Is Agile Coaching Dead?

There are often blog posts claiming “Agile is dead” (and I consistently disagree with them) but I’m beginning to wonder if agile coaching is dead. What leads me to think this? The dearth of job postings for real coaching roles. (I’m counting Senior Scrum Master roles as well because the “Senior” prefix usually means the role spans multiple teams, often across departments and upwards into senior management / executives.)

“Real” Coaching Roles?

Let me start by clarifying what I mean by “real coaching roles”. There are many job postings that initially claim to be for an agile coach but then describe project management and/or SAFe activities; often the only hint of coaching is in the title itself. I don’t know why these job descriptions are so confused, but it doesn’t help those of us actually looking for an agile coaching role or those looking for a project management gig. Does it demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what a coach does, or maybe an organisation’s attempt to save money by merging roles? Perhaps the JD was clearly written by the hiring manager but modified by HR? Ultimately it means many qualified candidates won’t apply or make it through the initial review, which could be the reason why I see the same job being posted month after month after month.

If your organisation really is looking for an agile coach, then my recommendation is to review your job postings, ask HR to send you the resumes they’ve rejected (I’ve seen some great candidates rejected because their resume didn’t contain the expected buzzwords), and talk to your local Agile community groups. I also suggest talking with ScrumMatch because they are reviewing Scrum Masters (and coaches) – although they’re not quite ready to host company profiles, they can point you at people in your area who have been assessed.

Do We Really Need Coaches?

I think this is a two-part question for each organisation: do we want/need to change, and if so who will help that happen? The first part might sound a bit flippant – surely all technological companies know they need to keep up with (or even invent) new technologies, and other aspects of business evolve, so isn’t that obviously a yes? Well, no – in my experience, many managers seem to be incentivized to main the status quo or at the very least they are constrained by the systems around them. I would argue that if this is the case, then you are even more in need of help, but getting it may be too challenging at this time.

When the first answer is yes, I have seen companies simply add “change agent” to the managers’ job description and expect already overloaded managers to take on the responsibility for coaching teams. While it is true that good managers coach their direct reports, expanding their role to include team coaching, coaching across the org and upwards, it’s usually too much to ask… and when their primary focus is on delivering product features, it’s no surprise this additional expectation is often neglected.

Just Adopt A Framework

Why don’t we just follow what everyone else is doing and apply an existing framework? All the “big players” are doing SAFe, so we should just paint that over our organisation and we’ll be agile in no time! (I’m going to put aside the fact that SAFe isn’t Agile, because the creators of Agile have covered this quite extensively.) Trying to adopt what another company is doing starts with some flawed assumptions, including that the other company has clearly described their practices, that the other company had the same environment and challenges as yours, and that following what they are doing will get you the results you want. If you look at what two departments or even two teams are doing, you should see that they have subtle differences because they have different people, different challenges, and different goals; if two small groups aren’t identical, how can you expect two companies to be?

One other thing to bear in mind is that a “transformation” isn’t a fixed finish line in the same way the “being an Agile company” isn’t a binary state – there are so many flavours and aspects of agility that there is no one unified definition of what that goal looks like for each organisation, or even each part of an org. And of course “being Agile” should not be the goal anyway – Agile is a toolbox that can be used to solve many problems, so start by understanding your company’s real goal(s) – it might be that Agile isn’t even the right approach for you.

So What Do You Suggest?

Do what high-performing athletes do. Do what top-level musicians and presenters do. Bring in someone who has experience, someone who has seen various problems & challenges, and who can pull from multiple potential approaches to customize one for your unique situation. Don’t expect a “playbook” that says they will apply the same approach for you as they did elsewhere – you deserve better than that! And if someone promises you that their approach will magically save you time and money… well, if something sounds too good to be true… 🙂

So no, I don’t believe Agile Coaching is dead. I believe there are organisations that value change, growth and improvement, and understand that a coach can help them move in that direction. If you’re at such a company and based in Toronto, then please consider checking out my LinkedIn profile and contact me to chat!

Two Kinds of People… Heather Hollick