When Agile Coaching Engagements Go Wrong – Part 1

Lemons to Lemonade?
Lemons to Lemonade?

What do you do when life gives you lemons? Sometimes you make lemonade. Sometimes you throw those lemons at someone. Given the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve been engaged in a few situations where my agile coaching didn’t have the desired effect and things went south – badly. I believe I can look back objectively and see where I failed the team(s). And sometimes you’re just there holding the bag when things go south through no fault of your own. Think of this as an experience report on what can happen when you try things and they fall flat on their face.

Think of this as part one of a multi-part experience report on what can happen when you try things and they fall flat on their face.

Scenario One: Agile Coaching Rejected

One enterprise client I worked with was working to meet some specific federal change requirements. They had a hard deadline and had established a very clear scope of work that needed to be completed before that deadline. We were using SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and were working to prepare for our next PI (Program Increment) planning session. It was a big deal. People were coming in from all over the country and we had some international teams calling in as well.

The Scope Scare

During our first day of planning, the teams being asked to look at the work quickly realized they couldn’t complete the work in the PI. There was just too much to do and not enough time. We quickly gathered all of the key stakeholders and began discussing what could be done. Several ideas were put forward and the management team made some (very hard-fought) adjustments. By the end of the first day, we had a clearer idea of what could be done. The second day was much smoother. And we came out of PI Planning with something the teams felt they could complete. And a plan that met our deadlines and goals.

The Knee-Jerk Reaction

Unbeknownst¬†to me, a small cadre met after the PI Planning to talk about the scope. There were serious concerns raised by those members and a new plan was crafted. No one was engaged and everyone seemed to go radio silent. When doing agile coaching, that’s never a good sign. And time proved it out.

One week after the PI Planning this small group came forward with a totally different plan – and with management buy-in. They created a small, select team of “high-performers”. They locked them in the basement (not just figuratively). The plan was to do everything originally agreed upon with the original deadline. They’d force the teams to put in extra hours and weekends.

Hello My Name Is Chopped Liver
Not a Name Tag You Want

In other words, the managers who agreed to the original plan changed their minds. And the teams were thrown into disarray. The people who didn’t get picked for the “select team of high-performers” felt like chopped liver. What was their work going to be? No one knew. And no one told them what they were supposed to do. The remaining team members actually self-organized and started working on things they knew needed to happen. But there was no guidance from management and the teams felt quite depressed as a result. I was asked by those teams to come coach them since they recognized the value of coaching. While some of my coaching felt more therapeutic than methodological, the teams needed someone to talk to about their experience. It was a rough time but the teams came out better than when they began.

The Analysis

So what happened here? Did the agile coaching I provided fall on deaf ears? Did they have a better plan? Was I just being an “agile purist” about it? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons why.

First, the management team never really trusted the team to be able to do the work. They didn’t believe in the plan. But they went along with it and then went behind the teams’ backs to undo it all. There was still a strong belief that waterfall was the right way to do things. Despite everything they’d been taught and told, they trusted their GANTT chart more than they trusted their people.

#Facepalm
#Facepalm

Secondly, they didn’t trust me. They thought I was an “agile purist”. #facepalm It’s funny to me because I think – if anything – agilists tend to be eminently pragmatic, not puritanical or overzealous. Regardless, there was a belief that I was being too rigid and prescriptive. I certainly never felt that I was being either of those, but that was the perception.¬†If I’m honest, though, I think it’s because I was recommending they take actions they didn’t believe in. In short, there are those times where you lead a horse to water and they’re just not going to drink.

The Aftermath

The “select team” did meet the goals set out by the management team. Eventually. And it was late. But there was still – even at the end – a lot of political maneuvering to make it look good. Those in the know, especially the “chopped liver” teams, understood the failures. But it was touted as hugely successful and the program continued on as if nothing happened. As you may have guessed, I left that engagement shortly after and moved to a different group that actually wanted a coach.

Closing Thoughts

Just thinking about this chapter in my coaching career is a little painful. It is a failure I feel keenly. Not because the managers didn’t buy into agile, but because the teams suffered so unnecessarily for it. It did nothing but segregate the engineers into “high-performers” and “chopped liver”. And those “chopped liver” engineers were some damn good engineers.

Sometimes an engagement doesn’t go quite the way you planned. What I learned from this one was trying to make sure I was engaging the group at different levels. My next engagement following this one saw me having a lot more one-on-one meetings with managers. Really working to make sure that the teams were being set up to be successful. Thankfully that engagement was awesome on many levels.

In Part 2 I discuss a more recent failure that is still causing some angst.

Feliz entrenamiento, mis amigos! (Happy coaching, my friends!)

Bill DeVoe