Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why an organization needs an (external) agile coach

I recognize another pattern in my daily work. The need for an external agile coach in an organization which wants to become agile. Sounds trivial – doesn't it? (I know it also sounds like I am advertising my own company here)
Here is what I see happening. A person in an organization starts working (voluntarily) as an agile coach. The person might attend courses, conferences, seminars, discuss and exchange ideas with others in the community. Assuming that there are no left-overs from the previous work area and nobody will ask question from this person concerning the old work, the person should have pretty much time to start doing the work. Yeah right – we talk about a BIG change here ...
The issue is that Lean and Agile might be to a traditional-oriented organization as big of a change as the “eponymous laws of planetary motion” by Johannes Kepler in the 17th century. The mental model is put upside down (actually downside up, as it already flipped once – see below). In Lean the management is supporting the people, not commanding them around and doing micro management. The one who is creating value to customer i.e. the value worker is the center of the universe and the others need to help those people.
For those who go back a little longer in the history of management, you will find a definition that a manager's role is to remove hurdles from the subordinates so that they can do a better job. I think that definition got lost somewhere on the road.
What about the coach now? Well, the observation is that our coach seem not really to know what to do in the beginning – how could he? He is fresh in this. Now it happens that OTHER work is giving to the person, OPERATIONAL work – participating meetings, doing this and that side job. The result of this is that the agile coach is too occupied and has no chance to learn truly what lean and agile is all about. This might lead to the situation that the speed of change in the organization is slow – in worst case the change stalls. In disaster case the organization will abandon Lean and Agile and starts to blame Agile for its failure.
Now I see, that an organization needs someone with whom they have a chance to reflect their decisions, models, WoW – are those in line with Lean & Agile values, principles and its “spirit”? The people in an organization make so many decisions – every day. And even though people received trainings and had some personal coaching on Lean and Agile, they need help in understanding how to BE agile, not how to DO agile.
The other day, a group of six people discusses for one hour and tries to create a common understanding of the Agile Principle #1:
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer
through early and continuous delivery
of valuable software.

I think that was a good investment of time and energy.
There are also other factors influencing the outcome of becoming Lean and Agile. Many of them, you can read in books – “management support” being there on the top of the list. I have read many articles in management science and “management support” has been so often mentioned that I got really numb to it – yeah again “management support” … and again … well – yes it is #1 item in a successful change. Meditate over that for about two days.
Personally it took me about two years to get the basics “right” and make sense out of it, another year to be able to learn what “counts” (yeah yeah, I am a slow learner) by interacting with others in the organization in form of training, coaching and consulting. Thanx to my boss, I could do that. I did nothing else then learning how to be a coach – no “operative” work.
I like to draw to a black and white picture – for the purpose of stimulating discussions and bringing people out of their comfort zone. Life is grey. If you accept grey, there hardly will be a pure white. I would have been so much happier in my years as a program manager, would I have known about Lean. I think that an external coach is needed for the white (or the black – which ever you prefer).

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