Can I be an Agile Coach — always and forever?
There are two types of agile coaches — independent consultants and those who work as employees, the internal agile coaches. The perspectives, priorities and challenges are often different. While vertical growth is not on the agenda of the consultants, for the latter ones, it is a factor in consideration, especially when they are operating in deep hierarchical structures where the income parity between the levels is wide.
While it is a common truth that the current organisational structures do not incentivise true agility, this article from Kurt Nielsen puts it forward with substantial arguments in his post — The challenge of the traditional hierarchy. If the pay disparity between top executives and the average worker continues to be higher (300:1 as he claims), there is hardly any incentive to have flatter organisational structures.
There is no incentive to be an agile thinker for middle management.
The hit on agility is real, which is fundamentally why business agility remains elusive though it is considered a top priority for executives and the new “mantra”. All we get is superficial implementations of scrum and the hot favourite — SAFe — old wine bottled in new shiny ones in most cases. Terminology aligns with the new normal — agile, where most transformations stop.
Middle management has no incentive to be agile thinkers and doers. The corporate ladder is real, and if financial growth is only rewarded when middle managers climb the ladder, they will always try to retain this structure and not break it.
Agile Coaches who can drive change are hard to find
Another fallout of this is the attrition of talented agile coaches. While the industry is flooded with those that carry the title “scrum masters” and “agile coaches”, folks who can drive profound organ change are far and few. There is a real talent crunch there.
A lot of this top talent keeps jumping from one enterprise to another in the race to increase their remuneration or eventually move out of the agile coaching domain. Agile talks about stable teams, which is crucial to understanding the context and driving contextual solutions. When one of the critical roles essential to orchestrate the transformation struggles to be stable and associated for the longer run, how can we strive for business agility?
I often listen to one argument that agile coaching is for independent consultants, not a “salaried employee”. Such an argument is not logical, as not everyone wants to go down that path.
When you associate for a longer term with an organisation, there is a lot you can do with the connections and deeper understanding of the context you develop. Things a contractor might never be able to do.
I have been an Agile coach for some time now. What next?
While scrum and agile coaches are valued, most enterprises do not have a clear path of how can those folks continue to grow in the corporate ladder while remaining true to their profession. There is an expectation of picking up “delivery”, “management”, or “other” additional responsibilities at some point to continue to “grow”.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, with an individual contributor shining through and establishing their influence, commanding the financial incentives they deserve and continuing to work on assignments that excite them. However, most would eventually get tired and become independent consultants or switch from their agile coaching role to something that can help them move ahead in the corporate rat race.
I am still an Agile Coach at heart and will continue to be.
Now moving to “delivery” or “management” roles is in itself not a bad thing. I have alternated between pure agile coaching roles and delivery / management/ leadership positions for a few years already. Regardless of my role, thinking as an agile coach has been a critical success factor. The skills I gained in agile coaching assignments came in handy in all roles.
Skills like change management, stakeholder management, persuasion, storytelling are universal — and they might stay with you long after you may have stopped working as an agile coach.
One additional benefit has been that I have been sympathetic and supportive of the agile coaches and scrum masters. I know their struggle is real, and my forays into agile coaching appreciate the right conditions that are needed for them to succeed.
Can I be an (internal) Agile Coach forever?
What we expected from a coach ten years ago is not what we expect today. No one expects a coach to teach people scrum, and teams learn this at university already and there are tons of e-learning available on places like Coursera. So we don’t need a coach for training anymore. However, one thing will remain. Coaches are still at the heart of driving change, and that will continue.
Only time will tell whether that role title will be an agile coach or evolve into something else. However, one thing is clear, in most organisations, there might not be enough incentives to stay a pure Agile coach the way it’s currently understood forever. This is true for independent consultants as well, but more critical for internal coaches.
If you think of it, does it even make sense to remain an agile coach forever? Every person, regardless of where they are, evolves. That is true for all roles, not just an agile coach, whether internal or independent. So the expectation itself may be a bit misplaced.
We can remain agile coaches in our hearts forever but not always as a role title.
It will still take a long time for enterprises to support flatter structures fully, and it is a generational change that will take time. Agility is an infinite game. Also, doing the same thing forever may not always be logical and could be quite boring. Regardless, if you add value to an organisation and can navigate the corporate madness, you can keep doing what you always love — even if it’s being an Agile coach.
Being an Agile coach is not just about a role title but about effecting positive change, and you can be the torchbearer of that change in whatever role you play. You can be an Agile Coach forever if not always!