Slightly Anecdotal Feedback on the State of Agile Transformation and Agile Coaches

I’ve been extremely humbled to be involved in what can only be called a “transformation of a way of doing work” a.k.a. agility for close to two decades. In that time, the corporate “we” have watched as concepts such as kanban and Scrum have taken root and values such as collaboration between customers and people doing the work have increased by crazy multiples. This has increased speed to market, user experience, and overall effectiveness of the digital marketplace.

However, one of the possible downsides of being a fairly early adopter (yes, I know many will say that they were involved back in the ’80s and ’90s but when I started, over 90% of software development still followed waterfall, RUP, or v-model) is that one tends to also see when certain tides change in the industry. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to speak with and interview dozens of leaders – in executive roles, business roles, IT professionals, and yes folks in the agile consulting/coaching world. For each of them, I asked several questions that focused on their experience with agile transformation and agile coaching. Originally, this was in an effort to better myself within change leadership, but there was a side effect and I’d like to share the three primary feedback items with you all now!

Every Current Model Sucks

Ok, so that was harsh, but let me explain. As one of the Sr. Technology Leaders stated when I spoke to him – “as soon as a model or method becomes mainstream, it means that they have become palatable to leaders who want maximum output for minimal change.” In other words, the whole disruption that comes from radical change has been lost. Another leader stated that “models are confusing.” This comes from someone who has more letters after their name than there are letters! Agile consulting and methodology firms have been trying to meet the needs of consumers and organizations and when you try to cover everything, it gets more and more complex. Finally, the concept of change and experimentation has been pushed to the back burner in models. It used to be those models were meant to be surpassed and grown out of; that the rules and processes that make up models were meant to be broken!

Agile Coaches Don’t Want to Own Outcomes

As one Fortune 100 executive stated, “We fired our coaches because they didn’t have any skin in the game, and we needed people who would have skin in the game.” This was reinforced when I was speaking to a coaching friend of mine who said (in the context of creating hyper-performing teams), “If they [teams] don’t listen, they don’t listen and I’ll move on.” Especially in our current economic environment, each member of an organization (whether FTE, contractor, consultant, or partner) has to provide value even in the hardest situations. When coaches see themselves as fully external and lay all success at the teams’ feet then this perpetuates the value (or lack thereof) of the coaches. More and more organizations are looking to organizational change leaders or existing business and IT leadership to create environments for teams and business segments to “figure it out on their own.” At the same time, leaders are looking for “delivery transformation” where, instead of focusing on the practices and processes, organizations are primarily focused on the tools, technologies, infrastructure, and application development strategies to bring change. At my current gig, IT managers are using DORA metrics to encourage teams to change approaches and be truly transformative.

Product is backsliding

I’d love to argue this one with some product leader on my new show, “Arguing Business Over Bourbon.” When agility was young in the form of XP, the idea was to remove all impediments between the people asking for the work (the customer) and the people doing the work (developers). To create a way of communication, XP founders created (or more popularized) the concept of User Stories. The whole point was to remind developers of the customer need in plain language, not “techno-babble.” As Scrum took over first place and then SAFe, the idea of User Story became more complex, and now the biggest feedback I get from product professionals is, “I just don’t have time to write the stories as well as my other work.” My answer is, “WHAT?????????” This should be the simplest thing that we do!!!! Anyway, enough of the side rant. Every single person I spoke with talked to some extent about product. And more than 75% used the terminology “product management” rather than product ownership, or some other term. Many spoke of the growing bureaucracy of internal product management groups, the necessity to “coach” more product managers, and the challenge of traditional methods vs. modern approaches. Finally, some product managers are being asked to fill both a scrum master and product owner role, which is highly concerning.

What Do We Do About This Feedback?

It isn’t all bad. Some companies are creating their own disruptive practices so that they can actually try to be disruptive in their vertical (such as what Spotify is renowned for). Others have simply moved into a place where coaching has transitioned to internal change champions for continued improvement! And even though product is moving more traditional in some cases, it highlights that the need of the customer is at the forefront for companies and is where they are investing. But we can take some additional notes from this:

  1. Remember that models are only some other person’s idea of what works. Focus on the principles and values of lean-agility and how they can be applied through the hundreds of practical tools.
  2. Agile Coaches – be present and become invested in the outcomes of your teams, business units, and organizations AND make that part of your values statement. And companies, allow this.
  3. Simplify and refocus product. I completely get it – some believe that to be successful, more complex approaches help in providing business value, but resist! This is a falsity.

What do you think about this? Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Have you seen this at your company? Oh, and I would love to talk to anyone about the other feedback I received – maybe there is even another article in it!

2 thoughts on “Slightly Anecdotal Feedback on the State of Agile Transformation and Agile Coaches

  1. Good post Josh. Yeah too many coaches tie themselves to framework execution and not delivery results as a success measure for sound coaching. You and I have rarely been misaligned on any of this. I also love the comment that a framework gets approved by management when it requires little change. I recall one company who’s CEO didn’t fully want to buy in because it, “might change the culture”. Well….YEAH! The problem is it was a culture she felt she had built herself. But she felt change needed to happen regardless.

    The biggest issue I see is companies want to get good at change without actually having to change. Then, when they finally see they need to change, they have no idea how to change well. Its not just being “agile”, its getting good at change in any form.


    1. Completely agree. One of the hardest things to do is to convince people that they need to change, so how do we do that? Be the example! I remember telling some of our co-workers back in the day, “Being an agent of change means you probably need to change yourself too; be the first.”


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