Courage, Convictions & Neutrality

Posted on 26. Aug, 2010 by in Agile, Coaching, Leadership, Reflections, Uncategorized

I have been struck lately by two observations which are ironically related. One is when we as Agile Coaches want to persuade. We try to persuade our constituents and stakeholders to take certain actions, to be more Agile, to ‘really’do the practices, to be an Agile manager, to be an Agile enterprise. Mainly, we exhort others to ‘just get it’ (as, of course, we do).

The other is when we step back, look the other way, or avoid confrontations around clear violations of the Agile rules: Product Owners who don’t engage, stories that are not tested within the iteration, managers who slip work in around the Agile prioritization process (and the Product Owner), stand-ups that go on for an hour. Perhaps we are worried about  job security, or don’t want to rock the boat, or just have a hard time with conflict, either way we say nothing, or we ‘complain’ about the violation but don’t actually take a stand.

The irony? The thing that persuades people most strongly is not what we say (trying to convince them), but rather who we are (taking a stand). Think of the ‘blow hard’ people you know who are always preaching about something. Do you find them persuasive, or annoying?

The trouble is we are coaches, first and foremost, and the ethical guidance for a coach (see ICF Coach Core Competencies) is that she hold the client’s agenda as the driving factor, not her own agenda. So, what would it mean for a coach to take a stand, and how can I hold the client’s agenda while holding the line on the Agile rules?

I have found that when I am able to navigate this dilemma well, it is because I maintain a certain sense of engaged neutrality along with courage. On one hand, I let clients know the Agile ‘rules.’ For instance, I may say, “when playing the Agile game, you can only complete a story when the team finishes all the work that fulfills its acceptance criteria and definition of done, including the testing.” “But we just can’t get to all the testing,” the QA manager may complain. “And my people are feeling devalued because you say their stories are not done so they don’t get credit for them.”

Here, I may take a clarification and educational tack: “I want to understand why they feel they are not getting credit? Perhaps the organization does not understand how Agile teams work?” Or, if this is not the first such conversation on the topic, I may need to balance my expert mentor role with being a coach and consultant: “Perhaps Agile is not right for this team at this point? You and the team will have to decide that, I can’t do that for you. But I do know how to play the Agile game, and that includes finishing everything on a story within an iteration.  How can I help you decide what is best for you to do?” From here I may help the client explore what is frustrating them, what the blocks are, what their own values are, etc. I may also need to invoke multiple levels of ‘client,’ the team as client, the vice president who brought me in as client, etc.

What helps is for me to remember two things. I know what is clearly not Agile, and if I don’t take a stand around it, I am colluding with the client in a kind of lie. I must stand in the courage of my convictions. I must also differentiate things that I think are good practices, but are not really part of the Agile rules. I don’t take a stand here, just offer my advice when appropriate.

The other side is detaching from what the client decides to do for themselves. They may not follow the Agile rules or other guidance. They may decide to do “Cragile’ or “Scrumbut.’ As a good coach, I may even help them decide that this is what makes sense for them, that it is honoring their values or needs as an organization. As a good coach, I maintain my respect for them and manage myself to not bring my own judgement into criticizing them for what they decide.

But, I don’t sell them (or myself) out by calling that Agile.

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7 Responses to “Courage, Convictions & Neutrality”

  1. Lyssa AdkinsNo Gravatar

    26. Aug, 2010


    You are pointing to the crux of what makes agile coaching hard (and, potentially, quite a powerful transformative force) – but only when done with courage, conviction and neutrality.

    I say it to myself this way…I let my coaching be loving, compassionate and 100% UNCOMPROMISING. Uncompromising on what the Agile rules are and what the vision of Agile done well looks like. And, this is what I impart to the coaches I coach.

    But, even then I master myself so that my own agenda does not override that of the coaches I coach – some of them see the power and the personal freedom of working this way. Some want to keep blowing hard.

    Love this post. Thanks for offering it.

  2. Ilja PreußNo Gravatar

    27. Aug, 2010

    Very well said!

  3. Ilja PreußNo Gravatar

    27. Aug, 2010

    Another, related thought that I try to let me guide by: I might be the hired expert for Agile Software Development, but my client is the expert for the situation he is in.

  4. George DinwiddieNo Gravatar

    27. Aug, 2010

    Great post! As I read this, I think it comes down to a restatement of congruence (balancing self, other, and context) in different words. But I think these different words can prove very valuable for coaches struggling to maintain that balance in difficult situations.

  5. David ChilcottNo Gravatar

    27. Aug, 2010

    Thanks Michael… I resonate with the clear description of the tension between each of your three “corners”.

    Staying present with (in the present moment and in presence/connection with) this tension/balance is, for me, one of the most interesting and powerful inquiries.

  6. Bachan AnandNo Gravatar

    29. Aug, 2010

    Very well said Michael.

    Your post offers some great tips on how you can keep you the client’s agenda in mind and still not lie to yourself and the client about what they are doing in the context of Agile adoption.

  7. Martin ProulxNo Gravatar

    29. Aug, 2010

    Nice post Michael.

    Being a coach is a very humbling experience. It does not matter if we have (or think we have) the right answer to the client’s challenges, all we can do is to highlight the opportunities and pitfalls and hope they make the right decision for their context. We need to remind ourselves that it is them (the clients) who will live with the consequences of their decisions – not us.

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