearly 2 years. But they have been scaling back and currently working part-time.
My colleague Keis Kostaqi points out that the departure of the coach can actually be viewed as a sign of success:
“In the world of Agile coaching, success often means working oneself out of a job. The true measure of an Agile coach’s effectiveness lies not in their permanence but in their ability to empower organizations to become self-sufficient in their Agile journey. To achieve this, Agile coaches should establish clear exit criteria, outlining specific milestones and objectives that, once met, signal the organization’s readiness to continue their Agile transformation independently. Agile coaching is about empowering organizations to thrive independently, making the coach’s departure a measure of their success rather than a cause for concern.”
Have you established exit criteria for Agile Coaching? What does success look like and when coaching should end? If coaching should be temporary, how will you know when you are done?
This is a serious consideration. The Agile Manifesto from 2001 doesn’t mention coaches at all. In fact, the preamble to the four Agile Values says “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” That implies that it is the individuals doing the work who are uncovering better ways. The Manifesto was about those individuals who were doing the work – the team members themselves – and the experiments they were running.
Even prior to the writing of the Agile Manifesto, coaches were used in Extreme Programming. I worked closely with one of these coaches and he is a hard-core programmer. He was equally comfortable leading an architectural walkthrough, doing a code review, pair programming with one of his developers, or teaching a class on agile ways of working.
The reality is, you don’t need a coach to be agile at the team level. You can just start. And that may lead to another reason that organizations get rid of coaches – they focus only on “doing agile”. And they don’t think about agility beyond the team level as my colleague Ramya Shastri points out:
“Some organizations feel that having their teams “do agile” is the final goal. This ignores the fact that “being agile” is the means to deliver value to the customer. With a limited mindset of “doing agile”, organizations expect their agile coach to set up a few agile processes and practices at the team level and drive the team to comply. Once this is done, boom!! The coach is fired!!”
Though certainly not required, coaches can help us improve better than we can on our own. This applies in technology, sure, as well as in pretty much every other area of your life. Consider running, for example, an area where almost no one would hire a coach.
I used to run marathons. Back when I had good knees. Like many marathoners, I aspired to qualify and run the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, I had to improve my time from 4 hours to just 3.5 hours in order to qualify for my age group.
So I hired a coach. I hired someone who had run many marathons before including the Boston Marathon.
It may surprise you to learn that during the 3 months I worked with the coach, he never saw me run. The entire focus of my coaching sessions was on improving my core strength. And a little bit of a focus on nutrition and race preparation.
After a disastrous attempt to qualify at the Las Vegas Marathon in December 2006, I was able to just barely hit the 3.5-hour time at the New Orleans Marathon in 2007. I would not have been able to do this without my coach who helped with core strength, nutrition, and confidence.
The point I am making is that an effective coach can help with something as straightforward as running. The coach I hired had “been there, done that” in terms of their own experience.
So yes, I think coaches can help you get better. Especially in something a lot more complex than running.
Others tend to agree. They point to the use of coaches in professional sports. You wouldn’t see the Chicago Bears showing up for a game without not just one, but several coaches. (Though I should point out that the Bears list 24 coaches on their team website and they just set a club record for losing 13 games in a row. So clearly they are not the best example to prove my point.)
Even great athletes like Lebron James and Lionel Messi continue to work with personal coaches at the height of their careers.
There I said it, and I feel better.
Many of the Agile Coaches operating today are barely passable Scrum Masters. Some have little experience and one or fewer training courses under their belt. The bar for calling yourself a coach is pretty damned low – I think it just requires an updated title on your LinkedIn profile and you start telling everyone that you are an agile coach.
Agile coaching expert Bob Galen thinks that the lack of standards on coaching has hurt the profession:
I think a fundamental contributor is that we (the agile community, consultants, coaches, etc.) have not explained what agile coaching is, what it is not, and what “good” looks like. Given this incredible ambiguity, our clients will be incredibly confused about the profession of agile coaching and the value proposition. So, when in doubt, leaders often assume the worst and remove questionable value returns in their organizations. Call them “Agile Coaches.”
Galen’s book is one of the few up-to-date texts on Agile Coaching. Of course, Rachel Davies wrote Agile Coaching in 2009 and Lyssa Adkins wrote Coaching Agile Teams in 2010. Though still valuable, those books are getting long in the tooth and don’t have the depth that Galen’s book has.
One thing I like about Galen’s Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching is that it sets a pretty high bar for calling yourself a coach. I consider myself a fair coach and when I read and reviewed Bob’s book, I found myself slightly embarrassed. I tumbled past stages 2 and 3 in the chart below and arrived at stage 4.
(Image from Tim Urban at Wait But Why)
An example from the Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching book is the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel. The Growth Wheel is a framework that outlines a set of eight competency areas for agile coaches. These include competencies you might expect like coaching, facilitating, and advising as well as some that may be less well understood like serving, transforming, and guided learning. The focus is on mastery.
Those who call themselves agile coaches should leverage Galen’s book and frameworks like the Growth Wheel to identify their strengths and weaknesses and plot a course toward mastery.
All coaching comes with an anticipated cost-benefit relationship. I would not have hired a running coach if I didn’t think there was a pretty good chance they could help me achieve my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. The cost of the coaching was worth it to achieve my goal.
And so it goes with organizations.
Development teams have a costly run rate. If they are not performing well, it may make sense to bring in someone who can help them improve. It is worth it as long as the perceived benefits in team performance exceed the cost of the coach.
Organizations today are closely evaluating that cost/benefit relationship. Pressed to keep up with the competition and produce more with less, many don’t believe that agile coaching provides a return commensurate with the cost.
I don’t think that all organizations make this choice wisely. One of our clients recently paused their coaching for a team because it had become too busy and overwhelmed. The team was so overloaded with high-priority work that the leaders felt they could not afford to spend any time with a coach.
Hmm, that sounds like exactly the type of team that needs to slow down and get some input.
Another client recently told me that their agile teams, which range in size from 15 to 35 people, have found that they don’t have time to hold retrospectives. Most team members are on multiple teams of that size and the retrospectives consume too much of the team members available hours.
Yep, I guess you don’t need any agile coaching.
There are many factors that go into the decision to fire agile coaches. I think in most cases it comes down to the value being delivered and the perceived return on investment.
If you are an agile coach, rather than worry about being fired, I recommend that you focus on improving and broadening your skills. Focus daily on delivering value to the organization. Work toward mastery.
Coaches should also have agreed on coaching goals and objectives. Establishing clear exit criteria may help the coach avoid a surprise announcement.
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