I was having dinner the other evening with a few agile coaches after teaching a CAL class all day. I think we all wanted to “trap” each other into either: 

  • Revealing our coaching secrets

  • Checking to see where out passions lie

  • Challenging each other on our “agility”

  • And simply, learning from one another

It was a small group and we engaged in some serious discussion and debate around our agile experiences and how to help our client engagements.

A New Topic

Then the conversation changed to one that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

One of the coaches spoke about the principle of getting “sucked into” the client’s culture. That they had –

  • Started attending way too many meetings and events that really weren’t necessary.

  • Found themselves adopting the company’s cultural mindset.

  • Also found themselves justifying the company status quo.

  • And most concerning, that their overall coaching stance was being affected by all of this…

The group sort of laughed it off or said that yes, it was simply part of the job and a side-effect that was inevitable. But I walked away thinking about it more deeply.

The Trap!

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that long-term coaching in a context is inevitably a trap. That the more we stay within a clients’ culture, the more we get assimilated into it.

It’s like the Borg…resistance is futile and we become assimilated until we become part of the culture. It’s dangerous because we start to:

  • Lose our independent perspective, while starting to see things from the perspective of the client.

  • Compromise our principles, while finding excuses for why things are the way they are.

  • Start defending the status quo and avoid crucial coaching conversations.

  • Stop pushing (inspiring, asking, guiding) the client to improve.

  • Understand the client’s context (business dynamics, organizational structure, etc.) so well that we get “pulled into” the complexity.

  • Play it “safe” so that we can continue a slow-roll agile journey without unsettling anyone important.

  • Establish close working relationships to the point where the relationships skew our independence and advice.

And the most insidious part of the trap is this. Often, we don’t see it. We lack the self-awareness to take a step back and actually see that we’ve become assimilated.

How do we avoid the Trap?

I think that part is easy. We have to limit the time we spend in the culture.

An example of this is provided by Dan Mezick and his concepts of Open Space Agility. Dan cycles through open space periods of 100 days in OSA. During that time, the coach tells the organization that they’ll be leaving at the end of that cycle. Perhaps being replaced with another coach. But importantly, setting the stage that they are not a “permanent fixture” for the organization to become dependent on. Or for them to be overly influenced by the organization.

When I first encountered OSA, I don’t think I fully appreciated the wisdom Dan had in engaging in this way. But in thinking of the trap we often find ourselves in, I now think every coaching engagement should have an expiration date/period for each coach. And that timeframe should be relatively short.

Is embedded coaching always bad?

For long periods of time, yes.

And this isn’t just for external coaches. I think the same danger exists for internal coaches. Perhaps even more so. We need to be very careful about not getting assimilated.

Is there a period of time where it’s safe to coach?

I’m not sure.

In OSA, it appears to be 3-months. I might see it extending to 6 months at the most.

And of course, if you’re not embedding full-time, but doing more part-time and situational coaching, then I think much of trap is diminished.

Wrapping Up

I didn’t really focus all that much on it, but a big part of the driver for embedded coaching is that it’s easy.

It’s easy to budget and easy to quote.

It’s easy to come into an organization every week.

It’s easy to integrate with the teams.

It’s easy to get used to a steady paycheck.

It’s just easier!

But if you buy into the true role of a coach being putting themselves out of work, then it’s not the right model for the client or the coach.

So, the next time you’re asked to coach in a client’s context, please consider shortening the timing. You might just avoid a very wicked trap.

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

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