Agile coach: our coaching title may not be a sham

Written by Guillaume Dutey-Harispe, on 21 May 2019


Dans this post, I wish to reflect on the benefits of adopting a deliberate coaching posture in guiding an organization towards new ways of working, especially agile ones. And, implicitly, the reasons why this approach can be very challenging to achieve in a traditional consulting approach.

Agile: an emanation of pre-existing concepts

Without overly offending the "founding fathers" of the Agile Manifesto, it seems fair to say that the fundamentals of enterprise agility have their roots before the famous retreat of February 2001.

From my perspective, if each of the 17 signatories brought practical experiences synthesized in the manifesto and its underlying 12 principles, the managerial and conceptual attitudes and postures that characterize them stem from two pre-existing concepts: autonomy and learnability.

The dimension of autonomy for individuals and organizations originates in the works of humanistic psychology (Carl Rogers, Bateson), the Palo Alto school and its various branches (Transactional Analysis, NLP, etc.). The concept of learnability is carried by PDCA, Lean Management, and systems thinking, referencing theories ranging from Berne's Organizational Theory to Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline, to the systemic management theorized in the 1970s (Crozier, Mitzberg, Bern), not to mention its kinship with Lean Toyota. (1)

These conceptual sources share the common characteristic of being opposed to the supposed efficiency of predictability, carried by classical project management and objective-based management.

And what would be the dynamics of a shift to agility?

Agile frameworks now appear to me as privileged spaces to experiment, invent, and stabilize practices of self-organization and continuous improvement, as explained by my esteemed colleague Christophe Keromen in a recent article. (2)

Speaking from the perspective of Transactional Analysis, one could say that autonomy of actors is the target situation that will restore intelligence and, therefore, value creation to human relationships. For the "terrain" (sponsors, managers, and teams) to voluntarily make the choice of a new "life script."

To support them in this process, coaches will ensure to establish a secure framework for experimentation (protection) to practice new forms of work (permission) allowing to overcome (power) the obstacles encountered by the collective. They will choose (depending on contexts and situations, the maturity of the relationship, and the position on the autonomy cycle) to practice one or more of the various techniques they master enough to practice without risk to themselves and/or the people they support (reformulation, reframing, paradoxical interventions...).

It seems to me that these activities clearly belong to the field of coaching interventions. Particularly because these tools/postures require the creation of a trusting relationship of a very particular nature within a necessarily triangular coaching (organization, sponsor, coaches). (3) And who is the bearer of this framework of trust if not the coach, supported by the specific ethics of his profession (4)?

From predictive to agile; a Level II transformation

For some years now, we have sometimes tried to encompass the complexity of agility in the somewhat catch-all term "agile mindset". In my opinion, what this term seeks to describe seems to be the shift from one mode of worldview to another. With the starting territory being a world whose coherence is carried by tools and processes and the arrival territory being a world that structures itself gradually, relying on rich, efficient, and transparent interactions between people.

This shift from one worldview to another can also be likened to a "Level II transformation," a term that refers to a transformation that allows systems to overcome their current states to establish new regulations.

In the agile manifesto, the shift from one worldview to another is clearly signified by the term "more than" (in English "over"), as in the phrase "Individuals and interactions MORE THAN processes and tools." Or "Responding to change MORE THAN following a plan."

It is, therefore, a matter of replacing, abandoning, if not entirely then at least in part, old postures with new ones; of collectively and fundamentally changing from one worldview to another. This collective change involves phases of adoption/rejection, redefinition of objectives, and experiences in which transformations take place.

Conversely, the very idea that it would be possible to "work on the culture" to make it more receptive to "accepting change" is not based on any serious scientific work. It is unfortunate that it is still part of the ready-to-think toolbox of some consulting firms.

In this sense, "agile" transformations that add lots of new words/job titles/organizational structures (I'll let you make the list!) but also want to change nothing about the steering, management, and evaluation tools that drive them are doomed not to succeed. They inherently put tension (often violent) on the collective, the result of which will systematically be a swing back.

Agility? Welcome to the low posture (aka: "I don't know")

In the classical approach to complicated processes, the consultant "knows" the one or more right solutions because he masters the good practices that lead to the successful completion of processes. This approach is perfectly commendable and necessary if the world in which the organization operates is a world where the means to take an action are known and where the purpose is precisely defined.

It is very different for the coach who, for his part, "does not know" because he embodies the bias that complex situations are approached in a non-linear way, by emergent structures. (5)

Through his practice of the least possible intervention (the non-intervention of the coach in business transformation can be the subject of a future article...), the coach allows the collective to enter into a feedback loop learning process that will allow it to emerge practices gradually as it discovers the environment.

The motto of these collectives could be "We don't know exactly where we want to go, we don't really know the means to implement, and... we're OK with that!" And the coach's posture accompanies it directly with his "I don't know... but I know you can find out."

Or, in the words of my colleague Semeho Edhor, by adopting a resolutely SLAM attitude: "Say Less, Ask More."

Towards a new intervention ecosystem

When agile coaches intervene in environments that have built part of their professional identity on their ability to predict how they will achieve the best solution, inevitably identified in advance, their proposals for approaches through iterative and incremental logics inevitably encounter opposition and misunderstandings.

How they interact with these oppositions and misunderstandings will be meaningful in the progress that collectives will make (or not make). It goes without saying that attempting to deploy a non-linear and non-predictive approach in a linear and predictive manner carries within it its share of contradiction... which is part of the intervention's dynamics.

As an agile coach aiming for the autonomy and learnability of the terrains, the main enemy is, therefore, the position of the "knowing" and bearer of the "agile knowledge" that places him in a high position; a very comfortable position in the first part of the coaching cycle (dependence...), and obviously untenable thereafter (counter-dependence, independence, interdependence).

Deconstructing our consultant postures into coaching postures

The agile coach's intervention toolbox will necessarily have to include tools for individual support, managerial support, collective support, and strategic support... Can these supports be carried out by the same person at the same time? And outside any supervision?

The reason seems to dictate the opposite, but it's not as simple as that for at least two reasons:

  • Most consulting firms - and the purchasing departments that commission them - often fail to understand the meaning and dynamics of these new types of services…
  • Agile coaches in France are generally from managerial, expert, or consultant backgrounds. For most of them, they have grasped the systemic dimension of their interventions and the paradoxical injunction inherent in "prescribing" self-organization. However, the transition from a high posture to a low posture is not an easy task and involves significant upheavals. And bad habits die hard.

Nevertheless, this new profession is facilitated by the professionalization of the coaching profession (in general), which now benefits from several decades of experience, certifying professional federations, training schools, and recently, a recognized professional title.

The most obvious path to the professionalization of agile coaching, although not necessarily the simplest or the only one, can draw inspiration from the stages of professional coach training: therapeutic work, education, supervision.

So, does (already) specific agile coaching exist?

The question, it seems to me, deserves to be asked because what will remain of agility for these agile coaches torn between non-intervention/non-prescription and "agile" prescriptions, either from the Agile Manifesto or the associated frameworks?

Perhaps the title of organization coaches with a somewhat specific toolbox, that of agility, while having the intelligence to know when to step out. Because, for agile coaches as well, the map is obviously not the territory.

The deployment of these new types of services/support will take time to integrate into the transformation initiatives of companies and communities that aim for a profound shift toward becoming learning organizations.

Undoubtedly, the time needed for agile coaches to undertake their own necessary transformations...

And you? What do you think?


(1) La figure de Jacques-Antoine Malarewicz s’impose à la jonction de ces deux courants par exemple dans un de ses ouvrages-phare « Système et Entreprise » (Pearson, 2012)

(2) Christophe Keromen « Le cadre en question »

(3) Vous pouvez vous référer aux « 12 opérations de coaching » selon le livre modélisant de François Délivré « Le métier de coach » au chapitre 15 (Eyrolles, 2013)

(4) Sur cette question « Savoir-être Coach : un art, une posture, une éthique » de Reine-Marie Halbout (Eyrolles, 2015) m’est toujours particulièrement éclairant

(5) Bien sûr, la référence majeure sur cette question est celle du Cynefin Framework de Dave Snowden (Cynefin, pour les francophones, se prononce Ka-Na-Vian 😉) :