Agile Coaching and Training is a Scam

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In the Agile world, coaches and trainers are distinctions that were created in order to create different ways of making money. They have no useful business purpose outside of filling the pockets of consultants with cash.

How can I maintain this? Here’s how I see it now: I (used to) have friends who are trainers. They are normal people like you and me. They typically got their start as project managers and or scrum masters just like the rest of us. At some point they go through a process where they are vetted for the following:

1) An understanding of the vague terms used in the agile lexicon
2) Conformance to religiously held views regarding a process
3) Communication skills & attitude

Once they are hit with the golden hammer, anointed by the powers that be, given the blessings of the bishops, or certified, they can charge large amounts of money to provide the same training over and over…and over…

Or they can just go out on their own and do it without any such approval. Of course if they do that, then they have to survive based on whatever actual skills they may have. They have to come up with their own material that isn’t provided by some governing authority. They have to market their skills all by themselves, and it’s a cold and unforgiving consulting market out there.

Regardless of which path you choose to take, are you doing anything that a good scrum master or a project manager couldn’t do? No. Training is part of any good manager’s role. Many scrum masters that I know have actually given CSM training at one time or another – and done quite well. Furthermore, the agile training that I’ve seen isn’t rocket science. It takes only marginal presentation skills to successfully deliver agile training. It’s not original material. It’s not like you have to know how to write code. In fact, most trainers I know, can’t write code. Are these really the people who are going to tell software developers how to work?

It’s nice work if you can get it.

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7 Responses to Agile Coaching and Training is a Scam

  1. Chris says:

    I’m currently searching for an agile coach here in France, to help my employer transition to a more… agile way of developing SW. I’ve read many books, but until someone (from the outside) is able to convince my hierarchy that the company could make more money, all the while delivering better quality SW by using some kind of methodology (vs. none), I won’t even get a chance to get the necessary training to be of any help.
    Don’t you think we should be getting advice from someone who’s already gone through the transition from somewhat-waterfall to agile?

  2. Tom Perry says:

    It sounds like the problem is that your management has a hard time listening to their employees. What makes you think agile will work well with a management team that has trouble listening to the people doing the work? I’m truly sorry, but no management consultant of any kind will fix that.

    If they won’t listen to you, why do you think they will listen to “experts”? And why would they be interested in agile over any of a number of other options? Sorry for all the rhetorical questions.

    You sound like someone who is very passionate about agile. If you really think it is a superior approach, then use it for your competitive advantage within your company. You need no management mandate to BE agile. And if being agile truly is a better approach, you will be successful. If you aren’t successful, well…let the feedback speak for itself and learn from it.

    Consultants, coaches, and trainers are all a distraction from dealing with these sorts of problems ourselves. No one else can save you from a management team that won’t listen. No one else can make a more compelling case for whether or not agile will succeed at your company than you. Stop waiting for someone else to do it for you.

  3. Chris says:

    You and a little voice inside of me seem to agree; it disappoints me because I was already envisioning a Henrik Kniberg coming to the rescue, but you’ve just confirmed what I’ve been refusing to admit for a long time. I just didn’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel.

    Thanks for the kick in the butt: I need to become my own agile coach. Being agile in a “stiff” organization will be a challenge, but I have to try.

  4. Hi Tom:

    I am glad that conscientious Agilists are speaking up on half-measures and false promises sold by some to the unwary. I challenge you, however, to check for the baby before you toss out that bathwater :-)

    you wrote: “What makes you think agile will work well with a management team that has trouble listening to the people doing the work? I’m truly sorry, but no management consultant of any kind will fix that.”

    I agree that a “consultant’ has little chance in such an environment. Too often a consultant is called in to such a situation to either push someone’s vision on others, or to do experiments someone fears (or even secretly hopes) will fail, and wants to keep at armslength.

    And yet I am encouraged to see some of our colleagues really step up to the “coach” designation. I believe this role grew out of a need to distinguich between managing people, with authority, and “growing people’, with their permission and voluntary participation.

    I see empathatic, patient and courageous people training themselves in what I’ll call “real” coaching skills** – for example in Lyssa & Michael’s The Coaching Stance class***, coach retreats or coaching dojos, and professional coach training programs – who go into such situations more transparently, starting with retrospectives and interviews and listening, being clear about how change will happen (or not), and designing-in explicit permission to coach teams AND management.

    Sometimes this approach is too shocking, and coaches can propose short iterative engagements instead, where they can guage and try to influence the leadership culture, building relationships and trust, into which such a transparent offer can then be made.

    A consultant has a job to execute. A trainer’s influence may be unrealistically limited to a few days in a highly structured interaction. A coach arrives to hear where people want to go, to open their eyes to new ways to get there, and to walk with them offering support and encouragement. The promises of a pure coaching role are ideally honest and few: you want better outcomes? Let’s talk. But you’ll still need to do the work. Or not.

    You wrote: “Nobody else can save you.” I absolutely agree.

    You wrote: “Consultants, coaches, and trainers are all a distraction from dealing with these sorts of problems ourselves.” I disagree here: someone with deep coaching skills (no matter what their title or how they developed these skills) should raise awareness of who owns the problem (the client organisation and the individual actors there), and get explicit permission to bring in disruptive questions, organisational ‘irritants’ (like the grain of sand in the oyster), that help the client organisation become more self aware and responsive, rather than habitually reactive or zombie-like obediant followers of dogma.

    A real coach should make him or herself redundant by developing in-house askers-of-valuable-questions, and breaking down obstacles that squelch such questions. A coach can equip the organisation with better tools for seeing and discussing their culture and process, and model new ways of being… and then…

    It is all up to the people in the organisation. Because it is they who want/need better outcomes, and it is their job to design better ways to get there.

    ** what I mean by “real coaching” skills: here is a survey that hilights a set of skills trained coaches learn around language, metaphor etc. http://coachesfinishingschool.com/self-assessment-coaching-language-mastery/ There are other skillsets, around deep listening, challenging, championing, visioning, too (they are tangentially touched on in that survey). See the International Coach Federation’s Core Coaching Competencies for greater detail on this: http://www.icfwashingtonstate.com/Resources/Documents/ICF%20Core%20Competency%20Rating%20Levels.pdf .

    *** “Agile coaches” are doing applied coaching, not pure coaching, and typically incorporate “real coaching” skills along with mentoring, domain knowledge, training skills, etc. But once real coaching skills are brought into the mix, I generally see a move toward what Michael and Lyssa call “the coaching stance” also in the other areas; a stance that respects the client as the agent of their own change, and draws clear distinctions between the services offered and the success sought by the client (which the client must achieve themselves). This page points to Lyssa and Michael’s whitepaper proposing an Agile Coaching Competency Model: http://www.agilecoachinginstitute.com/organization-breakthroughs/agile-coach-competency-self-assessment/ . Dan Mezick’s Culture Game book also looks at the coaching dimension of Agile coaching, iirc

    (Chris, I am next door to Strasbourg, and while I don’t do much Agile training any more, I am well connected to the European community and would be happy to help you find a coach who approaches things this way, to help you be a great change agent :-).

    Deborah Hartmann Preuss

    http://abiggerga.me

    • Tom Perry says:

      Deborah,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. It took me a long time to come up with the courage to say what I did. It felt like poking a finger in the eye of the Agile coaching/training establishment (many of whom are my friends) which felt very risky to me. Honestly, there were one or two who took offense. I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you treated your reply.

      In many ways we agree. I agree that in theory (as well as in some practice) there is a healthy model of coaching that is achievable. I just don’t see much of it in our community. I really don’t. So I needed to say something.

      In a way, I really want to ditch the agile coaching/training conversation (dang, there goes the baby again). I’m getting tired of it. Agile coaching is too narrowly focused and dogmatic (I know, that’s a strange thing to say about Agile, but often it’s true). I’m not sure I want to be anyone’s Agile coach anymore. There is a rich world of opportunity beyond the narrow confines of the Agile world that is waiting for all of us.

      I don’t need a certification for that. I need a lot of other things though: I need to lead. I need to influence. I need to work hard. I need to figure out how to be the best at what I do. I need to be awesome. Your references are much appreciated (coincidentally I’m reading the Mezick book now).

      I will say that by making the declaration that I did, it felt very liberating for me. I feel like I’m able to look at the bigger picture now in my own context and focus on the real needs of the people and the business. Often they don’t need a coach or a trainer. They probably don’t even need my help – but if they ask for it, I’m there.

      Thanks again,
      Tom

  5. I somewhat agree. I think you cannot rely on external help to make you agile, and you cannot buy it from a consulting company. As a developer you just have to do it. The bits that a consultant can help with are easy to learn. The tricky bits can only be learned via experience. As a manager you cannot do much more than give the people permission to be agile. If you don’t have the sort of people that want to think and work that way, you cannot consult that into them. If you do have them, then you don’t need the “agile-in-a-box” that the consulting companies are sell.

    However I can think of at least two or three specific instances where external consultants might be ok:

    * When deciding to bring in a specific tool where there is no internal expertise. i.e. continuous integration or some new test tool.

    * Spending money on an external consultant sends everyone a signal that the company takes things seriously. The sunken costs fallacy helps everyone stay committed when they know money has been spent on something.

    * Sometimes it helps to have someone external moderate a retrospective type event. So that internals can fully take part, and to avoid the assumptions that people in the think of the culture find it difficult to avoid.

  6. Elena says:

    I am glad you said what most of us were thinking but reluctant to admit. Many agile courses cost close to a thousand dollars per day. Sure, it’s nice that your employer pays for it, but it’s not money well spent. I have never attended agile training where I heard something I have not heard before. And like you say, it’s not rocket science. You can all that information online. Especially disappointing are the coaches who only have limited experience working on agile teams. The most useful part of training courses is talking to other participants about the real challenges faced on teams and sharing stories and successes.

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