The Dreaded, Embedded Coach…

There’s a disturbance in the Agile force.  Consultancies and coaches who look for clients with a vacant coaching parking lot.  A place where coaches can roam the halls by the hour and bill for it without actually adding value.  I call this Embedded coaching and it’s something we, as coaches have a responsibility to eradicate.  Embedded coaching is great for people who want to make money and, from the business perspective, I can understand the draw.  I mean, if an organization is willing to continue to pay money and not realize value, why not?  Embedded coaches aren’t great for organizations who really want to improve nor is it great for Agile coaches overall.

Now, there can be several reasons why a coach isn’t adding value.  Things like:

  1. The coach isn’t a good fit for the organization and/or the team(s).
  2. The client really isn’t certain what they want to achieve so, then, the coach isn’t either.
  3. The client isn’t willing to be coached or do any of the heavy lifting so there aren’t results despite the best efforts of the coach.
  4. The coach isn’t good.
  5. The coach ceases to be a coach and becomes a player.
  6. The client doesn’t take advantage of the coach when he/she is there.
  7. The coach has embedded.

Dan LeFebvre (aka: Coach Dan), a coach whom I admire and respect a great deal, offered a definition of an embedded coach:

“I define embedded coaching as someone who is there 5 days a week working with a handful of teams or may be occupying the SM or PO role (either explicitly or implicitly by usurping the actual SM or PO authority) while being called the coach.” – Coach Dan

It’s the embedding I want to focus on.   I have a theory there’s about a 6-9 month maximum span of efficacy for a coach.  Granted, if the organization or number of teams is large and/or the problem is incredibly complex (transformation) more time may still be valuable and warranted as long as value is being added.  The reason I say this is because the more time you spend in a place, the harder it is to remain completely objective.  You come to expect and excuse certain behaviors – the “it is what it is” mentality can creep in (if you’re not very careful).  And, it’s after this time a coach is in danger of becoming embedded.

The embedded coach attends events and meetings, throws out some advice or observational feedback and vanishes down the hall.  He doesn’t collaborate – he pontificates.  He throws out a thought-provoking question and makes noises of interest in the responses, shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head.  Meanwhile, clients wonder “What, exactly, does he do and how is he spending his time?   At this point the client is wasting money and the coach is wasting time.  Not only that, the value of a coach and, perhaps, Agile is called into question as well.  And, this (calling into question the value of coaches and Agile)is NOT okay.

Coach Dan also offers the following for your consideration:

“I think coaches should work with the teams for a sprint or two then exclusively work with SM and leaders to improve their ability to operate with the agile mindset. Enterprise coaches also focus on establishing what I call the 3 necessary mechanisms to re-enforce agility: 1) impediments removal mechanism where slowdowns in the flow are rapidly identified, escalated and resolved; 2) building the capacity for internal coaching through internal people opting-in to the coaches role or through communities of practice; 3) agile portfolio management where the entire product/value flow is pull-based rather than push. A possible fourth is the “opt-in” cultural aspects that all good self-organizing systems need to truly multiply the effectiveness and delivery of value.” – Coach Dan

Dan Mezick, another coach whom I admire and respect, contributed the following Coaching Values which, I believe, are worthy of mention and introspection.  He also details supporting principles.

In serving our clients, we have come to value:

Creating Independence over generating billing
Championing Learning over avoiding risk
Building Relationships over building transactions
Inviting Participation over assigning responsibility

Ideally, coaches have chosen this profession because they love it and, happily, are able to support themselves and their families.  As coaches, we owe it to the profession and the clients we serve to ensure both are set up for success.   There are things we can do:

  1. Align on the goals of the engagement and the definition of value.  Meet regularly to openly discuss the progress and re-align.
  2. Ask the client “What value have I provided this week?”.  If he can’t answer, immediately diagnose the root cause together and agree on actions.
  3. Actively communicate what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and the results – realized or expected.
  4. Don’t establish a need for physical presence 5 days a week where you become a regular fixture of the environment and are taken for granted.
  5. Be honest and true.  You know when you’re not adding value.  Remove yourself with offers of alternate coaches or course of action.

Thank you for your time.

8 thoughts on “The Dreaded, Embedded Coach…

  1. This is great! I worked with Dan. Money quote: “I think coaches should work with the teams for a sprint or two then exclusively work with SM and leaders to improve their ability to operate with the agile mindset.” Truth.

  2. Interesting post that raises a lot of good concerns about this type of coaching. As someone who fits the definition of embedded coach, though, I wonder whether there isn’t a way to make it work. It is certainly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. That could be because the model is inherently flawed. But it seems at least possible to me that this approach, which I understand to be relatively rare, simply hasn’t been worked out yet.

    Before I was an on-staff Agile Coach, my company brought in coaches for short-term consultations. They might work intensively with a team for a couple of days, or train a group of practice (e.g., PO or SM). I was impressed by the work of every last person we brought in. They all had inspirational things to say, excellent observations, and a good way of communicating suggestions without seeming prescriptive. However, in all cases, I observed that their ideas didn’t really stick with the team. Folks might take away one or two ideas, and enough might share the same idea and change something for a little while, but that was soon forgotten and faded away. It seemed we lacked rigor, discipline, the ability to really apply these ideas long enough to make them habit, to understand them in a way that the underlying values and principles they reflected would not disappear when we let the superficial practice go.

    For that reason, I strongly supported our shift to permanent on-staff Agile Coaches. Here was a chance, I thought–and still think–to help the organization push itself to higher and higher levels of achievement. Having a group of people dedicated to the notion of improvement, keeping a watchful eye for signs of problems, and available purely for supporting the teams makes sense to me.

    It could be that I am simply describing “Scrum Masters”. The definition in the Scrum Guide does, after all, reach pretty widely within the organization. We are experimenting with the line between Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters, trying to understand what is included and what is not.

    In any event, it is blisteringly difficult. But we are finding successes. We are learning how to clarify our relationships with teams and individuals so that they know how to take advantage of our support. Most tellingly: we are now contracting with yet another organization to do some assessment of our practices. This is a well-established group, and yet in our meetings my first impression was that their questions were so basic as to be useless. Then it occurred to me: there is a difference since the last time we brought someone in. I would be asking the same questions if I just walked in the door. The reason these seem so basic to me now is that I now spend all of my time focusing on these things.

    That’s not to say that their outsider perspective won’t be valuable. I think it will be. But I think it’s worth considering the possibility that having someone on staff focusing on these things can bring a level of coaching that the shorter visits simply cannot.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write such an awesome comment! First, let me apologize. This post was directed at consultants NOT internal Agile coaches. My hat is off to Internal Agile coaches. It is a terribly difficult position and the fact the people you are talking to now seem “basic” to you is a testament of your growth as well as that of your organization. An outside perspective is always good to get. An outsider who hangs around billing you without providing any real value (an embedded coach) is NOT. Also, I don’t believe there needs to be a line b/t GREAT Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches. To me, they are one in the same although there are those who would disagree with me there. To me, a new Scrum Master is a future coach/GREAT Scrum Master.

  3. Thanks, Valerie, for your quick response! I understand your post better now. I can certainly see the greater conflict of interest that exists in the case of the consultant that hangs around long term. The truth is, though, that many of the points you raise–as I said in my original comment–apply to us internal Agile Coaches as well. We can become “pickled” and lose the perspective outsiders have; we can become complacent and collect the paycheck without providing the value; we can fall into specific bad patterns like the Seagull (aka swoop and poop aka pontificate and then walk off down the hall). I think I just got spooked because all of those truths were in the same post as the word “eradicate”! 🙂

    As for the line between SMs/ACs, I agree that there doesn’t have to be line. Much of my particular case involves local confusion over definition of terms. But there are role questions. We’re experimenting with how it works. Do we have newer SMs on each team being developed by a smaller set of more experienced ACs? Do we just use “Agile Coach” to mean “Scrum Master” and put one on every team? If the latter, to be able to afford it, do we keep many of them junior and establish cross-team communities of practice so that the juniors learn from the seniors? I am leaning toward something like the former model: Team members doing a subset of the overall Scrum Master role, coached by our smaller group of full-time ACs. Provides an on-ramp for devs and testers who may be interested in SM/AC role, and allows a smaller number of more expensive ACs to support a larger number of teams. Still flawed. Still figuring it out!

    • You’re right – Internal Coaches can suffer from the same. That said, I believe consultants need to hold themselves to a higher standard in some ways….I mean, organizations pay them at a different rate and, thus, have different expectations from an external coach. As a professional group, I believe we have an obligation to be honest with ourselves and our clients about the value we are (or aren’t) adding and act accordingly. Also, external coaches can serve as that objective voice and advocate differently for the teams and others they are there to help. Internal coaches can do this as well but, they also have to navigate and consider the social/political structure while not threatening their own performance. It’s a high-wire act for them (most of the time).

      I like where you’re going w/ the model (the former). I have also had companies differentiate b/t coaches based on where they are able to effectively coach – team level, manager level and/or executive level.

      Coaching aside complacent behavior does need to be eradicated…..

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