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.