You Get What you Ask For: Agile Coaches-“Centaurs”


Why are there so many troubled agile “transformations”?  We frequently hear the following answer: “because companies lack senior leadership support”.  True.  And let’s not trivialize this: without strong and genuine support by senior leadership (beyond slogans and “support in spirit”), without selecting a deep, systemic approach to problem resolution, companies can only expect localized, peripheral and, most likely, short-term improvements.

But is there anything/anyone else that can be conveniently held accountable for failed agile transformations?

How about ineffective agile training and coaching?  [Note: If you are interested in learning more about some of the most common challenges with agile training, please visit this page.  This post is about coaching .]

…There is a vicious cycle that hurts so many companies (can be also considered as a self-inflicted wound):

initially, companies set a low bar for coaches, based on poor understanding of a coaching role  low quality coaches (quasi-coaches-“centaurs”) are hired, most of whom are not even coaches, but rather people that have mastered agile jargon and know how to impress HR and uninformed hiring managers  weak coaches (most of whom have minds of conformists, not challengers) cannot effectively guide companies to fix systemic weaknesses and dysfunctions  teams and departments  don’t really improve; rather create a superficial appearance/illusion of progress (often, to impress senior management)  companies lose faith and stop seeing value in coaching → companies start trivializing a coaching role  companies decide not to spend more money on high quality coaching cheaper, even less effective, coaches are hired (or internal, misplaced people are refurbished into coaches, overnight, as per Larman’s Law # 4) initially, low-set coaching bar, is lowered even further…and so on….

Graphically, it looks something like this:

As a result, what was initially meant as a strategic organization- improvement effort, now takes on a form of just another system-gaming change management fad that ultimately leads to a failure and responsibility/blame-shifting.

What are some of the reasons why the above happens?  Here are some suggested reasons:

  • Companies don’t understand the essence of agile coaching role: it is viewed as another “turn-on switch” management function
  • Leadership does not feel a sense of urgency (p. 14) to make changes and exempts itself from being coached: people are too busy and too senior to be coached; they find coaching trivial
  • Certain organizational pockets are genuinely resistant to/feared of changes that can be brought about by real coaches (as per Larman’s Laws 1 – 3)
  • Market over-saturation with unskilled recruiters that hunt for low-quality coaches and contribute to the above cycle: this further lowers a company’s chances to find a good coach
  • This list can be extended….

Who is responsible for initiating this vicious cyclic dysfunction?  Does it really matter if we identify guilty ones?  Maybe it does, but only, as a lessons-learning exercise.  What probably matters more is how to break out of this cycle.  Where to start: discontinue low-quality supply (coaches) or raise a bar on demand (by companies)?  Usually, demand drives supply and if so, for as long as companies remain complacent and reliant on outlived staffing/head-hunting approaches, cold-calling techniques, and ineffective HR-screening processes, performed by people that poorly understand the essence of an agile coaching profession, while trying to procure cheap “agile” resources or treat seasoned professional coaches, as “requisitions to be filled”,  a coaching bar will remain low, and companies will be getting EXACTLY  what they have paid for: coaches-centaurs.

Big question

What should companies be looking for when hiring a coach?”

An organization should be looking much father and beyond of what is typically presented in a resume or a public profile of a candidate: usually, a chronological list of an employment history or a long list of google-able terms & definitions,  popular jargon or claims of experience in resolving deep, systemic organizational challenges with Jira configurations 😊.  Much more attention should be paid to the following important quantitative characteristics of a coach:

Coaching Focus: What is an approach and/or philosophy to coaching does a coach have?  This will help a company understand an individual mindset of a coach.

Coaching Education AND Mentorship: What active journey through education, mentorship and collaborative learning in coaching and related activities over significant period has a coach taken?

Formal Coaching Education: What has contributed significantly to a person’s coaching journey, including courses on topics of facilitation, leadership, consulting, coaching, process, and other related activities which have influenced a person’s coaching practice? Such education may not have to be degree-related (training and/or certification from any recognized institution could be sufficient).

Coaching Mentorship & Collaboration: How a coach developed a skill/technique or received guidance to a coaching approach and mindset?  Respect and recognition of mentors – matters here.

Informal Coaching Learning: What important topics outside of Agile/Scrum literature have impacted a person’s coaching philosophy?  This increases chances that a coach is well-rounded, beyond standardized book learning.

Agile Community Engagement & Leadership:  Does a coach engage in agile user groups, gatherings, retreats, camps, conferences, as well as writing, publishing, reviewing, presenting, facilitating, training, mentoring, organizing, and leading agile events?  An active participation and leadership in the agile community is a good demonstration that a coach has not developed herself within a unique organizational silo, by self-proclaiming and self-promoting, but rather has diverse and ‘tested’  industry experience.

Agile Community Collaborative Mentoring & Advisory: Does a coach mentor or advise other individuals (not for pay) on how to increase their competency or development?  Is a relationship on-going, purposeful and bi-directionally educational?

Coaching Tools, Techniques and Frameworks: Does a coach develop awareness and understanding of tools, techniques and frameworks while engaging with organizations?  Has she customized or developed anything that was client/engagement-specific?

In addition to quantitative characteristics , here are qualitative characteristics of a good coach:

Coaching Mindset
  • How does a coach react when an outcome of coaching was different from what she had desired? In the past, how did a coach address this situation?
  • How, based on clients’ needs, a coaching mindset had to change? In the past, what compromises did a coach make? What was learned?
  • What new techniques or skills did a coach learn, to meet a client’s needs?
Coaching Competencies
  • Assess – Discovery & Direction
  • Balance – Coaching & Consulting
  • Catalyze – Leadership & Organizations
  • Facilitate – Focus & Alignment
  • Educate – Awareness & Understanding
Coaching Specialties
  • Lean / Kanban
  • User Experience / Design
  • Scaling Agile / Enterprise Agility
  • Technical / Quality Practices
  • Organizational Structures
  • Lean Startup
  • Product / Portfolio Management
  • Organizational Culture
  • Learning Organizations
  • Non-Software Application
  • Business Value / Agility
  • Technical / Product Research
  • Multi-Team Dynamics
  • Organizational Leadership
  • Organizational Change

[Note: The above, is based on guidelines provided by Scrum Alliance application process for CTC and CEC.]

While running some risk of sounding self-serving (very much NOT! the intent here) : please, be mindful and responsible when you select guidance-level professionals in your agile journey 😉.