I attended an impromptu agile coaches gathering about a year or more ago. It was a “coaching the coaches” session and it was very valuable. But an aspect of it has stuck with me ever since. One that I’ve mulled over and over and would like to share.

There were a group of coaches in attendance from the same client engagement, a large, multi-billion-dollar organization that had been going Agile for a couple of years.

When they decided to go agile, one of the first things the client did was reach out to an agile coaching firm for help. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing to do. However, the firm was largely staff augmentation focused, so that was their background and comfort zone.

They reacted like they would for any similar engagement. They recruited 10 disparate agile coaches, minimally vetted their experience, and aggressively negotiated their rates. Then they negotiated a global agreement with the client and on-boarded the coaches.

There was no engagement strategy nor much consistency across the various coaching approaches. There was also no coaching team. Instead, there was simply a group of coaches thrown into a very lucrative situation. And as coaches are wont to do, they started coaching…

Rates

Let’s take a diversion to approximate the cost of this endeavor. While I’m not privy to the exact rates, I know the ballpark. Each coach was probably signed up for ~$1,200 / day while the client charge rate was ~$2,500 / day.

The run-rate for each coach was ~$625,000 annually. For ~10 coaches, the firm was paying ~$6M per year. For a 2-year engagement, the total cost was approximately $12M - $15M, including coaching, certifications, and other training.

That’s sort of money should inspire and create phenomenal results, right?

Teams

The client quickly ramped from zero Scrum teams to about 150 Scrum teams. So, the coaches played a significant part in quickly scaling up the organization’s teams.

Their primary focus was downward to the teams. If you measured their success by how many teams were spun up and how quickly that was done, then they were quite successful.

Ultimate coaching costs per team were ~$100,000.

Back to the Coaches

But let’s back to the clients’ coaches in our meeting. To a person, they were sad.

It seemed while they were largely successful in getting teams on-board with agile, they realized it wasn’t enough to transform the organization.

They learned (and many had known before they joined) that you can’t transform an organization at a team-only level, that any solid transformation needed the full engagement and participation of management and leadership.

Haunted

Part of the sadness at the meeting was the coaches were approaching the end of their engagement. The client organization felt that their value proposition had declined and the initial goal of achieving agile had been accomplished.

But the coaches knew differently. While the teams had been assimilated, the organization’s leadership style remained the same. And the overall pre-agile culture remained the same.

In other words, the agile teams were largely alone in their environment with no amount of leadership, management, or true cultural support. The coaches knew that the teams fledgling efforts would eventually revert to their previous approaches, that they would not stand the test of time.

Being professional coaches, they were quite sad about their efforts not resulting in sustainable change. They seemed to be wracked by questions like:

  • Why wasn’t there on overarching coaching strategy at the beginning?
  • Why weren’t we hired as and formed into a team for the engagement?
  • Why wasn’t there more of an on-site coaching leadership presence?
  • Why didn’t we challenge management and leadership more to engage and be a part of the transformation?
  • Why didn’t we intervene when the organization clearly misunderstood the nature of an agile transformation?
  • Why did we continue to coach aggressively downward, when we knew that upward was the better direction?
  • And most daunting, why did we continue to coach when we knew we weren’t making an impact in the best interest of the client’s goals? Why didn’t we leave instead of just cashing our checks and going through the motions?

And to be fair, it wasn’t just the coaches who should have been asking these questions. Their firm should have been doing so as well. Especially since they were driving the overarching engagement strategy (or lack thereof) for this client’s agile transformation engagement.

In the End, A Tremendous Waste

The reason I brought up the funding model, was to show the incredible investment the client made in this effort. But it all seemed for naught.

In the end:

  • The coaches felt like they had failed their Prime Directive, to coach an organizational-wide agile transformation. And they did fail.
  • The organization felt that they had done what was asked of them. They went agile. But from an impact perspective, they all knew that very little in the way of significant change (outcomes, performance, quality, culture) had changed. They had also failed.
  • And they had spent $15M in the process, for essentially another failed initiative.

From my perspective, this is an example of an incredible waste of effort, time, and funding. And it could have all been avoided with a much different strategy and approach.

Now I’ve joined the mood of those coaches. This entire tale makes me SAD! And what’s even SADDER is this is not a unique outcome. This happens incredibly often in agile transformations.

I’ve shared this tale so that you might avoid a similar outcome. Here are a few related posts that might be helpful to plot a different journey.

One where you, as an agile coach, take a much more balanced and effective approach in your organizational coaching. Where you establish a leadership partnership early-on that trusts and engages your coaching at all levels of the organization. Where you spend more time "coaching UP" than you do "coaching DOWN". 

Or where and when this doesn’t happen, you consider congruently moving onto greener coaching pastures.

Stay agile my friends!

Bob.

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