Agile Coach – charting the course of change


Eddy Obeng, Four Types of Change

Despite being a movie about transformation, there was of course no Agile Coach in the 1957 romantic comedy Desk Set. Spencer Tracy plays an efficiency expert and inventor of a reference computer about to be introduced to a New York TV network. Katharine Hepburn, at her sharp witted best, plays the network’s librarian, in charge of researching facts, and answering questions on all manner of topics. The movie, as you can imagine, is full of fiery exchange, as Tracy and Hepburn seem unable to set a joint course for change. Albeit without the atmosphere of a Hollywood classic, lack of clarity often characterises the starting point for an Agile Coach.

Eddie Obeng, the British organisational theorist, educator and author, provides a great way of understanding change. He describes four different states.

1. Paint by numbers change – where what and how are known

Where an organisation has high clarity on what it is that needs to change, and how to do this, Obeng describes this as paint by numbers. He is referring of course, to the type of art experience you buy in a newsagency, that shows you what picture you are going to paint, and directs you how to do it, using the numbers on the picture.

An organisation trying Agile for the first time, might start with a known what; such asa single pilot project, and a defined how, being the Agile way the team will work. It’s not necessarily a straightforward change, but because the what and how are known, organisations rarely engage an Agile Coach at this stage.

 2. Making a movie change – where how is known, but not what

No more so than today, does the world of Hollywood know how to make a movie. The part that is unknown each time a studio commissions a new movie, is the what.

With a pilot project modelling how Agile achieves collaboration and customer focused outcomes, an organisation could wonder what other applicability Agile has. What ways of working could be utilised beyond IT? What Agile practices could Leaders use to manage portfolio prioritisation? An Agile Coach can help disclose to an organisation the breadth of what, that can be achieved.

3. The quest – where what is known, but not how

The adoption of Agile often sits within the “quest” quadrant. Obeng here is referring to JFK’s well known speech of 1961 to commit funds to the space race:

“Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts of our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

JFK magnificently articulated what he wanted to achieve, but openly expressed that the US did not have the how of sending man to the moon.

The last decade has proven the success of Agile, but there is still no one size fits all approach to how to implement it across an organisation. It takes a skilled Agile Coach to define the how, and keep testing it along the way!

4. Lost in the fog – where neither what nor how is known

The starting point of change is often when an organisation acknowledges it doesn’t know what to do to embed Agile working, or how  to do it. A great Agile Coach collaborates with stakeholders to define what Agile capability looks like. Once this vision is articulated, the Coach focuses on how to achieve this. Trained Agile Coaches are organisational change managers, expert in moving from lost in the fog to clarity.

The movie ends happily. Tracy and Hepburn sort out misunderstandings and of course fall in love. As in the movie, the course of Agile change can be choppy, but with a skilled skipper, perhaps less so.

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