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Risks And Side Effects Of Agile Coaching

Agile Coaching is a powerful medicine for an organization and can cause serious side effects. The risks of applying it should be clearly understood.

That sentence should probably said at the beginning of every day an Agile Coach performs his work - basically written on the package as a warning.

The client doesn’t understand what he is getting himself into

Many organizations are used to employ temporary workers as specialists. They are sourced on the market by using the services of staffing agencies that have a huge database full of well educated and experienced people. That works usually quite good when looking for an additional programmer on a C# project or for finding a capable SQL database administrator.

At some point the temporary worker will show up and perform his duties as being asked to do. It is unlikely that he will get involved into anything outside his immediate tasks and he probably has learned a long time ago how to stay out of trouble: do your job and keep your head down.

Coaching includes challenging the client

A coach - it doesn’t matter which kind of coach it is - wants to help the client be successful in some way. When he helps the client to be successful the coach is successful.

Going along with the way things are will most likely not help the client much. Something is about to be challenged the moment the coach shows up. It is inevitable that some change will happen. Were that not the case, nobody would call in a coach. Help cannot be provided by not touching anything at all.

So the coach will look around, turn over the proverbial stones, ask questions and highlight facts that are probably hiding in plain sight. People may have been talking in the hallway for some time already. That activity might be seen by some as sneaking around, as putting his nose into someone else’s business. Others may even perceive that activity as a threat.

The organization has no experience with being coached

All these activities may not be at all what a specialist is supposed to do. They may be seen as overstepping boundaries. It may be seen as causing turmoil in the organization. Management may grow afraid and accuse the specialist, who to them has gone rogue, of disrupting the work of their people.

Some of that actually points to a learning disability. See chapter 2 of Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline for common signs of organizational learning disabilities.

It makes a difference who hired the coach

From my point of view a coach hired by a lower ranking manager is more likely to be seen as a specialist hired for a certain task than one who got hired by senior management. The lower ranking manager is more likely to have not understood what he is getting into. He may want to improve something in his own area of responsibility but doesn’t yet know that the root cause for his problem is beyond that. Now the coach figures this out and starts to nudge. Suddenly some fragile working agreements fall apart.

If the coach has been hired by senior management the issues will be discussed on that level. There are more changes to explain or it was kind of expected. Now it depends on the wisdom and selfconfidence of everybody whether the coach gets fired in order to “protect” the organization or the issues discovered get addressed to help the organization mature.

A single coach is challenged to mitigate side effects

In the case of an Agile Coach there is a technical and a psychological side. On the technical side, amongst other activities, new techniques are introduced, things are getting measured and made visible. On the psychological side, again amongst other activities, help to deal with the changes is offered.

If the same person tries to introduce change and tries to help those affected by it to deal with it, it is highly likely that they will blame the coach instead of developing a trust relationship with him. Eventually it will be only about who caused them pain and how to stop it by getting rid of the obvious reason for the pain. That’s a variant of shoot the messenger.

Pair coaching is more effective

Pair coaching with a partner who never introduces any changes whatsoever might be a good solution to that problem. It is that person who has access to those feeling threatened. He can build up a trust relationship by being the only who always has an open ear, shows deep empathy and understands their concerns. But as he also understands the reasoning behind the changes being introduced by the other he can help from the other side to make the transition to a different mindset and to a different way of working successful.

Essentially pair coaching is more effective as it helps to avoid setbacks or, in some cases, the total failure of the whole transition effort.

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