November 16, 2018

Scrum Masters & Agile Coaches, Stop Team Coaching!

Why do I think team coaching is a bad idea? Don't get me wrong, I believe team coaching can have a great amount of added value. It’s just that I often find that teams receive coaching while they should not even be a team. The Agile way of working is all about being in control in a complex environment. We get control by learning from feedback on the value delivered as quickly as possible. So we deliver Done Increments regularly in short iterations.

“Does a Done Increment always deliver customer value?”

I’d like to answer that question through a metaphor. The hamburger.

Imagine: you order a Hamburger at a local hamburger joint. They tell you preparing that hamburger will take 60 minutes. (they make everything from scratch, fresh!) Recently, the kitchen made a transition to Agile delivery, so they will deliver your order in 10-minute increments. Interesting! The delivery can be in two possible ways: first the bottom bun, then the burger, then the pickles, etc. Building your Burger layer for layer. Or, you get a small bite after the first 10 minutes, but with all the ingredients in it, and then a second etc. In this second scenario, you can immediately tell the clerk that you dislike pickles. The next delivery they can leave those out. In the first scenario a result is delivered every iteration. But does a single bottom bun deliver customer value? I’d prefer a full, juicy, crispy, tasty bite. Without pickles. Please ;)

flipover with a schematic hamburger and two highlights - vertical indicating feature (agile) teams - horiztontal indicating component teams

When we return from the metaphor (well-fed, hopefully) and look at the way most businesses are organized, we will discover business units similar to the components of the hamburger. When such a business unit ‘implements Agile’, they will start creating Agile Teams within those units (components). Those teams need lots of help to become truly agile, so Scrum Masters & Agile Coaches are hired to coach those teams. And so we end up passionately coaching team bottom bun.

And while coaching this team bottom bun may have some benefits, for instance honest feedback during Retrospectives aimed to improve as a team, this is not what Agile should primarily be about. Agile is about delivering a real working product to customers, so you can validate your assumptions and adapt your course as needed. Remember? The goal of Agile is being in control in a complex environment. So long as the output delivered by team bottom bun is just a small part of the actual total output needed to deliver customer value, this goal is not achieved. There is no actual feedback (just more assumptions). Because of that we will not be able to learn what is needed to stay on course to keep delivering maximum value. We are actually just creating a false sense of control that is potentially steering us into the Bermuda triangle of lost hope. This means we are missing the point of Agile, giving control in a complex environment.

So, dear Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches, are YOU coaching a team bottom bun? Are you avoiding the conversation about continuously moving the organization to create full bite, full flavor, full value teams? Then you are not helping the organization and the team use Agile as intended and potentially harming the organization by playing Agile theater. So should we simply refuse to help teams and organizations that are only able to start creating component teams (delivering bottom buns)? No way, this is sometimes the only place to start helping. But please don’t stop there and use all impediments and dependencies you and the team will surface to push the organization and its teams towards delivering a full bite of value, helping them to increase their control and effectiveness using Agile.

So before you start coaching a team, please be aware of the full hamburger and the components needed to deliver value. So looking beyond the team you’ve been asked to coach, which other ingredients are needed to deliver customer value? It’s truly rare to start in a perfect Agile situation, and that is OK. But never forget that it’s your duty as Agile Coach or Scrum Master to help the organization to improve their way to true agility, to start delivering customer value with each iteration. To get the whole hamburger front and center and make it better with each delivery.

The hamburger is a playful, lightweight metaphor to start discussing true agility in your organization, to keep in mind what is really important: delivering customer value and being in control by inviting feedback and learning from it. Good luck and enjoy your burger! 

This article was originally conceived in dutch by Guido Boskaljon and collaboratively developed by Guido & Sjoerd Kranendonk. Find the original dutch article here.