I’m a Certified Scrum Coach and I know quite a few CST’s. Many of them offer training and coaching as part of their services. However, the typical client interaction, either with public classes or private training engagements, for many of them is as follows:

  • Deliver a 2-day CSM class to a group of mostly client team members
  • Rarely deliver a “talk to leadership” as part of the engagement, as theirs is more of a team-centric play…

Then they move off on their merry way. One of the “tag lines” of the Scrum Alliance is “Transforming the world of work”; so many CST’s get a sense of accomplishment at this point—feeling that the world of work has been, well…transformed.

This approach is training centric and coaching light to non-existent. It’s also focused towards team members rather than management or leadership roles. It’s my understanding that one driver for that is training is much more lucrative than coaching. Now I’m not saying that’s the only driver, but I’d bet it’s one of the primary drivers. It’s also easier to “sell” training sessions and the related certifications over coaching.

My main issue with this approach is I’m not sure it sets the clients up for success. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an organization send folks off to a CSM class and then assign them Scrum Master duties upon their return. These newly minted CSM’s are ill equipped for the role of Scrum Master in the real world and they almost always fail in some way, which inevitably gets blamed on “agile”.

Or another pattern is that team members leave “hyped up” on the agile principles and the promises of self-directed execution, go back home to their organizations, and then encounter the same dysfunctional management patterns without any tools to change how they engage with their leadership teams.

In both cases these CSMs need role models, examples, mentors, and coaching—in the trenches with their teams in order to be successful. It’s also surprising how little of this is required to help them get over the hump and become more effective.

The other issue I have is that these folks seem to avoid traditional management in their training. Some even marginalize and/or somewhat demonize traditional management in the very companies they’re training. They do this in the classes—painting a somewhat purist view towards agile leadership that inevitably the company leadership falls short on.

But there is often little to no “reaching out” or “partnering” with the leadership folks in these organizations. And if coaching the teams themselves is minimal, then coaching leadership isn’t even attempted.


If you’ve followed my career in my writing, you are aware that I spent three years at iContact as a senior technology leader and the head agile coach and evangelist.  During my tenure, I was the primary coach and trainer for our teams in agile methods and approaches. I taught Scrum and Kanban basics, Agile Requirements with User Stories, explored roles and responsibilities, and helped us scale with a modified Scrum of Scrums model, and even focused heavily on Extreme Programming practices.

I also coached our management team (team leads and functional managers) across UX, Quality & Testing, DevOps, Architecture, and Software Development. This went far beyond training and focused on situational leadership in moving their style and tactics from command-and-control to more servant leadership styles.

I joked at the time that I had two distinct jobs. I was the Director of our Technical teams reporting to our CTO. But I was also the organizational Agile Coach with responsibility for our overall transformation. Needless to say, I was fairly busy.

But here’s the thing.

If you had asked me when I was working there, what percentage of time I spent coaching the “teams” vs. coaching “management”, I would have said 70:30. It just felt like I was doing way more team-based interaction and coaching.

But if you asked me the same question after I left the organization, I now flip the ratios around. I realize now that I spent a relatively small amount of my time at a team level. Instead, I spent the majority of my time at the middle leadership level and a little with senior leadership. Here’s the more correct ratio:

  • Team – 30%
  • Middle Management – 60%
  • Senior Leadership – 10%

And the most important point here is that I normalized to these ratios as I was coaching across the entire organization and leading it into a state of high-performance. So these were based on the real world dynamics in moving the organization forward.

As I reflect on my most successful coaching gigs, these ratios come through—in coaching, conversations, training, and simply influencing change. The middle management tier in organizations, comprised of team leads, managers, and directors, needs the most help in making the transition. And they’re in the position to do the most with the coaching, helping to sustain and grow it.


Chris Matts published this wonderfully introspective blog post in March 2014. I believe he came to the same conclusion that I did in my ratios. That as coaches we should spend the majority of our time coaching the leadership teams within organizations.

Here’s an excerpt from his post:

This was the point that I realised that I was an organisational dysfunction.

Some of the more experienced coaches had suggested I should work for the team doing what was right, rather than work for management. It felt right because management did not have a deep understanding of agile but I had a stronger feeling that I should be aligned with management who represented the goals of the organisation. The management skills matrix helped me realise that I should not work with the team at all. Instead I should work coaching the leadership of the organisation so that THE LEADERS COULD COACH THE TEAMS. That way, there would be no misalignment. Management would know why they were doing each agile practice. There would be no disconnect between the teams and management. By training the teams, I am perpetuating a disconnect between the teams and their management… I am perpetuating an organisational dysfunction.


As the title implies, I think we (agile trainers and coaches) are spending too much time with the wrong people.

Instead of taking the easy road (and money) by mostly training & coaching teams, I’d like us to focus on partnering with and training the management tiers within organizations. In fact, I’m starting to think we’ve been avoiding these folks.


  • Is it because they are in the ugly business of dealing with demanding stakeholders and customers and, as much as we’d like to pretend we understand that world, we don’t?
  • Is it that our messages, models, and repetitive and simplistic directions don’t work as nicely with them? Or is it that we need to show more flexibility and incremental transformation strategies in our guidance?
  • Is it that we’re afraid of being pulled into their real world vs. our purist views of agile tactics that apply independent of context?
  • Is it because they’ll ask tougher questions? And expect us to have relevant, real world experience.
  • Is It because it’s much tougher to get their time and gain their respect from a change management vs. results perspective?

I’m not sure. But I do know that operating at the team level is “safer” for many of us. It’s more secure to “fire up” teams that are sent to us by these very same leaders and managers, and then send them back to their organizations as the primary instigators of agility.


I know this post may make some in the agile training and coaching community uncomfortable. It might even anger a few. But I honestly feel we need a “wakeup call”.

I think Agile Trainers and CST’s should coach more. Perhaps a minimum of 50% of their revenue being generated by coaching and that’s across a solid cross-section of their clients.

I also align quite nicely with what Chris Matts was saying in that we coaches need to engage leadership much more in our coaching. Or as Chris wraps up his post with:

It answers that age old question? Who should go Agile first? The team or the leadership?

GIVEN that management want Agile

WHEN they hire a coach

THEN the coach should start with management.

So now I have to change the way I work so that I’m no longer a dysfunction. For those of you who know me, you know how hard that will be. 😉

And that includes not allowing folks to bring us in to too heavily engage teams, while not engaging leadership. We need to have the integrity to say no to the easy road inquiries and yes, to the harder contexts that are more leadership focused.

We’ll be much better coaches for it AND I truly believe the quality of our agile transformations will drastically improve.

Which is the point isn’t it?

As for me, I want to thank Chris for the wake up call. I will be changing both my training and coaching style and approach within my client engagements. Drastically, probably not. But an immediate and fundamental shift will occur.

Now the question is…what about others?

Stay agile my friends,


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