Three Agile Coach Archetypes

Over the years I’ve developed a theory around cooking. It comes from having spent some time as a short-order cook and cooking at home. It also evolved from speaking to a number of people about their experiences and I’ve concluded that there are three kinds of cooks: heaters, cooks, and chefs. I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to with agile coaching or distributed development teams, but here’s the thing. I think this same theory applies to agile as well, especially agile coaches.

The Three Cooking Archetypes

TV Dinner
TV Dinner

Heaters are people who prefer to just heat up their food. They use prepackaged, premade foods (think TV dinners and canned soups). They’re not really interested in making food – they just want to eat some food so they can get back to what they want to do.

Cooks are people who can take a recipe and produce the desired results. They buy the ingredients, they prepare the food, and they create the meal. It requires a lot more experience and understanding of the cooking process to do it successfully, but you’re still following another person’s recipe.

Chefs are the people who create their own recipes. They see the interconnections between ingredients and can figure out whether something needs more thyme or bay leaf or salt. They know how to correct deficiencies in the recipe. In general, they understand how things work together and the underlying properties so they can craft a recipe from scratch.

The funny thing about this theory is that I’ve found that agile coaches aren’t much different.

Agile Coach Heaters

Chef Boiardi
Chef Boiardi

A “heater” agile coach is someone who just takes a prescribed methodology – say Scrum – and applies it. They may lack some of the basic understanding underpinning the agile manifesto and may apply the methodology forcefully. These kinds of coaches may be accused of being “agile purists” – people who have to follow the methodology because there’s no other way for them. It’s very common with brand new agile coaches that they are more inclined to be this way.

The problem with heaters as agile coaches is that they believe the way they’re implementing agile is the only way. This can be off-putting to teams but especially to managers who are unfamiliar with what agile adoption can do to their organizations and their teams. Heaters are unable to really help the organization “adapt the recipe” to meet their needs. They may tell a manager that teams must be co-located. Or that they can only be between 5 and 9 people. It’s this intransigence that sours agile adoption. And much of the reason people will tell you “agile doesn’t work”.

Agile Coach Cooks

So now that we’ve talked about heaters, let’s talk about cooks. An agile cook has a deeper understanding of agile and lean principles. They may have a lot of experience with different environments and methodologies. Like a cook, they can recognize when something may not go together well. They can look at existing methodologies as their recipes but they bring the raw ingredients of their experience and knowledge.

Most experienced coaches tend to be agile cooks. And like a good cook, a good agile coach can modify their recipes to match the needs of the organization. Agile cooks understand what benefits can be gained by adding more of something or reducing the emphasis in a different area. They use objective data to evaluate how a team or an organization is performing, much in the way a cook tastes their food to see what changes should be recommended.

Agile Coach Chefs

Julia Child
Julia Child

As I wrote earlier, chefs are those people who understand the interactions between different ingredients and flavors to create and craft recipes from scratch. How does that apply to an agile coach?

An agile chef is someone who understands deeply the foundational elements of agile and lean. They can clearly see the interconnection between different practices and mindsets and how those can be combined to craft new methodologies or new ways of looking at old methodologies. These people are excellent at synthesizing different disciplines together.

Earlier in my career, I worked with someone who had a very broad set of interests, including game design, physics, and user interfaces. He found ways to synthesize solutions that combined all of these interests – a steel thread that ran through all of those elements. Similarly, an agile chef finds ways to link different ideas and disciplines to create something new. I was impressed with Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s work in this vein, combining lean and agile thinking.

Some good examples of this are the original crafters of agile, including the original crafters of the agile manifesto. I would also say this includes Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka whose article The New New Product Development Game kicked off a lot of the agile development movement. Modern chefs would include Dean Leffingwell who created SAFe and Bas Vodde and Craig Larman who crafted LeSS, among many, many others.

@ Velocity

We always work with our clients to find the best way forward for them and our team. We approach each engagement individually, based on the client’s needs, and look at ways we can make improvements based on the underlying agile principles. And we always approach at the agile cook level – not overly prescriptive – and work with our clients to craft recipes that work for them. We might recommend the agile equivalent of “more bay leaf” or “less salt” but always with the intent of improving how we deliver value to them and their customers.

Closing Thoughts

When you engage an agile coach, make sure that you understand where they stand on this scale. If they’re an agile heater, expect them to be a little more insistent and rigorous in their coaching. If they’re a cook, they’re going to try to keep to the intent of the practice but they’re going to be more flexible in their adoption. And agile chefs are likely to find novel and interesting ways to help you solve your problems. In all cases, though, your coach should be helping you understand why they’re recommending a particular course of action and helping you achieve success with your product. The goals are the same but the paths may diverge.

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

Bill DeVoe