Bottlenecks As Triggers for Organizational Development

Product units and teams started to compete for the support of the agile coaches at idealo quite a while ago. The reason was simple. Even though we are 10 coaches we do not have enough capacity to work closely with more than 35 development teams. Some of the teams do not have agile coaches to work with at all. Others do but cannot be supported on a regular basis. At the same time teams do not feel comfortable to facilitate basic ‘agile meetings’ without agile coach support. This became evident when retrospectives were cancelled if no agile coach was available. Somewhat it seemed that we became bottlenecks of the agile transition.

Photo by Denise Johnson on Unsplash

Lately the ‘competition’ for agile coaches between different product units has been taken to a new level. The ‚head-of-group‘ raised concerns. We did need to improve the situation. Some of our product units are undergoing challenging changes and reach out for our support. This has been discussed in the head-of-group’s weekly meetings. Emotions have been triggered. But the discussions did not bring up actionable results. 

Eventually a small group of head-ofs came up with an idea. They sketched an organizational frame that grouped the ten product units into three clusters. Agile coaches would not be working with single product units anymore. Rather they would form crews (groups of 4-6 agile coaches). Each crew would be working with one of the clusters. The idea was presented to the other head-ofs and accepted quickly. It is obvious that grouping the product units and reallocating agile coaches will not solve the capacity shortage. Still the head-ofs voted for this new structure. But why?

My assumption is that the structure promises to resolve another ‘hidden’ problem. Discussions about the allocation of agile coaches to product units were held during the weekly meetings with more than 20 head-ofs being present. Everyone has been bringing her own ideas and needs. It’s been close to impossible to bring all these voices together and take a decision based on the vast amount of input. By forming clusters and allocating groups of agile coaches to them prioritization and decision making may become easier. Autonomous decisions within the clusters are strengthened. People will eventually stop competing for resources and start to work on the biggest potentials instead.

The new structure comes with another effect. It has become visible that the capacity problem will not be solved through structure. This increases the acceptance of our role as agile coaches. A couple of weeks ago many head-ofs wished for agile coaches being scrum masters in their teams. It seems as if this is starting to change. Even though the wish for scrum masters may remain the same, several statements now conclude: „We need to find ways to transfer the knowledge and responsibility of scrum masters to people being closer to the teams.“ Luckily this supports our guideline:

Although ”acting on our own” is important to us, 
we value ”enabling others to act effectively” more

Agile Coaches at idealo, 2018

It seems that the intense discussion about the allocation of ‘human resources’, i.e. the agile coaches (generally we do not like discussing about humans as resources), triggered a meaningful organizational development. Amazing.

Update, 18.07.2019:

Today I re-edited this article. I did exchange the term ‚middle management‘ by ‚head-of-group‘ (a group of agile leaders responsible for product areas). My decision is based on valuable feedback that I received yesterday.

The term ‚middle management‘ often is used in a negative way within the agile community. I do not intend to give the impression that the head-ofs at idealo are not professional agile leaders. We all try to improve the organization based on positive intentions and experiments continuously. This includes C-level-executives, head-ofs, developers, data analysts, product owners, agile teamleads, … the list could go on forever.

Thank you Michael for the direct and open feedback. It helps me to improve my communication skills.

Thoughts About Agile Coaching and the Disappearance of Agile Principles

I started my work as a Scrum Master at idealo in 2014. Nowadays I call myself Agile Coach. It is not only the name of the role that changed. I got a completely different job by now. But which one?

Recently I stopped facilitating most team ceremonies as well as training agility in teams – at the base of the company. Instead I am now working with a #tandem-partner, a very experienced systemic coach and trainer. Together we are coaching colleagues who are in some kind of organizational leadership roles. Most of the time this means helping them to change perspectives. With our guidance the coachees reveal new options for action. Topics often are related to better communication, clearness of roles, responsibilities and goals, and dealing with conflict. And with that change agile values and principles seem to have vanished from my daily communication. Although all of these topics are connected to agile values and principles, the relation is not discussed explicitly. Time to ask myself whether this is acceptable or not!

Of course agile values and principles are anchored deeply in myself. They surely influence my work and therefore have impact on the colleagues I am working with. But is there a chance that they become part of other people’s mindset that way? Would they be valuable to the coachees? (Lately we can see more and more discussions in the community addressing the need for a re-newed agile manifesto applicable in contexts other than software development teams.) Am I acting as an Agile Coach or rather a personal coach with agile background?

What does an Agile Coach do anyways? Maybe this is the main question here. As far as I know each organization is having it’s own definition for the role. People having completely different jobs start calling themselves Agile Coaches. At the Agile Piano Meetup @JeffSutherland agitated for having more and stronger Scrum Masters instead because everyone calls herself „Agile Coache“ nowadays (without any qualification or clearness of what it means).

It is time for clarification. A first step seems to be made. In 2018 first professional trainings for Agile Coaches became visible in Germany.

The Tandem Effect – A Supporting Factor for Overcoming Resistance in Role Transformations

Change has become the daily business of many organizations. The complexity and ambiguity of many–if not all–industries demand new answers. As a consequence, organizations need to continuously adapt their ways of working. More often than not, this means a change for job-roles as well.

If you ever had to re-work your own job-role, you know that this is a hard thing to do. Especially if collaboration with others is a central part of it. Typically there will be a lot of resistance to overcome in:

  • changing your own behaviour and
  • getting others to accept the changes

In this article I will share my experiences and learnings as an example of how expert-role-tandems can help to successfully master this transition.

Introduction

Let me provide you with a recent example of how our job as Agile Coaches at idealo changed. Until 2018 we worked very closely with the development teams. We filled an important role in their daily business, e.g. being facilitators of team ceremonies such as Daily Standups, Refinements, Plannings and Retrospectives. Whenever an Agile Coach could not attend such a ceremony it was likely to be canceled or postponed. Most teams were not able to compensate the role of the Agile Coach. Other Agile Coaches did not have enough capacity to take over. We had become bottlenecks of the agile transition, looking for a way to increase independence of the teams.

Lately we came up with a new principle guideline for the role of Agile Coaches at idealo. It describes roughly how we want to solve that problem. Two central phrases of that guideline are:

We enable people and organizational units to act effectively.

[…]

Although “acting on our own” is important to us,
we value “enabling others to act effectively” more.

[…]

Agile Coaches @idealo, 2018

This is a major change compared to the way we worked in the past. It means that instead of being facilitators of team ceremonies and team coaches, we will focus on enabling team members and other colleagues, e.g. teamleads, to facilitate ceremonies and develop their own agile environment independently. Even though the guideline does not say anything about our ways of working or specific tasks, implications on that level are inevitable. We started a major role-transformation-process by writing down that guideline – although we did not realize this at first. And as with any other change process, it comes with resistances that we need to overcome.

Unlike most of my Agile Coach colleagues at idealo I am lucky to go through that change in a tandem constellation. That is what we call the close collaboration of two experts sharing the same responsibility. In my case my tandem partner is Frieda, another Agile Coach. We both work at idealo within the product area Acquisition and Loyalty, one of our customer-centric product development areas.

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