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 point that you may not give the team enough room to see what would happen, what they would come up with, how good they really could be. This is where the Hub, the Admin, the Opinionator and the Expert come in. These failure modes are all ways to insert yourself into the team's operations so you can ensure they won't go too far astray. The problem is that this also ensures the team won't come up with amazing results, either.

Multitasking is normal, right?
Well, not really. Multitasking, and its cousin, continuous partial attention, are fairly new and the human nervous system may not be built for them. [1] You're probably well acquainted with multitasking - doing more than one thing at a time, usually with one task being a simple on you can do on auto-pilot. Continuous partial attention is a more recent term, but you probably know what it is, too. It's like this: "I'm going to answer this e-mail while you tell me about your problem and while I look at my Blackberry because it's chirping at me. Now, tell me again, what did you want to talk to me about?" It's like multitasking, but with a twist - the feeling of being "on" 24/7, constantly scanning for who or what wants your attention next.

Continuous partial attention arises when the coach is coaching more than one team, which is fairly common. However, it often leads to the Seagull, the Spy and the Butterfly. These are all some version of doing just enough to make one's presence felt, to make it look like you are coaching when you are really just barely there.

The reality of the situation is that coaches spend much of their time waiting. Being with the team, noticing what's happening and waiting. Waiting for what? Waiting for precious teachable moments.

Teachable moments are "those unique transition points where there is the maximum opportunity for imprinting new learnings." [2] These are the moments that crystallize an Agile principle and make it real or move a team into greater insight and creativity resulting in a remarkable product. They are the "aha!" moments, bringing it all together and laying the foundation for the high-performance team.

Although teachable moments often come for individuals at typical transition times such as the start of a new job, all bets are off when you're dealing with teams. In the context of an Agile team, teachable moments come seemingly at random. You can't force them and you don't know when they will emerge. Waiting seems unproductive, but if ample time for the coach to just "be" with the team is not allowed, the moments will be missed, along with the learning. When the learning is missed, the team's journey to high performance slows.

What might an Agile Coach do?
There is a recovery mode - a way to avoid or, at least, recover from the failure modes. The recovery mode is to replace fear with trust. It's important enough to say it again: replace fear with trust. Trust that the team really does know the right thing to do, even if it's different than you would have them do. Trust that they can and will bounce back from blind alleys and approaches that don't pan out, so you need not save them from these disappointments. Trust that they will rise to the best in themselves to surprise and delight their customers (and you). Trust that if they fail, they will learn and be even better for it.

It's no small feat to get to a place where you trust. This is a tall order, with a big payoff. One nifty side effect of trust is this: to make trust work, you have to offer your full attention. To make room for trust, you need to pay attention to what's actually happening on the team and also, what's trying to happen.

Trust + Attention = Good Coaching (Or, at least, the foundation that makes good coaching possible).

Although there is no one right path to "get to" trust and offer attention, here are a few things you might try: cultivate mindfulness, get curious, go easy and pair. They all work well together and each works fine by itself, so do what feels right. 

Cultivate mindfulness
Anything to help you cultivate mindfulness will help avoid the failure modes. Practicing mindfulness, you may learn to be fully present to teams and you may find your self-awareness increases. Presence and self-awareness are two keys to help you notice when a failure mode has arrived so you can adjust. Any books from John Kabat-Zinn [3] are a good place to start with mindfulness practice.

For me, mindfulness means silencing the noise in my head. The noise may be worry about what the team will do next; judgment about the product owner being too directive; aggravation about a team member not truly participating; elation that the team just released a new product; and so many other thoughts. They are all in there, jumbled up and trying to elbow their way up to the front of the attention line. They are loud and distract me from doing what I need to do as the coach: tune in to what is going on with the team right now. Not what happened in the past, not what I'm worried about will happen in the future, but what is happening in the present moment. This is why mindfulness is often called "getting present." When I get present, I am able to notice what is really happening with the team and then help them move forward in a constructive and positive way. Looking back, I often see that the path they took was perfect for them, and very different than I would have suggested if I allowed myself to be driven by worry, judgment, aggravation, elation, and more. 

Get curious
When you are observing a team as they work, get curious about what's going on. Ask yourself questions such as, "What's trying to happen here?" "Where are they headed?" "What might they find useful?" Then, notice what's going on some more. Take time to see what's really there, to get the clear view of the team - the view that is not colored by your judgments and assumptions. Then, notice what's going on with you. What failure mode is happening for you? What are you feeling? Is fear motivating you? Where is the trust? Where is your attention? And, then, when you see clearly what's going on with them and what's going on inside you, you can begin to *think* about coaching them. 

Go easy
Maybe noticing that a failure mode is in operation for you is enough right now. Maybe just becoming aware when you slip into a failure mode is a big leap forward. Go ahead, be aware. Be gentle with yourself. This is a new muscle. Of course you are going to rely on time-worn reflexes when stressful situations come up. The secret, here, is to know that the stress behavior need not become your everyday behavior. And then, eventually, even in stress, you will be able to avoid the failure modes. But for right now, know where you are. Just notice and pause. After a while, you can decide if you want to continue this way or change.

Pairing is good for coaches, too. Maybe even essential. Cultivate a group of colleagues you can call on when you feel a failure mode start to take hold. These are people who can commiserate with you and remind you: you're going for high-performance; for a self-monitoring, self-adjusting team. And, with that renewed goal firmly in mind, you can put the ego in check, focus your attention and get ready to coach from a place of trust. 

[1] See, for example, John Kabat-Zinn, A.D.D. Nation in Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness, Hyperion: 2006. Also, Linda Stone, Continuous Partial Attention - Not the Same as Multitasking, Business Week, July 2008. For a recent example of disastrous results when multitasking, see articles on the California train crash that killed 25, like this article on

[2] Noel Tichy. The Cycle of Leadership, How Great Leaders Teach their Companies to Win. Harper Business: 2002. 161.

[3] Any books on mindfulness meditation by John Kabat-Zinn are a great way to start a mindfulness practice. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion: 2005) is a winner, as are John's audio books and meditation tapes. One such audio book is Mindfulness for Beginners (Sounds True: 2006).


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