When the manager’s out, the coaches dance on the table

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?

Frederick Winslow Taylor

A manager – not a coach

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.

Dalai Lama

A coach – not a manager

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?

8 thoughts on “When the manager’s out, the coaches dance on the table

  1. Nice post, food for thoughts!

    I’d like to comment this part: “sometimes it almost feels like the managers I meet actually like it this way”.
    This is perhaps a bit trollish from my part 🙂
    But I’ve met lots of managers that seem more interested in their own career than actually making a difference. And, to be very cynical, managers quite often make good money in being employed as managers. There’s a lot at stake keeping yourself in that state of employment…

    • Hi Henrik! Thanks for your input. To be clear, I’m not bashing managers in this post. In fact, I say the opposite in the text. I feel there are lots of people that have an interest in a nice career – not just managers. But I agree that the better your position, the more interest in keeping the status quo.

  2. I agree that many managers are “out” to much. Perhaps we are part of a dysfunctional system sometimes, but I think there is more to it. Please let me share some thoughts from a managers perspective.

    Most of the things I do as a manager serves to shield the empolyees from having to deal with disruptive or non-productive work. This goes for fire-fighting, “strategy” as well as political in-fighting. Perhaps the reason it may seem insignificant and petty to the employees is that I have done good job of shielding them before. There is usually more than meets the eye at first glance.

    The administrative work is usually connected to a responsibility towards either the company’s owners (checking time sheets to make sure we can sepatare time spent for different customers, if that is important to our company) or the employees (checking time sheets so that someone doesn’t miss out on their vacation days).

    The “actual work” is something I am responsible to make sure I have the right people to do.

    If I am more valueable to my company by shielding the team(s), I can bring an agile coach in to help the team(s) improve our agile skills and change the way we think and work.

    If I am more useful to the company by coaching the empoyees myself I can bring in an administrator to help me with checking time sheets or a product owner that can say no to more requests than we can handle at the same time.

    Managers, in the same ways as everyone else, needs to focus on a finite number of activities. The activities we have to say no to either gets purpously delegated, picked up by responsible co-workers or ignored.

    I think the ideological resistance to agile thinking and doing has been greatly surpassed by the inability to implement it in a successful way all though our organisations.

    To agile coaches that really want to make a difference when the management isn’t getting it I say: Let go off all guerilla activities. The revolution is won. It’s time to take formal leadership and responsibility. It’s time to join management and get those parts of the companies up to speed. Change may be uncomfortable for you too…

    To agile coaches that feel the management is getting it I say: Carry on, your services are greatly appreciated. You are making a lasting difference, in knowlegde, practice and culture.

    • Hi Andreas and a warm thank you for your long and well thought-out comment!

      I truly think you are a special kind of manager, with all your years in the agile movement behind you. And you work in a one of the few companies in Sweden that could be called Lean. Trust me, most managers I meet are very different from you. Also, as I said in an earlier comment reply, my intent with this post was definitely not to bash managers. I even say that in the text. Perhaps give some of them a friendly jolt would better describe it.

      Now I know managers are busy. And of course it’s a less-noticeable, under-appreciated skill to shield the teams. But why is there such a need for it? I would dig deeper into that, if I were you.

      What I feel is that too many managers have forgotten to manage the work. They are looking way too much on the workers and often not at all at the work. This has created a space for big consultancies to push in loads of “certified scrum masters” and their ilk. And these guys are powerless against the corporate anti-bodies and cannot create real change (in leadership mindset, for example). How many real impediments do you think they remove? They can’t. They don’t have that power. As a friend of mine put it, too many people think they can outsource their responsibility.

      Because managers have extra responsibility. How else would they motivate their high, sometimes exorbitant, salaries? Many systems thinkers before me have said that their prime responsibility is to care for and improve “the system”. It is very difficult for a software developer to change an HR policy, quite easy for an HR manager. It’s impossible for a software tester to pave the way for fewer but more agile projects, quite easy for the Head of PMO. It’s outrageous to think an interaction designer could remove budgets as a company’s main steering tool, not that unlikely for an executive team. But to do that wisely, the middle-managers need to observe and understand the work.

      As for becoming a manager, I think you are putting up a false dichotomy between taking responsibility and not being a manager. I am pretty sure you can take responsibility without being a manager. Some people simply don’t want to be managers, believe it or not – not so they can sit on the sidelines and throw dirt, but because being a manager in a traditional organisations often is hard, problem-oriented, ungrateful work. You have selected that route and I respect that. I wish more wise people would, but it’s not for me (at the moment at least).

      • Thank you Joakim for a good and much needed blog post to begin with, and for a challenging follow up comment.

        I need more time to think about the underlying need for shielding the team, and I will. Please, write a blog post about your ideas on the topic and I can comment on that too.

        I think management is more about accountability than responsibility.

        A tester can be just as responsible for doing a good job as a manager can. But the level of accountability differs. A high level of accountability will in most cases give you more organisational power. Power you can use to make a difference.

        There are, however, more ways to get power to make a difference. Knowledge, trustworthiness, commitment, experience, rhetorics, courage, etc, etc. A lot of great changes are made by people who got their power from other sources than high organisational accountability. Many managers do get lots of power from other sources as well.

        I agree that management work is not for everybody. There are plenty of other ways to be responsible and make a difference. Coding is quite under-appreciated on that matter.

        Now for some more provocation 🙂 (Not directed at you as a person Joakim, but to the collective of agile coaches. Some of them might need a friendly jolt… )
        The organisational power will most likely be used by someone else if you don’t want it. Do you have any responsibility for the consequence of your action not to join management? If you are capable of doing it better than most managers today? Are managers the only ones responsible for their lack of actions?

        Being a brand new product owner in a “doing the moves – not really knowing why” newly agile transformed company might well be a hard, problem-oriented and ungrateful work for years to come. Still, this is what many agile coach consultants suggest the best of the used-to-be project managers take on. Is there a smell here or is it all in my head?

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