Practical vs Theoretical Agile Coaching


The other day, the following tweet was shared by a friend of mine:

It put into words something that I’ve been struggling with for a while. As a Project Manager, I am always focused on the practical elements of the work I am doing. However, because Red Badger is a full-service agency, I also act as something more approaching an Agile coach. I help our clients work better within their organisation, so that they can subsequently achieve more with us.

As a result, I have attended coaching courses, and events attended more by Agile coaches than by people on the project side. After these events, even if I’ve learned something, I often end up feeling slightly unsettled and off-kilter. The theories and ideas that people were communicating were sound, but I was itching to know how they had been applied in a practical context, and that information never seemed to come.

Theory is just a beginning

Our priority at Red Badger is to make projects work as best they can so we can deliver a successful outcome. The theory is constantly evolving, and whilst knowing all the theory is sound, it is simply a jumping off point. For example, you can’t pass your driving test by only reading a book, but it’s an important part of the process.

When we engage with a client, delivery is everything. When we go in, we feel that the best way to introduce Agile into an organisation is to actually practice it. We take a full, cross-functional team, deliver a project quickly and to a high level of quality, and in the process show the true benefits of introducing Agile into an organisation (or, honestly, whatever method of delivery will work best for them). It’s very much a case of do as I do, not as I say.

The bigger the corporation, the more vital it is to show rather than tell. We have worked with several companies that have been going through “agile transformation” for months, or sometimes even years. They’ve read the books, they’ve had the lectures, but in the day to day they’re stuck with the old ways. It is natural to be risk averse when you’re responsible for £millions, so making a change that is so fundamental is almost impossible to achieve. There’s also a worry that if a way of working changes, jobs are at risk. When all you’re hearing is the theory, it can be difficult to see how you might fit into the new normal at your organisation. That’s where people like us come in.

Delivery is irrelevant?

This idea of learning by doing may seem like a no brainer, but I have heard some coaches state that delivery is irrelevant; that the theory of the process is all that needs to be discussed, and that it will answer all your questions. Just like in science, you don’t need to see something happen to know that it works (the sun controls the tides, right?).

When we go into a client, we do start as theorists. We poke and prod what they have, and put in an Agile framework that feels best for the situation. However, it isn’t until we start delivering that we discover what truly works for that specific client. A way of working that seemed like the gold standard on paper turns into a nightmare when used. So we use our failures productively and take small, incremental steps away from the theory until we have something that works for the situation and the client. This is the way that I’ve seen an “agile transformation” really start to succeed.

So for me, delivery is everything. Putting into practice the things I learn during lectures, learning from my mistakes and the outcomes is going to make me a better project manager. Theory can only get you so far.

Not All Agile Coaches

I may sound like I’m tarring all 'Agile Coaches' with the same brush. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that I’ve met some truly great coaches. Mike Cohn, for instance, provided the best Scrum training course I’ve ever attended. And of course there’s our very own Toqir Khalid, who’s come into project manage several very complex projects for Red Badger and managed to herd the largest of cats.

However, the things that these guys have in common, along with the other coaches worth their salt, is that every theory they taught was backed up with practical examples. The thing that made Cohn’s training so engaging was that every time someone asked a question, he offered a real-life situation for context.

The best Agile coaches have been there, done it. They already had failures that you haven’t encountered yet, and have found ways to improve. Those are the people who I want to learn from. The ones that are happy to fail, and eager to share the resolutions with others.

So, if you’re an Agile coach, be mindful that not all projects can be perfect, and that 'failing fast' should be encouraged. The best coaches I’ve come across understand this, and help educate us all in how to apply the theory to achieve success. So if you find yourself becoming a pure theorist, and hitting people with a word-constructed process stick, I’d strongly consider spending some time back on the ground. You might be pleasantly surprised to see what we’re managing to deliver, even if we’re not perfect.

Roisi Proven

Project Manager

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