Agile Coaching and Authority

Agile Coaches have broad latitude in how they operate inside a client. The client is bringing the coach in as a trusted adviser. The coach is presumably coming in with a heart of service and a mission to help the client achieve what might be called “free standing Agility”.

One way to achieve “free standing Agility” for the client is to STAY AWAY from taking up essential and authoritative roles in the client organization. Specifically, the act of assuming the role of Scrum Master is to be avoided unless specific circumstances exist. Why?

If the ‘coach’ plays Scrum Master and is occupying that role for more than a few days, the following conditions need to be in place:

1. The client has no one willing or able to do the job, and is actively recruiting to fill the role with an employee. Here the Agile coach fills a (temporary!) gap.

2. The Agile coach is modeling how to occupy the Scrum Master role as he or she mentors a specific client employee (or employees) in how to do it. Here the Agile coach is mentoring and modeling and teaching.

Absent these conditions, having a coach assume the Scrum Master role is a very bad idea, for the following reasons:

1. No one at the client is learning anything by experience about being a Scrum Master

2. The coach is in a position to extend his or her stay, by creating a real dependency

3. Teams and organizations tend to convey authority to the Scrum Master. This sets up the coach and the team and the org is a set of distorted alignments. Teams defer to the “Agile expert” coach, the Agile coach is encouraging dependency, the organization is not learning essentials, etc.

In this scenario, the ‘coach’ is functioning not as a coach but as a consultant. The truth is the ‘coach’ is acting as a mere contractor, essentially doing for the client what they can and must do for themselves if the goal of free-standing Agility is to be achieved. This is OK when the client and the contactor call it what it is. When contracting is called Agile Coaching, there is dysfunction.

Coaching is not consulting or contracting, and there is no place for these functions in coaching. Agile coaches who take up the Scrum Master role for ‘some time’ are in fact setting up an extended-stay, and a stream of predictable billing. That is what contractors and consultants do.That is NOT what sincere Agile coaches do.

When a coach takes up the Scrum Master role on an extended-stay basis, that is contracting masquerading as coaching. The Agile coaching community as whole gets a black eye when the definition of Agile coaching includes this kind of behavior. There are some voices in the Agile coaching community advocating the inclusion of ‘consulting’ in the Agile coaching definition.

Guidance: If you are a Agile coaching client, pay attention when your ‘coach’ suggests that they take up the Scrum Master role for more than a week. In most cases, this is a very bad idea. If you are an Agile coach, stop doing this. Short term, your client suffers.  Long term, your reputation suffers.

As Agile coaching matures as a profession, it is inevitable that we discuss what is in and what is out of the definition of Agile Coaching. The time is probably here to discuss the ethics of Agile Coaching. There is plenty to talk about.


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Toward an Agile Coaching Code of Ethics

Agile coaches usually assist organizations that know very little about Agile. These organizations actively seek authoritative guidance. It is safe to say that in almost all cases, the Client is in a vulnerable position. The client can very easily be taken advantage of. Now, to be very clear: The overwhelmingly vast majority of Agile Coaches in our community genuinely serve Clients, each and every day. Most folks in Agile Coaching are of high integrity and seek to serve. That said, the potential does exist for abuses of the role of Agile Coach.

A Coach may, for example, choose to take up the Scrum Master role or even the Product Owner role for ‘some time’.  This is called ’embedded’ or ‘integrated’ coaching.  It creates an ‘extended stay’– and some very real dependence. There are some in the Agile community who promote embedding as a completely normal aspect of Agile Coaching.

But wait. Is this something we are willing to validate as professional coaches?

The practice has several issues. First, the practice promotes an unhealthy level of Client dependency on the ‘coach’. Second, no one in the Client organization is learning anything useful about being Scrum Master, because the role is ‘occupied’. Third, when the ‘coach’ leaves, it is over, because little if any Client learning took place. The Client is not in a place of free-standing Agility.

We can do so much better than this.

The standards body known as the International Coaching Federation publishes the ICF Code of Ethics for Coaches . I believe this is a excellent starting point for discussing the construction of a Code of Conduct for Agile Coaching.

Take a look, especially pay attention to Section 2 Item 9:

Section 2: Conflicts of Interest
As a coach: 9) I will seek to avoid conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest and openly disclose any such conflicts. I will offer to remove myself when such a conflict arises.

I wonder if it is time for us in the Agile coaching community to begin having a crucial conversation … about Agile Coaching Ethics.

What do YOU think?


Here is some food for thought:

“What you tolerate, you insist on. What you insist on will be supplied.” – Michele and Jim McCarthy, SOFTWARE FOR YOUR HEAD


See also:

Previous Posts on Agile Coaching Ethics