Jason’s coaching journey episode one. The big slap

The great thing about agile coaching is that you are helping people to help themselves.  So if you get some traction, then people usually enjoy the journey and start to build momentum.  Then they help themselves (with your support) and you can clearly see the value of your effort.

But it is not always as straight forward as that.

Once upon a time an agile coach faced a setback …

This article, and some others called “Jason’s coaching journey”, are a long read.

The article is a mythical story of  how an agile coach found himself on a journey that turned into a real struggle.

As we learn about Jason’s journey, we will also look at whether, if we were coaching him, we could help him get back on track.

Prologue – is this based on a real story?

A long time ago, in an organization far away, I was working with some internal agile coaches. They had been enjoying some success, but things were no longer going well and in fact, they had started to lose their their faith in the organization that they worked for. That much is true.

It started with a comment along the lines of this one:

Management here don’t get it.  They are about to do a massive restructure, implement a bad form of agile and then demand people deliver more than ever before.  They think agile means people work miracles for no reason and they are about to throw away everything we have done.

I wish I could say that I leapt into coaching mode and re-motivated the crew immediately. But in fact we had some controversial conversations that I will not dwell on.

Essentially, we sat down in a coffee shop and talked about whether people were, in fact, completely horrible.

At some point one of the coaches suggested that,  perhaps, humans have had their day and that it might be time to hand the world over to intelligent machines, or maybe even intelligent insects.

We realised, of course, that this was not the attitude we should be adopting when we went in to coach people.

So we decided to sort ourselves out, and the coaches went back with a positive attitude. With this new attitude, they coached the managers for a week or two and then everything became awesome.

At least that is how I would like to report it, but the truth is that the journey was pretty tough from beginning to end.  There were some great wins, but for each win there seemed to be a major disappointment following close behind.

In fact the team often spent more time tackling the latest disappointment than celebrating the latest win.

Since then I have heard some similar stories from other agile coaches, though without the extreme option of handing humanity over to intelligent insects. Perhaps most coaches found better options.

Anyway, I thought it might be worth telling the story of the journey. Both about what happened and about how “coaching” worked along the way.

I have changed the names and circumstances.  I have also merged the actual history with some coaching theory to create what is more mythology than documentary.

The team of coaches have been merged into one composite character who I will call Jason.  And the organisation has become a generic one.

But essentially, with poetic license and occasional hyperbole, the following tale describes what happened, sort of, a bit.

If you were there then you will remember it well enough and if your were never actually in a coaching conversation about the potential for handing the earth over to intelligent insects, then I hope you will at least find the story of some interest.

Jason’s journey begins with a slap in the face

Jason had been coaching the team at Coal Face for 6 months and had worked closely with Jo San, the sponsor of the agile change.

Jason did not think anything unusual was happening when Jo called him into her office.

Jason had made a series of recommendations on the next step in the agile journey and he was keen to hear whether those recommendations were going to be accepted.

“It would be great to get moving on some of the ideas we have been talking about,” Jason said as they sat down.

But Jason was going to be disappointed.

“The guys are going great,” said Jo, “But there are some new things happening and I wanted to pull you into the loop.”

Jo proceeded to tell Jason that they were spilling 800 jobs and that all the people Jason worked with would have to reapply for their roles.

But the “good news” was that all the new roles would be agile ones and that management were “committed to implementing an agile mindset” across the teams.

They were calling the change initiative “New Face” and it would be announced in a couple of days.  People in the leadership team were pretty excited.

Excited, however, was not how Jason felt as he heard the news.

The slap begins to sting

Jason’s role was safe and sound, but there would be a lot of change happening and Jo explained her take on it all.

About 600 people would land in the new “agile” roles, with the remainder leaving at the end of their current projects.

There were no more team leaders and no more project managers. Instead there would be be scrum captains.  They would be like scrum masters but also in charge of the performance management of a group of people.

Most the people the Scrum Captain managed would be on on the scrum captain’s project team, with a few out-liers  being spread through other teams.

The scrum captains would be selected on the basis of their agile mindset and their ability to be very agile on the ground.

The organisation was also adopting the new Spotted Fly model where everyone would be in a tribe of people so they could engage in tribal stuff.  The spotted fly model would create empowerment and great intrinsic motivation and some other good stuff like that.

But obviously it would be crazy to adopt a spotted fly model without the right structure to allow it to scale. So the organization would scale their agility safely by adopting a new agile framework and methodology that the PMO had developed.

The new approach was known as Scrape and it would provide the governance, predictability and consistency that management were not seeing in the current agile journey.

Jason thought he recognized some of what Jo was referring to and he had, in fact, suggested some solutions that would improve both empowerment and governance.  But there seemed to be some misunderstanding because what he was hearing did not sound quite right.

“I think there might be a misunderstanding,” Jason said, “I am not sure there really is a spotted fly model.  I think you are referring to something that we are already looking into, but confusing both the name and the idea of it.”

Jason started to explain his view on empowerment and scaling agility.  Sadly, his advice was not really needed on those things at that point in time.

Having explained the big picture, Jo moved to explain where Jason would fit in.

Another slap in the face – Jason’s role in the carnage

Jason would be spending some of his time with the existing teams while they completed their current release and applied for their new jobs.

He would also help people prepare for the the next “funding frenzy” season, where projects secured funding for the next adventure.

The rest of Jason’s time would involve fine tuning and implementing Scrape with the other agile coaches and the PMO.  This was really important, since management expected both Scrape and Spotted Fly to be in place in time for the next funding frenzy.  This meant that the new model had to be up and running in 4 months.

In the Spotty Fly model, teams would be renamed squads and would be stable, except for the testers, who were apparently going to be unstable and drifting between teams.

Also, with the improvements that would be adopted in the Scrape approach, the teams would not actually scope their own work. Rather, a new team of “agile engagement specialists” would scope and plan the work to get it ready for the development teams.

Teams would then plan and commit to their next release at a regular “product increment festival”.

At first Jason misheard what Jo said.

He thought Jo had used another word that rhymed with increment, especially when she was talking about release management and the flow of value at the same time. But fortunately that was not the case.

“Oh, you said increment, like product increment, but for a project” said Jason, as he tried to keep up.

In addition to working with the stable spotty fly teams, Jason would be working with the new agile engagement specialists. The unstable testers would also get some coaching, but at this stage it was not entirely clear where that would be coming from.

Epilogue – What would you suggest?

This was a lot to take in and it did not sound good.  In fact it was like one giant slap in the face.

Jason had been working towards what he thought was a noble goal for several months and he felt like he had been gaining traction. Now, in a moment, it all came crashing down.

Jason was not just disappointed – he was furious.

Tune in next time to hear how Jason reacted and how his coach approached things.  I will also include some related, and potentially less interesting, coaching theory.

But in the mean time I would be curious to hear how you might approach this (admittedly artificial) situation.

What would you have done if you were Jason?  Perhaps more importantly, how would you have supported Jason if you were his coach?

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