Seven Agile Coach Failure Modes


Agile Coaches have a big job.

"Support the team but not too much and not too little."

"Be available but don't be overbearing."

"Offer ideas but don't get too involved."

"Coach, don't manage."

All this advice can be confusing, even contradictory. No wonder Agile Coaches fall into less-than-desirable behaviors as they try out new things to help teams. The problem is that these behaviors can subtly undermine a team's ability to organize, improve and, eventually, reach high-performance. That's why they are called failure modes.

After a few years of coaching aspiring Agile Coaches and observing many practicing coaches in action, I have noticed a handful of common failure modes. Some coaches temporarily exhibit one or more of these modes when under stress. Others exhibit them all the time, to the point that the coach is not aware of them, or their effects on teams.

In this article, the term Agile Coach is used synonymously with ScrumMaster. To enable high-performance teams, ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches must go deep into Scrum, past the practices and into the coaching aspects of the job. Therefore, this article uses the term Agile Coach only. Know this: the failure (and recovery) modes presented in this article apply fully to both ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches.

What are these failure modes? 

The Failure Modes, Defined
Here are the seven failure modes, expressed as personas. Each is followed by a defining characteristic.

The Spy
The Spy spends just enough time observing the team to pick up topics for the next retrospective.

The Seagull
The Seagull swoops in at standups, poops all over the team (with well-intentioned observations or advice) and flies away again.

The Opinionator
The Opinionator expresses opinions during team discussions, getting so attached to their opinions (or others') that they lose the objectivity needed to help the team have great discussions.

The Admin
The Admin undermines team ownership by becoming an unnecessary middle-man for meeting logistics, access requests and other administrator-type jobs.

The Hub
The Hub acts as the center of the universe for communication between team members and for task-level coordination.

The Butterfly
The Butterfly flits around from team to team, landing just long enough to impart a pearl of wisdom or pose a philosophical question. 

The Expert
The Expert is so involved in the details of the team's work that only the trees are visible. What? We're in a forest? Huh, does that mean there's a way out?

All the failure modes have the same effect on the team. They sap the team's ability to become truly high performing because they spotlight the Agile Coach. When the failure modes are in operation, the coach has somehow become a focus of the team's work. Maybe the coach is too invasive, like the Hub, for instance. Or, equally as damaging, the coach could be too evasive, like the Butterfly. In either case, the coach is in the center and that's the wrong place for a coach to be. 

Where do they come from?
Ego or continuous partial attention, or both, are often present when a coach is in the grip of a failure mode.

Egos are normal, right?
Of course. The ego is where judgment, intellect, planning, perception and reality-awareness meet. It allows you to be confident enough to risk speaking your ideas. It is normal, and needed. The ego is, however, "I" centered. What do I think? What should I do? What ideas do I have to contribute? What will people think of me? This "I" thinking can easily slide down the slippery slope into a deeper expression, however, when coaching teams. Why can't they see what I see? What will I do if they don't do well? What will people think of my team? What will people say about me, as their coach?

What's behind all of this "I" thinking is fear. Fear that the team really won't know the right way to go. Fear that they will fail or not be good enough; culminating in fear that this will reflect badly on you. The problem with this cycle is that fear breeds fear to the



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