SAFe Mix-in’s: #NoCoaching

April 9, 2019

Here’s a weird one: Today’s SAFe mix-in is called #NoCoaching (yes, I totally made that up, but hear me out). So one of the things that you’ll see when you encounter any sort of decently large scale agile transformation is that typically there is more work that one coach can do. So often times you will have a senior coach that will play a coordinating role, there will be program level coaches that will be responsible for doing things like launching large programs or value streams/solutions, and there will be people who operate best at the team level acting as team coaches. So as you might imagine, on a significantly large engagement that can end up being a lot of coaches.

Overview

What we often find is that the conventional process of doing a transformation using SAFe or many other frameworks seems to involve dozens of coaches to get the job done. Now that’s if you’re doing it the conventional way. When the transformation is over, and believe me, when you are paying for that many coaches you want the transformation to be over as quickly as you can (because it’s hideously expensive to be paying for all of these coaches). So once that initial coaching is completed, they kick you out pretty quickly, because it’s terribly expensive to have you around. So what this leads to is a bout of intense training and coaching followed by a complete absence of any coaching or training. You launch your release trains and then you kick your coaches out and you’re off and running with SAFe (or whatever framework floats your boat). Eventually things start to suck as the transformation “high” tapers off. This often leads to a syndrome of re-launching the agile transformation over and over. Each time, hiring a different group of coaches.

Well, that model has some obvious problems. Namely that most of the knowledge about agility has just left the building (oops). And everyone is now wandering about struggling to understand what all those crazy coaches were thinking. Often times things just fall back into their old patterns.

There is an alternative to this approach. The idea is that if we step back for a second and think about what we are trying to accomplish in a transformation, what we really want is for people within the organization to own the transformation, be responsible for the transformation, and ideally, to execute the transformation. Why? Because it’s their company, it’s their business, it’s their domain, so they’re the ones that really need to adopt and internalize this stuff. Throwing in a bunch of proxies or a bunch of coaches does not serve to make that happen, or if it does, it’s kind of a poor secondary effect.

What I propose with #NoCoaching is that rather than throwing an army of coaches into an organization, that we only coach the middle management and key stakeholders. That means that everyone has to be coached by the managers and stakeholders that they work with. So basically, you transfer the ownership of the transformation from the coaches to the middle managers and stakeholders. It will work better that way, at least in theory, because those are the people who are going to carry the transformation forward. Those people won’t go away. Those people are the ones best suited to figure out how things will work best within their context. So the key is giving them some good training and then being there to give them advice over time on a much smaller scale. But you’re not coaching every single team, you’re not coaching every single product owner, you’re asking the organization to take that role.

Challenges

I can think of a lot of reasons this might not work. First, managers are busy people, and they aren’t necessarily the best trainers. In fact that’s probably an understatement. There are organizations that are full of busy managers who couldn’t possibly find the time to engage like this. So this approach probably won’t work for managers in organizations like this. In fact, it’s hard to see how any kind of meaningful agile transformation could work where managers just can’t afford the time to be bothered. Just sayin’. So I have to believe that this will be most effective in organizations that value the manager’s active participation in training. I know they’re out there. There’s also the issue of responsibility. If managers own the responsibility for the transformation then they can’t blame it on the consultants. That’s a common mode of operation for many companies: hire consultants to take responsibility for the transformation, then blame them when it fails. Agile probably isn’t going to fly there anyhow.

Forces

  • Repeated attempts at transformation
  • The management team is willing to be the trainers and own the transformation

Framework Impacts

  • None

Benefits

  • Lower cost
  • Higher engagement
  • Longer term sustainability of the transformation
  • The agility is “internalized” – you own it

So the bottom line is that #NoCoaching isn’t for everyone. When you look at it closely, you might even conclude that it’s not really an absence of coaching as much as it is a different way of approaching the coaching process. There’s still a coach hiding in there (right there, behind the curtain), but they are only coaching the managers and key stakeholders. You don’t see them coaching the teams at all. That’s the responsibility of the managers. I’m probably a voice in the wilderness on this idea, but I believe there is a better way than using an army of coaches and trainers to milk the customer of every billable hour we can. We can do better.

Interested in more Mix-ins? Join Ron Quartel and I for a 3 day workshop on SAFe+FAST Agile. Combine the 2 to get max value from your agile transformation. It’s an opportunity to explore the latest scaled agile processes and practices with other agile innovators on May 15, 16, 17. ‪https://bit.ly/2HXCcKD ‬