Eight Agile Coaching-style Dysfunctions – Don’t be an Antipattern

The 8 Agile Coaching-style Dysfunctions – Don’t be One of These

The Death Marcher

These coaches like to reverse coach “People and Interactions over Processes,” even if it is the first “Wassup” of the Agile Manifesto.
In this scenario, the team’s attempts to have fun can’t beat the pull of the Death-Marcher’s black hole. “Why are you taking a 5-minute break watching cute puppy videos, team, when you should be rewriting your iteration goal like I told you too?” The Death Marchers, lacking compassion, berate their team for coloring outside the lines rather than using this chance to bond with the team in a coachable moment. (I’m a sap. I personally like cute, cuddly puppy videos!)

The Death Marcher is a conversation oinker too. Rarely being satisfied, they often break fledgling spirits and foster feelings of frustration and inadequacy across their team. Usually without knowing they are doing it. Death marchers cherish correcting team infractions of the Death Marcher’s brand of “Agile Law” rather than rewarding healthy learning from honest mistakes and respectful debate.
In my experience, Death Marchers often lack creativity, empathy and an appreciation of their team’s cognitive load limits. They also lack understanding of Sinek’s Golden Circle; that which drives our intrinsic motivation. They are unable to see the art of team. Instead, they become a self-contextualized Agent of The Matrix bent on destroying any hope of Zion.

The Theorist

I learned after college, over the course of my first year in the workplace, my fancy book smarts didn’t quite get it when facing real-world challenges. That painful realization had to be mercilessly tempered by seeking experience through making mistakes, experimenting, and continuously learning. Come to terms with “It’s okay to suck at first,” provided you: Win. Learn. Never Lose.

I feel there are three kinds of theorists. Coaches that avoid accountability, those that lack the courage/energy to try, and coaches that lack human empathy to connect with all they serve. Regardless of the reason, theory alone creates a void that theorists can’t fill with just rules, tools and formulas.

True, you may have the knowledge, but if you don’t know how or are afraid to apply it when facing real-world variability, it’s useless. There’s an old coaching adage: A little pragmatism a day keeps waterfall away.
Paraphrasing the great philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is no more than mental gymnastics.”

The Kumbaya

Oh my, lord. I have never seen agile teams rise to anger faster than when repeatedly encountering a Kumbaya coach. “Agile is self-sustaining harmony,” says the Kumbaya Coach while strumming a one-note soundtrack to the Movie, “Into the Unknown: My Agile Team’s Journey”.
Kumbayas often inadvertently undermine real problems a team faces daily, especially when teams are in the “Shu” maturity stage. They overuse the coaching phrase, “I don’t know, what would you do?” without due attention to team context. It comes across as coldly Darwinist, especially without first coaching the newborn cubs how to embody and radiate an agile mindset.
Look, Agile should be a relentless pursuit of harmony. But to reach it, first there must be an acknowledgement of chaos and entropy as the natural order. And when faced with this inescapable law, all things fall apart, the team and coach must winningly say to any challenge: “Oh no, not today, buddy!”

Invariably, Kumbayas think “I don’t know, what would you do?” is a forcing function for self-sufficiency. It can be in certain circumstances. My experience is that coaches better serve a team’s drive toward self-sufficiency using a sliding scale gradient based on a team’s maturity and environment when offering guidance.
The Zealot

I’m much more forgiving of The Zealot than of the Death Marcher. Zealots only crime is their inexperienced perspective. “I am an Agile Hammer, and everything looks like a communal-friendly nail.”
Zealots can be polarizing, especially when they fall in love with their own voice or knowledge. Unintentionally, their desire of viewing the entire world through a monochromatic lens, can push open/borderline Agile detractors further away from achieving Business Agility Nirvana.
Zealots are often neophytes and truly want to help people. They desire to evangelize the blessings Agile can bring to an organization. I get it and applaud it! However, through lacking an understanding of the application of Agile Principles, Zealots can become that song on Satellite radio that gets way too much air play.

The Condemner

“For your impudence team, drop and give me 20 then rewrite the Agile manifesto in its entirety repeatedly and intermixed with more push-ups until I say STOP.”

Condemners see the bad in everything. They hold agile ways of working a tad too righteously. They advocate rather than inquire. It is sad to say, that Condemners don’t listen to learn and understand, they listen to validate their own replies and counter opposing viewpoints. This is the lowest level of leadership agility.

If you want your team to continuously ghost you, become this type of coach.

The Giver

The Giver’s worst crime is often giving teams a fish rather than teaching them to fish. The Giver loves helping people and seeing that help improve other’s lives. They often care too much. The Giver will feed any misfortunate soul appearing on their doorstep at any hour of the workday and do so without judgement. The Giver would rather absorb all the pain than see the pain in those they coach without acknowledging that there’s pain that hurts and pain that alters.

As I self-reflect, I have embodied this dysfunction without realizing the harm it does in limiting the growth rate of those I coach. I have learned to cast a wide net, still. But also assess need on an individual/circumstantial basis where the team currently is at present. Then coach ½ a step ahead and anticipate where they want to be in the future. I now limit how much I do in favor of guiding more through powerful open-ended questions.

I use teach back techniques whenever/wherever they apply.

Nietzsche stated the difficulty of overcoming this dysfunction best: “This is hardest of all: to close the open hand out of love and keep modest as the giver.”

The Politician

There are two kinds of Politician coaches. The good ones that use their diplomatic talents to benefit those they serve ─ This Good Politician is the highest form of leadership agility. In self-reflection, this is the next level of coaching I am striving for through many learning lessons past and to come. Always put your teams before yourself while being kind to yourself and others, regardless of their viewpoint. Keep advocacy and inquiry always balanced.

The other version of The Politician is the bad one that is the posterchild of this self-serving dysfunction. The Bad Politician uses their talent for their own personal gains and notoriety rather than helping those they serve. Sometimes the needs of teams and the aim of The Bad Politician can coalesce, but this is of no concern to them. There is little trust between The Bad Politician and those they serve. They bypass, misrepresent and/or ignore the needs of their teams when discussing their teams with management.

It is all about control. The Bad Politician captures the ears of the leader they want to impress and becomes “the voice of the team”. To control the bi-directional information flow as a middle-man between teams and management. These types will always paint their failures as wins by saying “I told them not to do it” blame game. They laud their wins as if no one else on Earth but them made it happen. That is never the case in coaching.

A great Quote from the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “Tyranny and anarchy are never far apart”. A testament to most failed agile transformations.

The Data Merchant

The Data Merchant places too much emphasis on the data as a final endpoint rather than the beginning of the story. Tool-centricity and over-engineered dashboards become almost Messianic to The Data Merchant. A well-constructed dashboard and excellent data hygiene are indispensable to team/organizational growth. It’s the interpretation of data, in the absence of a lean-agile foundation and a pivotal conversation, that can objectify teams as a data point. The uninitiated team’s response is gaming the metrics. I feel data interpretation should be handled with the care of a story’s 3C’s.

Coaches by nature are empirical-driven creatures. To add to that, I am an engineer. It’s easy for folks like me to eat, breathe, and sleep 0’s and 1’s. There’s an allure to mathematics. It can provide some semblance of order when the chaos volume gets turned to 11.
It’s true. Good lean-agile habits coupled with judicious (3C) use of metrics can maximize a team’s self-discovery, growth, and rate of improvement. Or at a minimum, help uncover critical delays in value flow. The Data Merchant should invest more in the team’s Shu stage of development to let the intrinsic value of metrics take its rightful place in the Agile Pantheon. After all, coaches are in the making-good-habits business.

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Written by Joe Tardiolo
Enterprise Agile Transformation Coach

See Joe Tardiolo’s original LinkedIn article here.