I work as a software consultant and often in the role of a so-called “team coach” or “agile coach”. That’s basically just a hyped-up term for helping teams and departments to improve, to be more effective, and guide them on their way amongst a myriad of options. So coaching is great and many coaches I know are great, but there’s something bothering me. My opinion is that much of what I do is a kind of management – not of the people but of the work, and I’m getting more and more concerned about this. Should this really be the coach’s job?
Being an agile coach typically entails helping teams find a process and tool set that is valuable to them and their customers, and suitable to their context. Of course it also includes nurturing great teams and relationships with other parts of the value network (a fancy word that often boils down to collaborators in other departments). Finally, it means battling all kinds of ingrained enterprise weirdness, e.g. entrenched silo organisation, yearly cost budgeting, tayloristic command-and-control thinking, and perverted HR procedures and metrics (what scrummers so adorably understating call “impediments”).
If you are unfamiliar with my line of work and look at the things that I do it may strike you as odd that companies hire external help for this; isn’t there a manager somewhere? To such a person, things like processes, improvement, team-building, and organisation are in the domain of management – almost at the core of it. If those things aren’t managers’ job, then what is?
Well, modern managers are busy. Busy doing important stuff. I have yet to meet an enterprise manager that can or will allocate significant amounts of time for those tasks. They are often far too busy with administration (budgeting, performance management, signing time sheets, for example), “strategy” (a term that can mean anything cerebral, really), hiring staff, fighting fires or political in-fighting. Meetings, meetings, meetings, and the people doing the work hardly see them. But hey, let’s not start bashing each other’s managers just yet. Most of the times, it’s not their fault. They’re just caught in a dysfunctional system like everybody else.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a coach. My issue is more in the fact that there are now dozens of coaches in many companies not doing actual coaching but management. I think many companies would benefit from having a few coaches do real coaching/advising that makes a difference than dozens doing fake management. Why do I say “fake management”? Because outsiders/consultants are notoriously poor managers. Not because they are incompetens but because they have no real power, no internal reputation, poor domain knowledge, and no connections.
But don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I really shouldn’t object to this state of affairs when I make a good living out of it. But here’s the rub: I want to make a difference too. This way of conducting business makes it nigh impossible for me to truly succeed. By this I mean creating a lasting improvement. Organisations simply won’t work very well unless managers, including executives, gradually take on these tasks (and drop others). Otherwise, things will mostly fall back to where they were when the coaches came in.
I do wish that more managers would recognise the problem with this setup and stand with me on the barricades for real change. A lonely consultant battling for radical change is rarely a successful recipe. To make things worse, sometimes it almost feels like the managers I meet actually like it this way; being abstracted away from the daily challenges and details. They basically stay busy, appear decisive, grow relationships to important people, and wing it. It’s human, I guess.
So remember, whenever you’re doing or seeing a coach work on things that you feel should be your manager’s job, you’re probably right. Try discussing this with your coach and your manager. Perhaps you can contribute to real change?