Coaching is the easy option?

I have run into a strange dynamic in the agile transition today.   As part of the transition to an ‘Agile’ organisation I have been pushing HR to create and formally recognise new roles, specifically Scrum Master and Product Owner, up until now it has been by unofficial secondment.  Part of me feels pleased that we are getting traction over the move and formal recognition is a major step forward in the Civil Service.

But now I have hit a rather significant hurdle, how grades are classified, the Civil Service – or at least this particular location – classifies and grades roles based on accountability, responsibility and number of reporting staff.  So a servant leader that coaches and supports and has no direct reports comes out classified as a very junior admin assistant, the people doing the role it turns out are two or three grades higher than ‘proposed’ which is clearly a serious mismatch.

The advice has been to reword the job description to add responsibilities and authority and accountability, but that feels wrong to me. I am trying to educate and apply Agile principles to the organisation and this feels like a very unpleasant compromise.

It seems that somehow coaching is classified as an easy skill and the lack of apparent direct accountability and responsibility does not sit well with the pigeon holes that the roles must fall in to.

I have tried explaining that coaching is actually far harder than managing, using coaching skills to help a team discover for themselves what to do next is a very difficult skill, but when done right what they learn gives a far deeper understanding and more likely to be maintained than any amount of compelling, controlling or micro managing task assignment.

Those involved seem to understand and appreciate what I am saying but we are challenging the system, it will be an uphill battle. This is new ground and a transition to Agile is rarely easy and it seems the bigger and more established the processes the harder it is to change.

But I wonder why coaching is seen as an easy option. It rarely is. A coach actually has to be pretty mean, they have to be tough.  We have to turn a mirror on people and often show them some unpleasant aspects of themselves, often they are unaware, which can be even tougher to deal with. I sometimes have to sit back and watch someone fail knowing I could have prevented it – not because I want to see them fail, but because failure can teach far more than correcting them.

I sometimes get pressure from management to assign tasks, or to get the expert to do a job because it is quicker, or to challenge certain behaviours directly. I resist and this can and often does reflect badly on me, but I resist because I believe providing an environment where the team learns for themselves is far more valuable than any short-term gain resulting from taking away their independence.

I see my job as protecting the team and creating an environment to grow and learn. I do this by asking a questions to provoke ideas, I challenge where I see potential, sometimes I stray into leading questions if I think it helps but I try very hard not to provide answers, and if I slip into leading rather than coaching I hope I get someone turning a mirror on me and coaching me how to be better.

I love my job, but I don’t coach because it is easy, I coach because someone needs to be tough and push you to do better.

There is a quote in Lyssa Adkins’ book – Coaching Agile teams, which I will paraphrase a little, it says so much.

A friend likes you the way you are, a coach respects you too-much to let you stay that way.

Anyone that thinks a coach or a Scrum Master is the easy option should try walking in those shoes for a while, it may put a whole new perspective on things.

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