Tag Archives: Mentoring

Succeeding with your Agile Coach


I recently said goodbye to one of my organization’s Agile Coaches and I felt that I needed to take a pause and reflect to consider my next move. The engagement had gone well, in fact one of the best we’ve had, but not without its share of successes and failures. But the successes had clearly outpaced any failures, and so there was a lot of good I wanted to build on.

The departing coach was part of a 3rd generation of Agile Coaches that I had worked with in the 3 years since we had begun our company’s transformation to Agile. And while he was a great coach, so were his predecessors and yet they had had fewer successes.

On reflection, what had really happened is that we had changed as a company; we had learned how to better execute our engagements with an Agile Coach.

Deciding to hire an Agile Coach.

Deciding to hire an Agile Coach can be a big step. A couple of things need to have happened, you’ve recognized that you need some help or at least another perspective. And given that Agile Coaches are typically not very cheap, you have decided to invest in your Agile transformation, however big or small. You’re clearly taking it seriously.

However, through my experiences I noticed that things can get a little tricky once that decision has been made. Many organizations can fall into a trap of externalizing transformation responsibilities to the Agile Coach.

In essence thinking along the lines of “as long as I hire a good coach, they should be able to make our teams Agile” can take you into an engagement model that is not very Agile in the first place.

Much like how Scrum and other Agile Practices connect customers with teams and establishes shared risk, an organization’s relationship with their Agile Coaches need to be a working partnership.


Positive Patterns for Coaching Engagements

So it’s important for you to setup the right engagement approach to get value out of your Agile Coach and this goes beyond the hard costs of their services, but also the high cost of failure with not having the right coaching in the right areas.

Here are 5 positive patterns for coaching engagements that I’ve observed:

1. Identify the Customer

Usually it is management who will hire a coach, and they may do so to help one or more teams with their Agile adoption needs. So in this scenario who is the customer? Is it the person that hired the coach or the teams (the coachees) who will be receiving the services? In some cases, the coachees aren’t clear why the coach is there, they haven’t asked for their services and in some cases may even feel threatened by their presence.

For this reason, if management is hiring coaches you need to recognize that there is a 3-pronged relationship that needs to be clearly established and maintained.


With the customer in this case being someone in management, i.e. the person who hired the coach in the first place. The customer’s responsibility will be to not only identify the coachee but then work with the coach to establish and support that relationship.

2. Set the Mandate

Agile Coaches typically tend to be more effective when they have one or two specific mandates tied to an organization’s goals. Not only is the mandate important to establish why the coach is there, too many goals can significantly dilute the coach’s effectiveness. Put another way, Agile Coaches are not immune to exceeding their own Work in Progress limits.

The mandate establishes why the coach is there, and should be tied to some sort of organizational need. A good way of developing this is to articulate what is currently happening and the desired future state you want the coach to help with.

For example:

The teams on our new program are great at consistently delivering their features at the end of each sprint. However, we still experience significant delays merging and testing between teams in order for the program to ship a new release. We’d like to reduce that time significantly, hopefully by at least half.

Once the engagement is well underway you may find that the coach, through serendipity alone, is exposed to and gets involved with a wide variety of other areas. This is fine, but it’s best to just consider this to be a side show and not the main event. If other activities start to take on a life of their own, it’s probably a good time to go back to inspect and potentially adjust the mandate.

If you’re not sure how to establish or identify your Agile goals, this could be the first goal of any Agile coach you hire. In this scenario, the customer is also the coachee and the mandate is to get help establishing a mandate.

3. Hire the Coach that fits the need

Agile coaches are not a homogeneous group, with many degrees of specialty, perspective and experiences. Resist the desire to find a jack-of-all-trades, you’re as likely to find them as a unicorn.

Your now established mandate will be your biggest guide to what kind of coach you should be looking for. Is the need tied to technical practices, process engineering, team collaboration, executive buy-in, transforming your culture, etc?

The other part is connected with the identified coachee. Are the coachees team members, middle management or someone with a “C” in at the start of their title? Will mentoring be required or are you just here to teach something specific?

Using something like ACI’s Agile Coaching Competency Framework, would be a good model to match the competencies required of the perspective coach.

In my example earlier, in order for your team to get help with their merging & testing needs, you may have to look for a coach with the right skills within the Technical Mastery competence. And if you have technical leaders who are championing the change, potentially the ability to Mentor.


4. Establish Feedback Loops

With the coach, customer and mandate clearly identified, you now need to be ready to devote your time to regularly connect and work with the coach. Formalizing some sort of cadence is necessary, if you leave it to ad hoc meetings you will typically not meet regularly enough and usually after some sort of failure has occurred.

The objective of these feedback loops is to tie together the communication lines between the 3 prongs established: the customer, the coach and the coachees. They should be framed in terms of reviewing progress against the goals established with the mandate. If the coachees ran any experiments or made any changes that were intended to get closer to the goals, this would be the time to reflect on them. If the coachees need something from the customer, this would be a good forum to review that need.


Along with maintaining a cadence of communication, feedback loops if done regularly and consistently, could be used to replace deadlines, which in many cases are set simply a pressure mechanism to maintain urgency. So statements like “Merge & test time is to be reduced by half by Q2” now become “We need to reduce merge and test time by half and we will review our progress and adjust every 2 weeks.”

5. It doesn’t need to be Full Time

Resist the temptation to set the coach’s hours as a full-time embedded part of the organization or team. While you may want to have the coach spend a significant amount of time with you and your coachees when the engagement is starting, after this period you will likely get a lot more value from regular check-ins.

This could look like establishing some sort of rhythm with a coachee: reviewing challenges, then agreeing on changes and then coming back to review the results after sufficient time has passed.

This approach is more likely to keep the coach as a coach, and prevents the coach from becoming entangled in the delivery chain of the organization. The coach is there to help the coachees solve the problems, and not to become an active participant in their delivery.

Time to get to work

Bringing in an Agile Coach is an excellent and likely necessary part of unlocking your Agile transformation. However, a successful engagement with a coach will have you more connected and active with your transformation, not less. So consider these 5 positive coaching engagement patterns as I consider them moving into my 4th generation of Agile coaches. I expect it will be a lot of work, along with a steady stream of great results.

Martin aziz

Martin Aziz



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Announcing: The Real Agility Program

Real Agility Program LogoThe Real Agility Program is an Enterprise Agile change program to help organizations develop high-performance teams, deliver amazing products, dramatically improve time to market and quality, and create work environments that are awesome for employees.

This article is a written summary of the Executive Briefing presentation available upon request from the Real Agility Program web site.  If you obtain the executive briefing, you can follow along with the article below and use it to present Real Agility to your enterprise stakeholders.

The Problem

At Berteig Consulting we have been working for 10 years to learn how to help organizations transform people, process and culture.  The problem is simple to state: there is a huge amount of opportunity waste and process waste in most normal enterprise-scale organizations.  If you have more than a couple hundred people in your organization, this almost certainly affects you.

We like to call this problem “the Bureaucratic Beast”.  The Bureaucratic Beast is a self-serving monster that seems to grow and grow and grow.  As it grows, this Beast makes it progressively more difficult for business leaders to innovate, respond to changes in the market, satisfy existing customers, and retain great employees.

Real Agility, a system to tame the Bureaucratic Beast, comes from our experience working with numerous enterprise Agile adoptions.  This experience, in turn, rests on the shoulders of giants like John Kotter (“Leading Change”), Edgar Schein (“The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”), Jim Collins (“Good to Great” and “Built to Last”), Mary Poppendieck (“Lean Software Development”) Jon Katzenbach (“The Wisdom of Teams”) and Frederick Brooks (“The Mythical Man-Month”).  Real Agility is designed to tame all the behaviours of the Bureaucratic Beast: inefficiency, dis-engaged staff, poor quality and slow time-to-market.

Studies have proven that Agile methods work in IT.  In 2012, the Standish Group observed that 42% of Agile projects succeed vs. just 14% of projects done with traditional “Bureaucratic Beast” methods.  Agile and associated techniques aren’t just for IT.  There is growing use of these same techniques in non-technoogy environments such as marketing, operations, sales, education, healthcare, and even heavy industry like mining.

Real Agility Basics: Agile + Lean

Real Agility is a combination of Agile and Lean; both systems used harmoniously throughout an enterprise.  Real Agility affects delivery processes by taking long-term goals and dividing them into short cycles of work that deliver valuable results rapidly while providing fast feedback on scope, quality and most importantly value.  Real Agility affects management processes by finding and eliminating wasteful activities with a system view.  And Real Agility affects human resources (people!) by creating “Delivery Teams” which have clear goals, are composed of multi-skilled people who self-organize, and are stable in membership over long periods of time.

There are lots of radical differences between Real Agility and traditional management (that led to the Bureaucratic Beast in the first place).  Real Agility prioritizes work by value instead of critical path, encourages self-organizing instead of command-and-control management, a team focus instead of project focus, evolving requirements instead of frozen requirements, skills-based interactions instead of roles-based interaction, continuous learning instead of crisis management, and many others.

Real Agility is built on a rich Agile and Lean ecosystem of values, principles and tools.  Examples include the Agile Manifesto, the “Stop the Line” practice, various retrospective techniques, methods and frameworks such as Scrum and OpenAgile, and various thinking tools compatible with the Agile – Lean ecosystem such as those developed by Edward de Bono (“Lateral Thinking”) and Genrich Altshuller (“TRIZ”).

Real Agility acknowledges that there are various approaches to Agile adoption at the enterprise level: Ad Hoc (not usually successful – Nortel tried this), Grassroots (e.g. Yahoo!), Pragmatic (SAFe and DAD fall into this category), Transformative (the best balance of speed of change and risk reduction – this is where the Real Agility Program falls), and Big-Bang (only used in situations of true desperation).

Why Choose Transformative?

One way to think about these five approaches to Agile adoption is to compare the magnitude of actual business results.  This is certainly the all-important bottom line.  But most businesses also consider risk (or certainty of results).  Ad-Hoc approaches to Agile adoption have poor business results and a very high level of risk.  Big-Bang approaches (changing a whole enterprise to Agile literally over night) often have truly stunning business results, but are also extremely high risk.  Grassroots, where leaders give staff a great deal of choice about how and when to adopt Agile, is a bit better in that the risk is lower, but the business results often take quite a while to manifest themselves.  Pragmatic approaches tend to be very low risk because they often accommodate the Bureaucratic Beast, but that also limits their business results to merely “good” and not great.  Transformative approaches which systematically address organizational culture are just a bit riskier than Pragmatic approaches, but the business results are generally outstanding.

More specifically, Pragmatic approaches such as SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) are popular because they are designed to fit in with existing middle management structures (where the Bureaucratic Beast is most often found).  As a result, there is slow incremental change that typically has to be driven top-down from leadership.  Initial results are good, but modest.  And the long term?  These techniques haven’t been around long enough to know, but in theory it will take a long time to get to full organizational Agility.  Bottom line is that Pragmatic approaches are low risk but the results are modest.

Transformative approaches such as the Real Agility Program (there are others too) are less popular because there is significantly more disruption: the Bureaucratic Beast has to be completely tamed to serve a new master: business leadership!  Transformative approaches require top-to-bottom organizational and structural change.  They include a change in power relationships to allow for grassroots-driven change that is empowered by servant leaders.  Transformative approaches are moderate in some ways: they are systematic and they don’t require all change to be done overnight. Nevertheless, often great business results are obtained relatively quickly.  There is a moderate risk that the change won’t deliver the great results, but that moderate risk is usually worth taking.

Regardless of adoption strategy (Transformative or otherwise) there are a few critical success factors.  Truthfulness is the foundation because without it, it is impossible to see the whole picture including organizational culture.  And love is the strongest driver of change because cultural and behavioural change requires emotional commitment on the part of everyone.

Culture change is often challenging.  There are unexpected problems.  Two steps forward are often followed by one step back.  Some roadblocks to culture change will be surprisingly persistent.  Leaders need patience and persistence… and a systematic change program.

The Real Agility Program

The Real Agility Program has four tracks or lines of action (links take you to the Real Agility Program web site):

  1. Recommendations: consultants assess an organization and create a playbook that customizes the other tracks of the Real Agility Program as well as dealing with any important outliers.
  2. Execution: coaches help to launch project, product and operational Delivery Teams and Delivery Groups that learn the techniques of grassroots-driven continuous improvement.
  3. Accompaniment: trainer/coaches help you develop key staff into in-house Real Agility Coaches that learn to manage Delivery Groups for sustainable long-term efforts such as a product or line of business.
  4. Leadership: coaches help your executive team to drive strategic change for long-term results with an approach that helps executives lead by example for enterprise culture change.

Structurally an enterprise using Real Agility is organized into Delivery Groups.  A Delivery Group is composed of one or more Delivery Teams (up to 150 people) who work together to produce business results.  Key roles include a Business leader, a People leader and a Technology leader all of whom become Real Agility Coaches and take the place of traditional functional management.  As well, coordination across multiple Delivery Teams within a Delivery Group is done using an organized list of “Value Drivers” maintained by the Business leader and a supporting Business Leadership Group. Cross-team support is handled by a People and Technology Support Group co-led by the People and Technology leaders.  Depending on need there may also be a number of communities of practice for Delivery Team members to help spread learning.

At an organizational or enterprise level, the Leadership Team includes top executives from business, finance, technology, HR, operations and any other critical parts of the organization.  This Leadership Team communicates the importance of the changes that the Delivery Groups are going through.  They lead by example using techniques from Real Agility to execute organizational changes.  And, of course, they manage the accountability of the various Delivery Groups throughout the enterprise.

The results of using the Real Agility Program are usually exceptional.  Typical results include:

  • 20x improvement in quality
  • 10x improvement in speed to market
  • 5x improvement in process efficiency
  • and 60% improvement in employee retention.

Of course, these results depend on baseline measures and that key risk factors are properly managed by the Leadership Team.

Your Organization

Not every organization needs (or is ready for) the Real Agility Program.  Your organization is likely a good candidate if three or more of the following problems are true for your organization:

  • high operating costs
  • late project deliveries
  • poor quality in products or services
  • low stakeholder satisfaction
  • managers overworked
  • organizational mis-alignment
  • slow time-to-market
  • low staff morale
  • excessive overtime
  • you need to tame the Bureaucratic Beast

Consider that list carefully and if you feel like you have enough of the above problems, please contact us at tame.the.beast@berteigconsulting.com. or read more about the Real Agility Program for Enterprise Agility on the website.

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Best Agile Advice Articles – Ten Year Anniversary!

Agile Advice was started in 2005.  In ten years, we have published over 850 articles (an average of just about 2 per week!).  Here are some collections of the ten “best” articles.  I hope you enjoy looking back at (or discovering for the first time!) some of the things that have made this such a great joy for me.

Ten Most Popular Agile Advice Articles

  1. How Two Hours Can Waste Two Weeks (75,000+ visits)
  2. The Seven Core Practices of Agile Work (25,000+ visits)
  3. Eight Barriers to Effective Listening (17,000+ visits)
  4. Seven Essential Teamwork Skills (17,000+ visits)
  5. 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls Summarized (15,000+ visits)
  6. Mentoring and Coaching: What is the Difference? (14,000+ visits)
  7. Wideband Delphi Estimation Technique (14,000+ visits)
  8. The Pros and Cons of Short Iterations (13,000+ visits)
  9. Three Concepts of Value Stream Mapping (13,000+ visits)
  10. Agile Work and the PMBoK Definition of Project (11,000+ visits)

Ten Most Commented Upon Agile Advice Articles

  1. 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls Summarized (19 comments)
  2. Agile Becomes Easier with Useful Tools (12 comments)
  3. Important Words about Scrum and Tools (9 comments)
  4. The Skills Matrix and Performance Evaluation on Agile Teams (9 comments)
  5. The Definition of Done is Badly Named (8 comments)
  6. How Two Hours Can Waste Two Weeks (7 comments)
  7. Agile is Not Communism (7 comments)
  8. Agile Tools vs. Agile Books (6 comments)
  9. The Decline and Fall of Agile and How Scrum Makes it Hurt More (5 comments)
  10. The Planning Game: an Estimation Method for Agile Teams (5 comments)

I also want to acknowledge that there are a number of other contributors to Agile Advice besides me (Mishkin).  These contributors are all experts, all have great experiences, and all are fantastic people to know.  I’m grateful for their contributions since they have all made Agile Advice a better place to browse!

Five Most Frequent Contributors (of Articles, besides Mishkin)

  1. Paul Heidema (34 articles)
  2. Travis Birch (24 articles)
  3. Christian Gruber (19 articles)
  4. Mike Caspar (16 articles)
  5. Shabnam Tashakour (13 articles)

Plans for the Future – Five Top Ideas for Series

  1. Essays on each of the Values and Principles of the Agile Manifesto
  2. Summary articles of several Agile methods including Scrum, OpenAgile, Kanban, Crystal, XP, and others
  3. Real Agility Program case studies
  4. Reviews of other scaling / enterprise Agile frameworks such as Disciplined Agile Delivery, Large Scale Scrum, Enterprise Scrum
  5. New guest articles from thought and practice leaders.

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Mentoring, Coaching and Training – What is the Difference?

Over the years working with clients, I’ve discovered that there is often confusion about what are the differences between mentoring, coaching and training.  We all know that these are ways for an expert or experienced individual to help people do something more effectively.  That’s the similarity.  But the differences…


Mentoring is generally an informal relationship between two people.  A mentor will do many of the same things as a coach or even someone who is a trainer, but there is no formal obligation on the part of either party.  A mentoring relationship often develops gradually from a friendship or a professional association, intensifies as the mentor discovers he has valuable insight and experience to share, and as the person being mentored discovers his desire to learn from the mentor.  The two people will at some point recognize the special nature of their relationship, but may not name it.  And as life circumstances change, the relationship will gradually de-intensify.  It will often turn into a friendship of peers.


In working on this article, I read a number of other articles about the differences between coaching and mentoring.  All of them talk about how a coach does not provide solutions or answers.  I beg to differ.  Think of an athletic coach.  An athletic coach definitely does not simply ask the athlete questions and help them bring out their own solutions to problems.  An athletic coach helps point out problems, makes very definite suggestions, and sometimes even intervenes physically to help the athlete do the right thing.  So what is coaching?  The main difference is in terms of formality.

A coach is a coach from the start of the relationship with the person being coached.  The person being coached has a specific goal to achieve.  It can be long term or short term, but it is specific.  The coach is there to help that person meet their goal.  Once the goal is met, the relationship is re-evaluated.

Here are some of the ways that coaching can happen (actually, mentors do these things too):

  • The Socratic Coach – asks lots of probing questions.
  • The Hands-On Coach – shows people a way to solve a problem, but leaves it to the individual to mimic or do something different.
  • The Intervention Coach – mostly observes and at key moments intervenes to help an individual choose a specific path of action.
  • The Guiding Coach – provides constant (usually gentle) reminders to help an individual keep withing a specific path of action (guide rails).


Classroom training is the type of training we most often think of, but it is not the only kind.  There is also on-the-job training and of course all sorts of e-learning methods of training.  Training is very formal, should have well-defined learning objectives, and is often relatively brief as compared to coaching or mentoring.

Training can also include many of the types of interaction that are found in a coaching environment, but there is a very strong focus on the trainer being a subject matter expert.  The trainer has extensive experience or knowledge in the subject that is being delivered in the training.  It is expected that the participants in the training learn from the trainer – there is knowledge transfer.  How this happens can be very flexible, of course, and good training is never just a speaker standing at the front of the room and lecturing for the whole time.  Discussion, simulations, case studies, and other forms of interaction are critical for an effective training experience.

Some other links:

Workplace Coaching and Mentoring – Some Key Differences to Maximize Personal Development

Coaching is Not Mentoring, Training or Counselling

What are the Similarities and Differences Between Coaching and Other Things?

Are You Coaching Mentoring or Training Your New Employees?  Distinctions New Managers Need to Know.

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Process Facilitator “Smells”

I have now trained over one hundred people in my Agile Project Managmenet / ScrumMaster Certification course. I’m starting to see and hear some of the results of this training. There are a couple specific “smells” that I have become aware of.

Continue reading Process Facilitator “Smells”

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Managing “Leaderful” Groups

In agile development circles self-organizing teams are all the rage nowadays. And I often hear people bemoaning the “evil managers”. And no doubt in many circumstances and organizations there is real work to do here and real dysfunction to resolve. But I’m less concerned with the analysis of what’s wrong and more concerned with what can we do differently and better. IE: How can we develop the skills necessary to practice effective self-organization.

So what does it mean to be a participant in a “leaderful” group?

Continue reading Managing “Leaderful” Groups

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Salutogenesis and Agile

Twenty-five years ago American-Israeli Medical Sociologist, Aron Antonovsky developed the theory of salutogenesis. As opposed to the traditional pathogenic model of medicine focused on the study of disease, salutogenesis is the study of health. Since then, his work has been integrated into the field of public health and health education. This asset or strength based type of approach to individual or institutional development has been found in other fields such as organizational development and community development. In organizational development the field of Appreciative Inquiry and in community development the Asset Based Community Development model share the essential premises of salutogenesis. Quoting Garmezy, Antonovsky highlights the medical professions focus on deficits:

our mental health practitioners and researchers are predisposed by interest, investment and training in seeing deviance, psychopathology and weakness wherever they look.

This type of approach to work based on weakness and deficit can be found in most of our organizations. It seems to me that although Agile exposes inefficiencies and problems in organizations, it’s focus never-the-less is to build on strengths and assets. It is in this light that I have been thinking about Antonovsky’s work and what it can offer to Agile.

Antonovsky came to this theory of salutogenisis when he carried out a study on Israeli women going through menopause. He found that there were a number of women who, according to all indications of the pathogenic model, should be suffering severe symptoms (because they faced severe stressors which cause illness). But they were not suffering at all. To his surprise he discovered that these women happened to be survivors of concentration camps. He found certain qualities in these women that resulted in what he called a higher “Sense of Coherence” than the other women.

Sense of Coherence is made up of three factors; comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness.

Comprehensibility means that whatever happens to a person, she is able to make sense of it and understand it, that is, the challenge is in some way “structured, predictable, and explicable.” Manageability means that either the resources are available to one to meet the demands posed by the stimuli,or one has a way to find them. Meaningfulness involves having a sense of meaning in the important areas of one’s life or recognizing “these demands are challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.”

Antonovsky found meaningfulness to be the motivational factor of the three, although he also found that all three mutually reinforce one another. For example if one has a high sense of comprehensibility but is low on the other two, one ends up not having the motivation to find resources and soon after this causes comprehensibility to be lost. If one is high on meaning and missing the other two, Antonovsky explains that there is a good chance to find the other two.

The theory of Salutogenisis may provide researched and proven reasons why Agile is so empowering for people. This research may also provide more insight into how to deepen Agile experiences to higher levels of empowerment. Agile methods help people to make sense of the market place by allowing for iterative delivery and adaptive planning, thus increasing their level of comprehensibility. Iterative delivery, adaptive planning and the concept of amplifying learning are all conducive to increased sense of manageability. Because people spend most of their time at work, it is quite important that they feel a sense of meaning in their work. The concept of empowering the team and the practice of self-organized teams and appropriate metrics can contribute to increased sense of meaning in one’s work.

Salutogenic food for thought for the Agile practitioner:

Antonovsky associated comprehensibility with consistency which he defined as “the extent to which one’s work situation allows and fosters the clarity of seeing the entire work picture and ones place in it, provides confidence in job security, and supports communicability and feedback in social relations at the workplace”.

How can the concept of consistency be promoted in Agile projects?

Manageability is related to under load/overload balance which is defined as “the availability of resources to the individual and to the collectivity within which there is interaction to get the job done well” and “…the extent to which the work situation has room for allowing potential to be utilized in substantively complex work.” The opposite of the former results in overload and the opposite of the latter is a situation of under load.

How can Agile projects guard against overload? How can an Agile coach and Agile teams fully utilize the capacities of its members?

Meaningfulness is closely associated with participation in shaping outcomes. Antonovsky explains beautifully the relationship between these two concepts:

When others decide everything for us-when they set the task, formulate the rules, and manage the outcome-and we have no say in the matter, we are reduced to objects. A world thus experienced as being indifferent to what we do comes to be seen as a world devoid of meaning.

In light of the concept of meaningfulness how can the principle of self organized team and shared decision making be deepened in Agile work?

Antonovsky, Aron (1988). Unraveling the Mystery of Health: How People Manage Stress and Stay Well (Jossey Bass Social and Behavioral Science Series)

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Agile, the Adult Educator and Ethical Considerations

A review of Tara J. Fenwick’s “Limits of the Learning Organization: A Critical Look” (article found in Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education).

This article is a critique of learning organization literature (as presented in the works of Peters, Senge, Watkins, Marsick, Argyris, Schon and others). I chose to do a review of it because learning organization literature can and does inform the work of Agile practitioners. The writer, Tara Fenwick, offers a critique of this literature as an academic and practitioner in the field of adult education. Even though the language and tone of the article is judgmental and at times affronting to the corporate trainer audience, it is never-the-less challenging and valuable because she raises interesting ethical questions that can serve as cautions against potential trends that can distort agile practice. I will summarize her argument in the some of the areas most relevant to Agile practice.

Fenwick’s summary of the model of learning organization found in the literature, is an organization that: “creates continuous learning opportunities, promotes inquiry and dialog, encourages collaboration and team learning, establishes systems to capture and share learning, empowers people toward collective vision and connects the organization to its environment.”

The following is a summary list of some of Fenwick’s critiques:

Who’s Interests are Served
Although the learning organization literature holds great promise for a more humanitarian and egalitarian workplace, it has the potential to distort learning “into a tool for competitive advantage” and in turn, exploit people as resources in the pursuit of profit. To explore this idea she asks a valuable question: “Who’s interests are being served by the concept of learning organization, and what relations of power does it help to secure?” She argues that learning organization literature tends to serve the interests of educators working as trainers in organizations and managers interested in their own self preservation.

How Learning is Defined
Learning, in learning organization literature seems to be defined as that which benefits the organization, all other learning falls into the dysfunctional category. This perspective negates other ways that people create meaning and learn and potentially causes a person to become “alienated from their own meaning and block flourishing of this learning into something to benefit the community.”

Assumptions about Learners
The learning organization literature subordinates employees by seeing them as “undifferentiated learners-in-deficit”. Educators and managers are the architects of the learning organization while employees are busy “learning more, learning better and faster” trying to correct their knowledge deficit. In the learning organization workers become responsible for the health of the organization without the authority to determine alternative ways to reach that health. The fear of being left behind in a quickly changing market environment is used to create anxiety and fear as motivations for learning. All of these factors serve to put serious limits on the potential of people to learn in the work environment.

Diversity and Privilege Overlooked
Perspectives of race, class and gender -which research has shown affects the way people learn and collaborate- are lacking in the literature. Fenwick challenges the notion of achieving a democratically ideal situation for open dialog -that the learning organization literature calls for- when all people in the work place do not “have equal opportunity to participate, reflect, and refute one another” (for example because of the status of ones job, character, gender, class, age etc.)

Fenwick sheds a clear light on where the good philosophies of the learning organization are found wanting. The Agile community can benefit from asking some of the same ethical questions she asks in relation to our work. Her critique is a good challenge for Agile practitioners. It challenges us to:

  • Continue to strive for higher levels of ethical excellence in our work
  • To consider issues of power in our work
  • To become conscious of how we use our own power
  • To give thought to what voices are included / excluded in the creation of the learning organization
  • Pay attention to how we motivate learners
  • How to foster collaborative environments that are conscious of the privileging of some over others
  • Think about who decides what is valuable knowledge and learning and how that affects the knowledge creation process

Reflecting on these issues will go a long way to contributing to the development of agile practice.

The full text of an old version of Fenwick’s article can be found here.

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Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)

Given the Agile Axioms and Disciplines then an agile coach or mentor should have some really specific experience and capabilities. This list constitutes a first attempt at a job description.

Continue reading Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)

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Tools Versus Capabilities Approach To Agile Training

Which approach is most valuable in training that fosters collaborative work for the purpose of optimizing the performance of an organization: a tools / methodologies approach or an inner capabilities approach? The typical orientation that most organizations take is often external and rule-based. This consists of creating methodologies, rules, boundaries, systems and processes to enhance collaboration.

These external approaches ultimately fail to have a lasting effect on people and the culture of the organization because they don’t address change at the level of habits of mind. People then work in the new structure with the same patterns of behaviour. Behind this kind of surface approach to change are assumptions about human nature. At worst this consists of a belief that people are base (greedy, selfish etc.) by nature. At best that people are fundamentally good but cannot improve except through external measures. It is true that we need external systems and structures to give expression to our inner capabilities, to test, foster and develop them in action. However all the investment that companies make in tools, systems, methodologies are obviously not enough. We need both external and internal approaches to training people in collaborative processes. Systems and tools provide only a framework that then need to be filled in with character. At the core of Agile there are disciplines (such as Empower the Team, Amplifly Learning) without which the methodologies would have no life. The practice of the disciplines fostered by the development of inner capabilities infuses life into the Agile methods and at the same time the methods act on and reinforce the inner practice of the disciplines.

As Agile champions (coaches, facilitators, practitioners) we must invest energy on fostering -through modelling and coaching- the development of inner capabilities. The Agile community will benefit from an identification of core capabilities required and a deep exploration of how to foster their development in individuals, teams and organizations.

Although it is our nature to organize in groups and we may have much experience with collaboration, we nevertheless live in a culture of contest and individualism. Out of this culture comes a set of belief systems which are so deeply rooted in our lives that we are not fully conscious of them and their affect on us. These belief systems cannot change easily through the introduction of external structures alone.

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Personal Philosophy of Adult Education

The following is my approach as an educator to my work in community and organizational development. I have come to this understanding mainly through experience, a great deal of mentoring and study.

Please note that when I use the term “teacher” in this document I also mean consultant, mentor, coach etc. The term “student” is also interchangeable with organization or community. The term education is interchangeable with organizational or community development consulting.

Validation: a starting point

Education should start from, affirm and validate the experience, insights and knowledge of the individual. This is a foundation for education that honours and respects the student. Recognizing the nobility of the student allows her an active role in her own learning. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning by drawing on the experience of the student, to build on that experience through the acquisition of new insights, knowledge and skills.

Learning must be self-directed. The teacher may have a number of wonderful things to teach, but if the student does not believe that they are relevant to her, she will not be engaged. This is especially true for teachers who are working in communities that they are not a part of. The teacher must engage in careful investigation in order to understand the situation of the student, which includes attentive listening, as well as a genuine interest in the needs of the student, before proceeding along any line of instruction. Taking her cue from the students, the teacher must work with the individual / group to create a learning environment in which everyone takes responsibility for their own learning. In this kind of environment the teacher is not an expert and does not do the students’ learning for her. The teacher can use questions to assist the student to understand, instead of delivering answers. The teacher should also encourage an environment of learning that recognizes mistakes as part of the learning process. The learning environment should create in the student a hunger for the acquisition of knowledge, insights and skills beyond the direct experience with the teacher.

Encouragement: the key to self-directed learning

Once the experience of the student has been validated and her needs established, education should be challenging but not obtrusive and challenges must be presented with respect and encouragement. Encouragement versus excessive criticism leads to individual initiative instead of paralysis. The natural result of an encouraging and challenging learning environment is self-discipline and self-correction instead of external discipline (control) and constant external correction.

A transformative, holistic approach centred in humility and service

The learning environment should foster humility in both the student and teacher. Most contemporary approaches to education are materialistic; the student pays, studies, receives a degree, becomes an “expert”, etc. The whole educational experience, from the teachers to administrators, cultivates in the student a sense of self is that is based solely on the expertise and knowledge gained. The “Expert” attitude in the community development environment is often not useful because the work in the field is so complex. Many stakeholders have keys to the process, as a result, the “expert” attitude devalues the knowledge of others and tends to taint the path to solutions with conflict and ego. Another consequence of the expert mentality in the community is dependency; people are divorced from the solution to problems that they all contribute to and to which they all hold the keys. Instead of drawing on the knowledge of the stakeholders, the expert renders her own knowledge most valuable which in turn causes them to discard volition and succumb to a state of perpetual dependency on one expert after the other. Community members or institutions are robbed of the ability to play a central role in their own lives as a direct result of being robbed of opportunities to play central roles in the decision-making process of their community.

With humility at the centre of all learning, the purpose of education becomes transformation. We learn so that we, our communities and our institutions can improve and change for the better. Also as learning is applied to community efforts, individual capacity unfolds and is developed. Learning for its own sake is valuable, but learning for positive social change, makes the acquisition of knowledge, skills and insights relevant and engaging in the face of community development challenges. Learning then becomes intimately connected with action and is corrected and refined through action. This infuses a powerful sense of purpose and meaning in the learning process, especially as successes are realized.

Principle-based approach facilitates ownership

Education should cultivate a sense of personal ownership in the learning process and community life. Fostering a sense of personal ownership comes with educating students to have a mature perspective about their own learning as well as the changes they desire to implement in the community. It involves helping students learn the capability of ‘becoming’ the change that they want to see, as well as finding positive starting points in desperate situations and building on them. A mature outlook demands that students have a principle-based approach to problem solving versus a rule-based approach. Education then becomes not only a process of acquiring knowledge but centred on capacity building for individuals, institutions and groups. Fostering the development of capacities needed to overcome obstacles also requires a principle-based approach, embodying principles such as perseverance, human rights and dignity, building unity in diversity etc.

Integration and balance of methods essential

Education should be methodical and balanced. It should aim to acknowledge, validate and employ different learning paradigms: those of science, spirituality, culture and the arts. Systems of education that value science above the arts or spirituality are destructive to the individual and community as they create an imbalanced view of the world and rob people of a diversity of perspectives and tools that they need to face complex challenges. An educational program should strive to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical needs of students and not focus too much on merely one dimension of life. This is especially important in communities that have experienced extreme marginalization (colonization, oppression) where healing and wellness must play a significant role in the learning process.

Modelling Change

A key ingredient to success in transformational education is the example of the educator. As people, naturally we do what we know and what we have experienced. In order to change our patterns of behavior we need to begin having fundamentally different experiences than what we have known. The educator must be able to assist in the creation of such experiences. To do this she must be capable of modelling what is being taught and through constant critical self-reflection strive to exemplify in every action empowering ideals.


Learning and education are indispensable to all community efforts for positive change. The job of an adult educator is to assist individuals, the community and its institutions to adopt a posture of learning. This begins with working with the experience of the student, fostering self-directed learning and follows as the teacher interacts with the student to challenge and assist her to new levels of learning. With humility at the centre of all learning efforts, dependency on “experts” can be replaced with volition and independent decision-making. The potential of the individual further unfolds as she applies her learning to service to the community. Attention to capacity building and cultivating a sense of personal ownership -in the process of learning and community building- deepens the experience and truly engages the student in taking an active role in the development of her life. Utilizing all systems of learning in the education process ensures balance of methods and helps cultivate the infinite and diverse capabilities of human potential. Ultimately the success of an educator rests on the degree to which she is able to model the change she is fostering.

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Trust and Small Groups

A while ago I posted the story of a student film project using agile practices to create a documentary. One interesting observation made by the instructor is that trust among the group developed in an interesting fashion.

At first, the group self-organized by try to work in groups of three. However, when plans were made to get together (for example to film an interview), often, one of the three people would cancel. Probably, that person considered two people to be enough to do the work.

After noticing this pattern, the group decided to perform work in pairs. This made the commitment to working much stronger and eventually led to a more trusting work relationship.

I have also observed this pattern in other situations. Pair programming, pair writing, pair designing, pair problem-solving… all of these behaviors seem to arise naturally in a self-organizing team.

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Generalizing Specialists

The term “generalizing specialists” has come to mean an individual who has a particular area of deep expertise but also has experience in a large number of other areas that may not be directly related to their core area. This type of person typically has strong talent in their specialty but also has a generally strong talent for learning new skills and ideas quickly. The origin of the term seems to be in the software industry referring to programmers who can do other software-development related tasks.

In self-organizing teams, a generalizing specialist is a more valuable team member than a pure specialist. The pure specialist often has an attitude that they should not need to do work outside their specialty. This can be destructive to the team’s morale. On the other hand, the generalizing specialist is willing and able to learn new skills – to stretch as the needs of the team change. And since change is natural, this is an essential attitude for team members.

However, we are usually trained, and strongly encouraged to have a deep specialty. This approach to education and training is a natural consequence to the typical organizational model for work and society. Therefore, if a team is converting to agile work methods, people need to be coached to stretch themselves and learn new things. For some people, particularly those who already have multiple hobbies outside work, this is an easy transition to make. For others, it is a very difficult transition. In some extreme cases, this may call for the removal of someone from the team. (Note: I have never seen this myself and I only mention it with great reservation. I strongly feel that only those who could be called “ill” will be so incapable of changing their way of working. For other recalcitrants, it is usually a matter of motivation.)

Other terms that are similar to “generalizing specialist” include “craftsperson”, “renaissance man”, and “polymath“.

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Just In Case You Haven’t Seen It Yet

There is a fantastic article about software productivity: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/HighNotes.html. I love Joel’s writing style, and this article in particular has important lessons for us all, regardless of our profession: find what you can be the best at, and do that. Interestingly enough this is part of the message of the book Good to Great but applied to a whole corporation. It also applies in the context of self-organizing teams: each individual should be able to find/learn in what way they can best contribute and do that more than they do other stuff.

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Book Review – “The Tipping Point”


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a book that is about the way ideas, things and behaviors go from obscurity to ubiquity in a very short period. The basic model is that of an epidemic in which three types of factors contribute to quick dissemination: 1) the network of people involved including “connectors”, “mavens” or respected experts, and “salesmen”, 2) the ability of that which is spreading to stick around, the “stickiness factor”, and 3) the importance of small physical, mental and social factors, in creating a conducive environment. The Author, Malcolm Gladwell, includes some excerpts on his web site.

  • Introduction
  • One: The Three Rules of Epidemics
  • Two: The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen
  • Three: The Stickiness Factor: Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and the Educational Virus
  • Four: The Power of Context (Part One): Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime
  • Five: The Power of Context (Part Two): The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty
  • Six: Case Study: Rumors, Sneakers, and the Power of Translation
  • Seven: Case Study: Suicide, Smoking, and the Search for the Unsticky Cigarette
  • Eight: Conclusion: Focus, Test, and Believe
  • Afterword: Tipping Point Lessons from the Real World
  • Endnotes
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index


This is a fascinating book, well written. Some of the anecdotes and “case studies” are mind-blowing. However, there is a bit of weakness in parts. In particular, the Afterword and the sections on The Power of Context are weakly put together – ideas do not flow well, or are too stream-of-consciousness. As well, the weight of evidence, while strong, is not totally convincing. That said, there are a couple of really fabulous stories.

One story that stands out is the study related to the “Good Samaritan”. In brief, researchers set up an experiment to test what factors influenced a person’s behavior when presented with someone obviously in need of help. At a seminary, the researchers had students prepare and deliver a brief talk on some topic. One of the topics given randomly to some of the students was the story of the Good Samaritan. The students were to take a short amount of time to prepare their talk and then immediately go to another building to deliver it. Planted by the researchers along the path to the second building was an actor made up to appear in a great deal of physical distress. As each student was sent out the door, the researchers would breifly comment either that the student was running a little early, or that they were late and needed to hurry to deliver their talk. The results were astounding: of those students who were told that they were late 90% ignored the person in distress regardless of the topic of their presentation, while 63% those with a few minutes to spare stopped to help (pages 163-165).


There are several ways in which this book is relevent to those of us practicing Agile Work and related methods. Most obviously, the ideas in The Tipping Point suggest some lines of action we can take to promote Agile: finding the connectors, mavens and salespeople, working to make Agile sticky, and making the environment hospitible to the spread of Agile. This applies both inside organizations and in the world at large.

In my own opinion, the drafters of the Agile Software Manifesto, either by design or otherwise, came up with an incredibly sticky term: Agile.

Finally, when coaching a team to adopt agile practices, it may be most important to focus on the Power of Context. Small suggestions, small physical changes, body language, all can have a large influence on the success or failure of an agile adoption. If a coach (Scrummaster/Team Lead/etc.) can find the connectors, mavens and salespeople in the sphere of influence of the team, and convince those people of the efficacy of Agile, then convincing the team will become that much easier.

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