An argument of coaches
It was another Thursday morning meeting.
Who puts in a 9 am meeting? On a Thursday? That’s what was going through the minds of most of the people around the table.
On this occasion, the conference call actually worked the first time (HALLELUJAH!), BUT the WebEx and Video Conference were glitching. Again.
“Sorry, guys on the line. Give us a minute to sort out the connection problems.”
“It’s the same thing every week! How many IT people does it take to get a bloody meeting started?” someone sputtered.
Much laughter and many eye rolls.
Each person at the table returned to his or her bubble. Tablets, phones and laptops were being swiped, tapped and clicked in earnest. The meeting was obviously getting in the way of very important work.
“OK – looks like it’s all sorted! Everyone can see and hear us in London?”
“Yeah – loud and clear.”
“Excellent. Let’s kick off with quick updates as to what’s gone on this last week. Who’d like to start?”
The occupants of the bubbles looked more engrossed in their screens. Only a few faces looked up. No-one wanted to make eye contact with the meeting facilitator.
“Okay, then. I’ll start. We had a great chat with some people yesterday about Test Automation. Not sure who owns it, but the conversation was good, and we’ll be invited to the next session.”
“I’d like to be involved in that, if possible. We had some great stuff at my previous place that could be helpful.”
“Well, it’s early days, but as soon as I need support, I’ll let you know.”
The meeting continued in this vein for an hour and a quarter. A 45-minute overrun.
“Great to catch up, guys. Same time next week?”
There was vague nodding as everyone stood up while closing laptops, pocketing phones and locking tablets.
I thought of that badge that says, “I survived another meeting that could have been an email.”
Was this the best we could do? Wasted time, distractions, no common focus, disjointed approaches? Really?
The thing here was that this was not a distributed development team I was observing or coaching.
This was the weekly agile coaches’ meeting.
The company was going through a multi-year transformation to Agile, and had hired a large coaching team to help drive the adoption. They’d sourced an experienced group of individuals from the industry to build a coaching practice that would deliver more than the sum of its parts.
Yet within a few months of forming, we had picked up all the bad habits of a fractured scrum team.
Why? Well, there’s an inherent issue with pulling together a large group of independent consultants who don’t know each other.
Usually, organisations have one or two coaches working on supporting Agile adoption through coaching, training or mentoring individuals and teams. These coaches, in their contexts, are seen as gurus, and while the approach is often challenged, the knowledge rarely is.
Dropping thirty agile coaches into a single organisation created an interesting dynamic. And by “interesting” I mean there was a lot of posturing, and many knowledge battles, and arguments over which word described a ceremony….
Then cliques formed.
And oh, God, the meetings and emails and meetings and emails and….
That’s right: we had all the traits of an incoherent, poorly performing team.
We became known – at least among ourselves – as an “argument of coaches.”
We all pulled in different directions – with the best intentions, but without the focus of a shared goal.
Pockets of value appeared. We got some great training feedback in certain areas, and we even heard some of the right words being used in conversation. But had we helped the organisation become more Agile?
Well, okay – we probably did help in a small way. We were all, as individuals, good at what we do. But one of our biggest mistakes was that we didn’t bond and grow as a single unit of delivery. We were not, so to speak, drinking our own champagne. Our day job was helping individuals and teams become the best they could be, but we were like the proverbial shoemaker whose children go barefoot.
We could easily have refocused ourselves and helped drive a bigger groundswell of adoption. But we missed the key ingredients most high-performing teams need to succeed:
Empowerment, and a shared goal.
In lieu of these, we got busy being busy, attempting to show value in some way in order to justify our contracts. It was comic, in its way.
Of course, we lost a lot of great people on the way. Some left of their own accord; not adding enough value didn’t sit well with their principles. Others were let go, because the value they were adding was difficult to demonstrate.
Those who were left behind were each realigned with a single area of the business. Just like a comfy pair of old shoes, they fitted into the familiar space of being the guru again.
And even though we were broken as a team, at least we were broken together. We were frustrated but passionate about doing the right thing – about making a difference.
The team that was left behind would continue to evolve. The business was invested in the transformation. How they would use the value of the coaches that were left would be interesting to see.
But we had lost something.
A coaching team can be a very good thing, benefiting an organisation through cumulative experience with many clients and different approaches. I think they’re good, worthwhile units.
But such a team, like any other team working Agile, must have a shared goal to harness the kind of passion that gets the best out of everyone. Without this purpose, passion turns into frustration. And even the strongest people can get lost along the way.
If you’re building a coaching team or practice, remember that old adage: Start as you mean to go on.
With openness, honesty, and a shared goal.
Good things will come from these foundations.
And from a healthy number of arguments.