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A dead coach is a useless coach

Picture by WouterKvGDuring our monthly consulting services meeting, an interesting conversation took place. The conversation revolved around how to show traditional organizations the benefits of going Agile.

Granted, everyone around the table was already sold to Agile so everybody was working toward the same objective. The question was how to bring traditional organizations to switch their ways of doing things in order to adopt a more Agile approach? The debate was “Should we use a big-bang approach where all the energy is put toward getting the organization to take a quantum leap?” or “Is it preferable to use small steps in an effort to bring the organization toward the desired state?”.

Some people around the table argued that to quickly gain acceptance and shock the system, it is better to take somewhat of an extreme position and avoid deviating from the goal and as such, implement the Agile practices without consideration to the context.

Others (including myself) believed that the hard position and extreme approach doesn’t help much. It typically polarizes positions and creates an environment where conflicts are frequent. Personally, I believe that small steps taken in the right direction are much better than attempting to quantum leap forward when it comes to large scale transitions.

As consultants we are called in to help organizations transition from a current state to a future and hopefully better future. We bring our expertise and our convictions to the table in the hopes that we can influence these organizations. What happens when the consultants’ perspective collides with the organizational culture, values, processes and people? Of course, it depends.

Needless to say implementing change is a difficult task and if it was easy, nobody would need help (i.e. consultants). But when consultants adopt the following approach:

  • I need to change the organization;
  • The best way to accomplish this objective is to stick to my position – no matter what – until the organization realizes that I am right (i.e. they are wrong);
  • I will be successful for as long as I can hold my position.

What comes next is usually a dead coach…

Granted, the other extreme is no more useful when the organization thinks something like this:

  • What we have been doing is exactly what needs to be done;
  • We have all the answers and we will stick to our position – no matter what – until everybody accept the current situation;
  • We will be successful for as long as we can hold our position.

What comes next is an organization that will be less (and less) adapted to its environment and a Darwinian (survival of the fittest) consequence will happen.

So what is the right thing to do?

If you are a consultant, it is always a difficult balance between sticking to your position and completely letting go. The answer obviously varies by organization but sticking to a hard position is rarely (i.e. never) a good approach to actually change an organization.

  1. Joel Grenon #

    Interesting post. The problem, I think, with the soft approach is the complexity of the transitioning system becomes way to high for anybody to cope with, even coaches. This increased complexity will often corrupt agility perception in the mind of people living the transition resulting in a lower adoption rate. Another side-effect is that people tend to focus on making the system work again, without having all agile tools in their toolbox. This again, will lead to local optimizations that might quickly disrupt the whole system.

    Incremental adoption must be made in a series of “revolutions” and not by adopting principles gradually. Creating an environment where there’s no alternative to agility will bring faster results, less complexity and less overall pain. You can’t do that all at once in a large organization, you just plan your revolutions one at a time, within controlled scopes, and hope that Darwin won’t gets in the way 😉

    Few businesses have the luxury of living through a peaceful evolution process… The usually have a single change to deliver. Not very compatible with an evolution process I would say.

    September 28, 2010
  2. Great post on transforming an organization over to agile. It’s a thin thin line sometimes! Depends completely on the needs and willingness of your client. Maybe they’ll let you take over??? Maybe they just need helpful prodding.
    Good stuff!

    September 28, 2010
  3. Good post!

    The challenges we face with the slow, incremental approach is in the choices we make as coaches, teams and organizations. Taking “small steps” might be the only way to bring about change but we better be ready to live with those choices for quite a while before we can move on to the next level.

    First of all, a small step (or baby step) can also be defined as a compromise. I not saying that a compromise is a necessarily a bad thing, but we need to identify it as such and set forth an action plan to correct the situation. Second, we need to distinguish a “baby step” from a “bad precedence” If we allow a team or an organization to set a bad precedence, be prepared to see it live on, grow and undermine any future initiative and growth. The classic example is the selection of a ScrumMaster in a Scrum initiative. Too often, we see organizations choosing someone who never even heard of Agile or Scrum and couldn’t care less about it. The resulting behaviour is someone who continues doing what used to do: a project manager, a tech lead, an architect, etc. This is a bad precedence and sends the message that a “ScrumMaster” is simply a cool sounding title for someone who finds meeting rooms. This precedence will be referred to by your friendly neighbourhood management folks for future projects and finding a ScrumMaster will be a mere formality. I refer to this here :

    As coaches we need to be compassionate and understanding of the current culture but owe it to our clients to also be 100% uncompromising.


    September 30, 2010
  4. So true. Win the battle, lose the war.

    See the following book: “Crucial conversations. Tools for talking when stakes are high.”

    September 30, 2010
  5. Salut Martin,
    J’ai lu avec intérêt ton post.

    Je suis de ton avis à certains égards et en même temps en désaccord.

    Je suis de l’avis qu’une certaine patience est nécessaire. D’ailleurs je mentionne depuis toujours dans mes formations ScrumMaster que : A dead ScrumMaster is useless. J’aimerais me raviser et dire : A well and alive ScrumMaster is useful.

    En contrepartie, lorsque je fais une réflexion systémique j’arrive à la conclusion que de créer un endroit (p. ex. : une équipe) où on peut créer très rapidement des conditions d’agilité en adoptant une posture relativement radicale peut permettre (avec des stratégies de communication et un mouvement judicieux de certains membres de cette équipe vers d’autres équipes) de créer un momentum très intéressant pour la transition au global.

    Qu’en penses-tu?


    October 4, 2010
    • Ton commentaire est intéressant et très pertinent François.

      En fait, bien que j’ai une préférence pour l’évolution plutôt que la révolution, il semble qu’il y ait plus d’une bonne réponse. J’oserais dire que ça dépend surtout du contexte organisationnel dans lequel s’effectue la transition, de l’expérience et du style du coach ainsi que de la capacité du coach de bien déterminer l’approche appropriée pour les meilleurs résultats.

      Merci pour ton commentaire.

      October 5, 2010

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