Agile Organization, as a Sushi Roll

When we ask an experienced Scrum developer what defines a good User Story, the answer we hear almost immediately is that “…every user story must be INVEST-able…(taken from B. Hartman’s post)”.

When we further elaborate on “INVEST” part, we hear that splitting user stories should be done Vertically (along features), not Horizontally (along components or applications layers).  Why is the latter condition so important? Because when split vertically, and cross-cutting through multiple components, a user story has a much higher chance of representing a potentially shippable product increment (PSPI).  Delivering, UI/UX alone, or business layer alone, or database alone, does not present value to a buying customer.

Frequently, we hear the analogy of a sushi roll, when describing story slicing: “…every User Story must represent thinly sliced sushi roll that provides taste and flavor of multiple layers (caviar, seaweed, rice, tuna, avocado, etc)…

…Now, imagine an organization that is undergoing agile transformation.  Predominantly (statistically), transformation efforts stem from Technology, where agile improvements come in the form of introducing good engineering practices, such CI/CD, TDD, unit testing, test automation, automatic deployments, etc.  But technology alone, is just one layer of an organizational sushi roll.  Sure, just like seaweed alone, it may be tasty enough for starters, but without adding additional flavors, it is not a complete, healthy meal.

Other organizational layers need to be included as well, when identifying a slice for agile transformation experiment.  A slice does not have be too thick. If organizational slice is too thick, it might be too big to “swallow and digest”.  But still, even when sliced thinly, an organization must include enough layers, to be considered as complete meal.

What are some of those layers?  Let’s consider a few:

Business & Operations:  it is imperative to have real customers intimately involved in agile transformation efforts and making them closely aligned with technology partners. This requires identifying and providing a strong support for some key agile roles, such as product owner, stakeholders and SMEs.  Often, this requires organizational realignment and changes to sphere of influence.

HR:  Subjective monetary rewards that are based on individual performance assessments and fueled by invisible internal competition among employees, must be discontinued, in favor of incentives that promote teams’ collective ownership and performance.  An organizational slice that wants to become more agile will have a much higher chance for success if HR policies were genuinely supportive of the initiative of the efforts.

Budgeting & Finance: For agile teams (Scrum, Kanban) that use adaptive planning and iterative development, and continuously have their work re-prioritized by business, it is imperative to have flexible budgets (“flexible spending”).  By unlocking a rigid budget corner of what is known as Project Management Iron Triangle (budget, scope, timeline), technology dramatically increases their chances to do research or conduct new experiments, if an opportunity presents itself (often, unexpectedly).  There is also a higher chance that more Scrum teams would be built out faster, if budgets were flexible and not done as ‘budgets against the wall’ (‘the world ends on December 31st’) – more flexibility to acquire new talent.

Real Estate & Facilities: Having agile teams co-located under the same roof is a huge win: e.g. Scrum team dispersed around the globe is not as good as Scrum team placed on the same floor. (Note: Please, do not confuse a single Scrum team spread thin across multiple locations with multi-site Scrum product development, when many, whole teams are collocated but separated from from peers-teams by geography).

However, putting a team on the same floor is not sufficient.   Interior design must be supportive of team collaboration and dynamics: ‘caves & common’ (read A. Cockburn about XP), information radiation techniques (lots of whiteboard space, flip-charts), breakout areas, extra space to accommodate extended user community during sprint reviews, etc. – is all required.  It is unfortunate but common to see so-called Scrum team members sitting in a long single row, next to each other, spear-headed by a line manager (usually, a window seat), all joining a daily stand-up call by phone (while sitting!) and ‘reporting on status’, while staring at an electronic story board on their respective monitors.  Agile teams don’t want that.

As a summary, please consider the following quote that describes sushi-roll-like organizational design in Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), by C. Larman:

“Who are the Judges?” Who Decides on Who is Gonna Coach?

Lets kick off this post with the quote from another recent discussion that generated a number of strong comments from experienced professionals:

“…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 (p.17)…”


To summarize, the purpose of the above referenced discussion was to increase awareness about implications of ineffective coaches and coaching that exists in abundance today.  Here, lets look at some root causes why this problem exists.

Who Defines the role of Agile Coach?

For the most part, organizational understanding of a coaching role is weak.  Definitions of a coaching role that flow around, suggest that companies are still confused about what coaches do.  Definition of a coaching role is frequently lumped together with the role of a project manager, team lead, business analyst, Jira/Rally/VersionOne administrator etc. While some of these other roles, could represent potentially relevant past experience for a coach, lumping all of them together in one all-inclusive role description, delimiting them by a commas or forward slashes 😊, is ironic, to say the least.  Many of these “ace pilot/submarine captain/NHL star” roles create a conflict of interest not just for people that step into them but for everyone else who gets affected by interaction.  Very often, inaccurate definition of a coaching role leads to inappropriate behaviors by a coach, such as attempts to seek authority and organizational power, exhibition of command & control behavior, competition with people being coached for ownership of deliverables, monetary incentives and other perks.

Once a poorly-defined coaching role description hits the street, it enters a vicious cycle – reinforcing feedback loop.  (described in detail here ):

(Note: the above illustration excludes other system variables that may have effect on the variables and variables’ relationships shown above).

This vicious cycle usually leads to one inevitable result: over-time (usually months; sometimes a few years) companies realize that agile coaching did not bring about enough sustainable organizational improvements, as it was expected.  This further leads to two outcomes, both of which dependent of senior leadership vision and goals:

  • Companies seriously re-assess their own initial actions, acknowledge mistakes made, and then improve coaching standards and elevate the bar in favor of real, experienced coaches
  • Companies, try to water down mistakes they have made, trivialize a coaching role for a lack of it’s benefit and, and by doing so, further reinforce the loop above
Who Really Makes Decisions and Why?

Rarely, senior executives take an active role in a coaching hiring process; exceptions exist but they are rare (usually,  exceptions are seen when things become very urgent – page 14).  But even when they [executives] do engage in the process, it is usually more the act of a formality, to ensure that a hired person “fits the culture”. Of course, and very ironically, one of the key expectations from an experienced coach should be to challenge an organizational structure (both, at enterprise and team level), and since culture is corollary to structure (Larman’s Law # 5), the latter would change (would be challenged) as well.  But this is not something that too many senior executives would like to hear.

For the most part, a hiring process is delegated to first- and sometimes second-line management, as well as internal agile champions that oversee and own agile transformations.  While Larman’s Law # 1, historically, has defined the attitude of middle management towards fundamental changes that challenge a status-quo, the recently added Law # 4 neatly describes “contribution” by some internal agile champions.  And while exceptions do exist, trends and statistics speak louder.

Let’s imagine the process by which an organization wanted to hire an agile coach (as employee or consultant – no difference):
In this process, the interviewers – are individuals described in Larman’s Law # 1 and # 4.   On the other hand, an interviewee, is a seasoned agile coach, with long enterprise- and team-level track record: she is a system thinker, dysfunctions challenger, a real organizational change agent.

Impact on a hiring process by Larman’s Law # 1-type Interviewers:

At an interview, a coach-candidate meets with first- and/or second-line managers that also expect that a coach will report into them, when she joins a company.  During a discussion, interviewers hear from a coach certain things that coaches usually bring up, uninhibitedly:

  • Simplified overall organizational structure, where developers receive requirements and communicate on progress, by interacting directly with end customers, not middle-men
  • Flattened team structure, where developers self-organize and self-manage. Overall reduction of supervision and resource management, in favor of increased autonomy, mastery and purpose, by individuals that do work
  • Harmful effects of individual performance appraisals and subjective monetary incentives, especially in environments, where team commitments and team deliveries are expected

Unsurprisingly, the biggest question that many interviewers walk out with, after interviewing such a candidate is: “What will my role be like, if this coach is hired and brings about above mentioned organizational changes?


Impact on a hiring process by Larman’s Law # 4 -type Interviewers:

Knowledge and experience of a coach-candidate supersedes that of internal agile champions and process owners.  Some of the discussions a coach elicits, and answers provides, by far exceed expectations (not to be confused with a term used in a performance appraisal process 🙁 !) of her interviewers.  Some suggestions and ideas shared by a candidate are a great food for thought for senior executives but not at a level, where Larman’s Law # 4-type coaches are authorized to operate.  Interviewers clearly see that a coach-candidate, if on-boarded, soon may become a more visible, influential contributor than the interviewers themselves.   A coach may also bring about some organizational turbulence that will take out of comfort zone some individuals that are resistant to changes.

What are the odds that this experienced coach-candidate will be given a “pass”? What are the odds that she will be even given a chance to speak to senior executives involved in a hiring process, to attempt to influence them,  to open their eyes, to offer a deeper system perspective on a situation, to make them think and talk about the forbidden?


And this is one of the ways, in which organizations that are complacent about agile improvements, shoot themselves in a foot: they very effectively disqualify qualified agile coaches and by doing so, reinforce the feedback loop illustrated above😉.