In Thought Leadership

This article is based on a talk that I gave as part of the Keynote mash-up at the Scrum Gathering in Munich, 2016.

Transforming the world of work is about investing in people, specifically about building a coaching capability to support people. So when we bring outside expertise into our organisations such as an Agile Coach, how do we best use them?

What is coaching?

Unfortunately not everyone agrees what coaching is. There are many definitions of coaching, but at the heart of it, every great coach believes that people;

  • are different from each and other – so we must treat them as the great individuals they are (not resources)
  • always do the best they can given their situation, so as a coach when an organisation calls me in to deal with a performance issue, “my team needs fixing” I never treat it as a performance issue. The problem is always due to waste, organisational policy, or they way the team or individual are being managed.

In fact Coaching is not about fixing people. We can all change, we can all make choices, and we are all resourceful enough make changes should we choose to do so. A coach believes an individual is the best expert in their own lives. If they are trusted, nurtured, and supported then the best way forward will emerge from that person. A coach must trust the person or team that they coach.

Scrum and Management

Scrum is a trust framework, with the intention that everyone outside of the team – trusts the team. They are experts in their work to deliver the best solution.  The idea being that management’s role is to nurture and support those teams. Not to focus on performance but, to believe that if they can create the right environment, their teams can excel. So, there is a lot of synergy between a coaching approach and the role of management in a Scrum environment.  Yet, most Scrum implementations I see are used to micro-manage the team.  Scrum, in many cases, is being used as a management tool that seems to stifle creativity and innovation; rather than to empower teams and set them free.

Why is this I hear you cry? Why does this ‘evil’ afflict Scrum adoptions?

“Bob welcome to our organisation.”  – Bob is an Agile Coach.

“We are so excited to be adopting Agile, and glad you came on board.  So, the team is over there go make them Agile.”

“Wait,” says Bob “I will need to work with you as well”.

“Why?” responds the manager. ”It’s the team that need to change, not me.”

Guess what? Your team is not the problem. They are great as they are. This common mindset – ‘Scrum is what the team does, Scrum is a great, but we the management are not going to change anything’ – dooms the adoption of Scrum to be superficial and brittle.

Agile Adoption in Large Traditional Organisations

Over the last few years in the UK, larger more traditional organisations have started to jump on the Agile bandwagon. Often Agile is now brought in by senior leadership, and yes, some of them even know what it is. However is it being adopted under the right premise? The senior management team seem to like the sound of the silver bullet and the benefits that we claim are available to them; hyper-productive teams, delivering more for less and delighting customers. Of course it’s not a silver bullet, it’s a cultural shift, that is in fact part of a wider paradigm shift which decentralises control.

Agile is a cultural shift that takes a lot of intentional effort and a lot of discipline. Some of these large enterprise organisations take the approach of hiring a lot of Agile Coaches, “we need a 100 Agile coaches” – maybe they do, maybe they don’t.  But often these Agile Coaches are expected to go and work with teams. And of course we need to know that the coach is adding value so, on a weekly basis they must fill in a report and answer questions like, does your team;

  • have an information radiator?
  • know who their Product Owner is?
  • have retrospectives?

Drawing from experience

While the team might be very successful with all this support from an experienced coach,  I am drawn to remember one team I had. When I started on the project, I was nervous because one of the team had a book on how to write assembler, and most of the product was written in Cobol.  The output was going to be a fix to the charging model and a batch process that would give money back to all those who had been overcharged.

How is this going to be an Agile? I thought. But, I trusted the team and they worked it out, they didn’t have a Product Backlog – because they didn’t know what they needed to do. But using an incremental and iterative approach they created solutions and then found more issues.  The level of quality they got was amazing, no bugs, they had a cross-functional team which included business people who understood the policies.  Also the project lasted 2 months less than similar projects.  Success! Happy customers, happy team, no production defects.

Cultural change?

I asked them if they will use Scrum on their next project when I was gone, they said No, their manager won’t let them. I went to see the manager; he told me that Scrum wasn’t going to be appropriate on the next project, as it was too complex.  At this point, he wasn’t open to hearing that if you have uncertainty, Scrum might be exactly the right approach.

I also sensed fear; he had not had to get involved. The team, with my support had been in control, he was losing his control, if this thing spread what would he do?  He may need to change. But as he could count on two hands the number of years until his retirement and he takes home a healthy reward, why should he change? Some people might call this the frozen middle.

I had succeed as a coach to support the delivery of this one project, but I had failed as a coach to build sustainable, transformational change.  I had failed to show middle management how to support the team, and how to coach teams once I was gone. It’s not the only time I have failed as an Agile Coach.  We get short-term success growing great Scrum Teams, and that feels good. I had created a team culture, but I had done nothing to address the organisational culture that is usually embedded in the middle management.

Now I have learned. I now spend more of my time with executives and management.  Although recently one manager running the Agile Transition said to me; “Mark, you are spending all of your time supporting the leadership team, you must be frustrated, because you are and Agile Coach, surely you want to go and work with teams?” Well that might be fun, but it is not where the real challenge lies.

Our Mission

Our mission is not to get as many teams as possible to adopt Scrum, especially ‘evil’ Scrum. We are here to transform the world of work. Transforming the world of work is a culture change not a process change.

The role of management must move from commanding, controlling, monitoring and decision making; to one of growing individuals, teams and continuously improving the organisation.  More than anything else, Agile Transformation is about building the capability within middle management to coach teams once the Agile Coach leaves.

For those of you in organisations, when you get an Agile Coaches, consultants and trainers, yes you need to make sure teams know what Scrum is, but then trust the team.  After all the problem is not the team.  Not if we trust them. So to all of you out there representing organisations, invest in your people and build a coaching capability. Adopting Scrum at the team level without addressing your frozen middle will mean that you won’t really have changed anything and once your coach is gone and a new CEO comes in, your investment will be gone.

As Agile coaches it’s all about where we choose to focus from this point forward.  We need to address our efforts to the frozen middle; in fact the frozen middle needs to be replaced with a coaching capability that nurtures our teams.  Given this environment our teams will look after themselves. We need to go beyond the basic training courses, we need to go beyond working with the teams, and we need to go beyond Scrum.  We need to have courage. Things may get harder for us, but if we don’t change then we will not grow and we will fail to transform the world of work.

Author: Mark Summers

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