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Centralized vs. Decentralized Coaching

| Posted by Gene Gendel Follow 0 Followers , reviewed by Shane Hastie Follow 28 Followers on May 20, 2018. Estimated reading time: 14 minutes |

Key Takeaways

  •  There is a frequently seen confusion with respect to the definition of agile coaching: coaching focus (e.g. enterprise vs. team) is confused with coaching alignment (centralized vs. decentralized) within an organization
  • Centralized coaching departments run the risk of turning into a single-specialty organizational silos that are locally optimized for their own expansion and personal success; they are also removed from real action. The reasoning behind: standardization - has its weaknesses.
  • Centralized coaching is often limited to being “responsible for introducing KPIs, documentation of script-style-one-size-fits-all best practices and cookie-cutting approaches”.  This leads to system gaming by other departments and organizational silos that must “meet numbers goals”
  • Centralized Agile coaching makes sense only when it takes place within an organization that is small enough to be effectively managed front-to-back (including its all organizational layers)  and is genuinely supportive of its own coaches, by providing them with “organizational immunity” and operational safety - to enable them perform their challenging duties
  • The main advantage of decentralized coaching approach is that coaches are close to real action: deeply engaged with products/services, and are intimately engaged with senior leadership.  Decentralized coaching is deep & narrow (as opposed to being broad and shallow) and takes time to cause meaningful and sustainable organizational changes.

"The old rules no longer apply...

When General Stanley McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004, he quickly realized that conventional military tactics were failing. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a decentralized network that could move quickly, strike ruthlessly, then seemingly vanish into the local population. The allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, equipment, and training—but none of that seemed to matter….

A new approach for a new world...

McChrystal and his colleagues discarded a century of conventional wisdom and remade the Task Force, in the midst of a grueling war, into something new: a network that combined extremely transparent communication with decentralized decision-making authority. The walls between silos were torn down. Leaders looked at the best practices of the smallest units and found ways to ex­tend them to thousands of people on three continents, using technology to establish a oneness that would have been impossible even a decade earlier. The Task Force became a “team of teams” - faster, flatter, more flex­ible - and beat back Al Qaeda."

Original source: Amazon summary of the book “Team of Teams”, by General Stanley McChrystal  (Author),‎ Tantum Collins  (Author),‎ David Silverman  (Author),‎ Chris Fussell (Author)

Note: This writing was inspired by the discussion among LeSS trainers (CLT) & candidates, LeSS-Friendly Scrum Trainers (LFST),  Certified Enterprise Coaches (CEC) and Certified Scrum Trainers (CST). The main influencers of this writing are: Rowan Bunning, Josef Scherer, Greg Hutchings, Michael Mai, Robin Dymond,  Viktor Grgic, Bas Vodde and Gene Gendel.  Points of view are drawn on experience of individuals’ consulting at various companies, in the following industry sectors: Global Telecommunications, Finance/Banking, Insurance, and Department of Defence.

Resolving the Confusion: Focus vs. Position

While this writing is about the differences in effectiveness of Centralized Coaching vs. Decentralized Coaching in complex organizational settings, first, we need to clear up one important misunderstanding: mistakenly, enterprise-level coaching is confused with centralized, while team-level coaching is confused with decentralized.

This is a confusion of two different coaching aspects: focus and position.  For example, within an internal organizational structure of the same CTO (could be different from other CTOs of the same organization), there could be both levels of coaching: enterprise- and team- level coaches - would be working concurrently, while complimenting each other’s work in many ways.  What makes them different is their coaching focus (enterprise dynamics vs. team dynamics). But at the same time, their placement/sense of belonging is the same: they are decentralized from an enterprise apex and fit into a more local area (sphere of influence of one CTO).

To summarize the definitions of two coaching aspects:

Coaching focus:

  • Team coaches are primarily focused on tools, frameworks and dynamics of multiple teams, with less emphasis on organizational transformation.
  • Enterprise (organizational) coaches - are more focused on organizational dynamics and more abstracted elements of transformation, with emphasis on senior leadership, upper management, organizational policies (e.g. HR), and multiple organizational domains.  

Both focus areas, enterprise - and team-level -  are equally important and required for transformational success, irrespectively of where a coaching discipline is placed: centrally or de-centrally.  Noteworthy, many experienced coaches are able to operate equally effectively at team- as well as enterprise level, as they ‘travel’ up and down an organizational vertical.  (Note: for more detailed definitions of coaching focus areas, please refer to authentic and credible sources describing this profession: Scrum Alliance and LeSS.works.)

Coaching position:

  • Centralized - a distinct organizational unit (e.g. Agile Center of Excellence or Agile Global Centre) that drives agile transformation across an entire organization, by introducing best practices, tools, techniques, standards, benchmarks and scorecards, against which everyone else is measured. Such organizational unit is loosely coupled with any specific product, service or line of business.  It is primarily supported (and sponsored) by an organizational structure that has been selected and ‘put in charge’ by more senior leadership. With this selection, other organizational structures (e.g. operations or product groups) usually remain less vested in the effort, and even if follow along, do so with noticeable complacency.

  • Decentralized - is a less rigidly structured team of like-minded coaches that align themselves with a clearly defined product, service or line of business.  Transformational focus here is much narrower, and requires much more jenuine support/vesting ( with sponsorship!) from multiple organizational verticals involved (e.g. business, operations, IT, HR, finance, etc.).  In order for decentralized coaching to have a meaningful organizational impact, an organization must be of manageable size (no Big Bangs), as it is defined by an organizational sushi roll that contains elements/instances of multiple organizational structures involved.

Let's take a closer look at two distinct types of a coaching position:

Centralized coaching

Usually, this approach is preferred by organizations that treat agile transformation, as a trend, accompanied by inspirational slogans, PR and town hall talks, with senior organizational leaders rendering support mainly “in blessing and in spirit”, rather than by real actions. This is frequently done without real understanding of deep system implications of this important undertaking.  There is no true gemba by senior leadership.  Actual transformational efforts are delegated downward-and-downward, to lower echelons of power, where the original purpose is diluted and focus is lost.  With agile coaching, being a centralized organizational function that owns transformation, one of its main deliverables becomes setting of standards and measures of success, by which the rest of an organization is measured.  

A usual justification of centralized coaching function, is the need to standardize and define “best practices” for others, by claiming that “...too many independent adoptions would be hard to measure/compare against another…so we need consistency...” - is something that is very important for organizations, where individuals’ rewards and compensation are based on individual performance, scorecards and KPIs.  To fulfill organizational mandates for measurements, centralized coaches are tasked with introducing agile maturity metrics (AMMs) that are usually composed of a wide array of maturity indicators, bundled together in some arbitrarily created maturity buckets/levels.  This approach very quickly turns into a box-checking exercise for other organizational units, whereas everyone tries to claim higher maturity, in order to meet goals. Not surprisingly, this is accompanied by system gaming and unsubstantiated claims of success.

Since with centralized coaching approach there is a higher volume of demand for coaches and it often exceeds a supply, quality is frequently compromised, and it manifests itself as follows:

  • Larman’s Law of Organizational Behaviour # 4 kicks in - it describes individuals, whose past roles have become less needed in flattened/leaner organizations, and now “...coaching seems like another thing these misplaced folks can do successfully...” These individuals perceive coaching as an opportunity to stay busy and fast-track their own careers (agile coaching for them is just a “hop-on-hop-off” bandwagon) until they secure another comfortable position in an organizational structure..

  • Coaches “Centaurs” - describes low quality external consultants that are hired temporarily, from outside, at low/wholesale cost, through third-party vendors, conveniently listed in preferred vendor applications of client-companies. (Sidenote: usually, these vendors have challenges supplying high-quality intellectual assets in general, let alone agile transformation consultants, as the latter are relatively specific professional niche).

Since centralized coaches are responsible for setting the tone for the rest of organization, they are also tasked with producing large volumes of supportive documentation: standardized training materials, audios, videos, etc.  Hundreds (at times, thousands) of internal wiki pages are created to host information that, for the most part, comes in the form of copy-pasting what is already available publicly on internet (easily accessible commodity).  This consumes many man-hours and produces a false sense of information ownership, internally.  Such information also becomes outdated frequently, and requires lots of internal manual rework to be kept up-to-date.

As demand for coaching comes from various organizational areas, centralized coaches get temporarily deployed to offer assistance.  But since for many internal customers, agile transformation is still a meeting-numbers game (to comply with enterprise-wide organizational mandates), demand for coaches often exceeds its supply (it comes in spikes).  As a result, often coaches are spread thin across multiple organizational areas and their ability to truly make long lasting, meaningful impact is hindered. Coaching becomes broad and shallow.  In a long run, as a delayed result of demand-spiking, there is an accelerated growth of centralized coaching group, as described above.

… And now, artificially inflated group of centralized coaches, takes on the form of a single-functional specialty department that is governed by ‘local optimization’: they are optimized to maintain their own increased size and the need to stay busy.

Here are some quotes about centralized coaching from the influencers of this writing:

From Viktor Grgic of Odd-e:

Organizational tree of agile coaches who commonly force upon others their “services” is quite serious dysfunction. If organization is very much into this, one might choose to limit scope of adoption, show real result while others are extremely busy with programs, etc. In other words, there is not much that can be done when KPIs for agile transformation are set at the very high level of organization and everyone is busy complying with them.

From Greg Hutchings, of Amelior Services:

I would discourage those who think that the best use of agile coaching and training budgets would be to create an agile center with people primarily aligned with and focused on belonging to and spending time with a separate, specialist group, as this is just about the exact opposite of go-see, working at gemba, and inspecting and adapting with people in the main value creation part of the organisation.

Leaving Your Men Behind

One of the most painful examples of centralized coaching dysfunction is having coaches internalized/commoditized by an organizational structure that does not genuinely support agile transformation, because it neither understands it, nor sees any personal benefit of it.  Furthermore, there is a fear that organizational agility at-large (at scale) might be viewed as a threat to the very purpose and usefulness of an organizational structure itself. For example, placing a coaching function within an existing Business Analysis group, or an existing Governance CoE, or management CoP/PMO or Architecture department would be a disservice to an agile coaching initiative altogether, as these organizational verticals would not provide coaches with necessary support and safely, to perform challenging duties. They will leave their coaches behind.  For example, if coaches reveal organizational dysfunctions that may lead to an increase of political tensions, unsupportive organizational structures and Taylorian managers of modern days will readily sacrifice their own coaches (“throw them under a bus”) to regain political recognition to better fit an organizational landscape.

De-Centralized coaching

With decentralized coaching approach, coaches are locally aligned/dedicated with teams, their customers & products, and immediately involved senior leadership.  

This approach is usually preferred, when a specific organizational area (e.g. IT, product development) makes a conscious decision to improve its agility/adaptiveness.  Decentralized coaching is typically sponsored/supported by a real end-consumer, with enough organizational power to protect autonomy and authenticity of original transformation goals (e.g. CTO/CIO and respective senior business partners).  In this scenario, people that consume services and people that pay for services - are the same people that are really vested in success.

With decentralized coaching, fewer but more experienced and dedicated coaches are required.  Coaches are more carefully selected by an organization. Coaching seasoning/experience is being viewed as the most important factor and becomes a natural remedy against a ‘wholesale’ approach: highly qualified coaches will not work for a discounted pay, while genuinely vested clients are willing to pay a fair price for high quality service.

Decentralized coaching is deep and narrow: it is focused on fewer people (in total) but on a wider gamut of organizational elements/domains (e.g. IT, business partners, HR, finance) - by taking a holistic look at the whole organization.  With this approach, it is much easier to trace effectiveness of coaching “from concept to cash”, by chasing not just superficial indicators/outputs (e.g. adherence to Scrum events, increased velocity, stable/collocated teams) but also seek true business outcomes (increased ROI, improved customer satisfaction, beating external competition, team happiness).

Once engaged deeply, dedicated coaches go through a few important steps of a coaching cycle: assessing, delivering structured training, coaching and gradually disengaging, while giving autonomy back to a client: there is no rush to meet year-end target numbers with coaching.  Dedicated (local) coaches and organizations they support, are much less preoccupied with KPIs, metrics, scorecards and meeting numbers. AMMs are treated solely as a barometer of local improvements (please see how).  

Throughout an entire engagement period, coaches remain deeply embedded with development teams and respective product teams.  This is all accompanied by many observations, short feedback loops and frequent retrospectives. Any issues or observations that have systemic implications and require attention of senior leadership, are addressed together with senior leadership.

Given autonomy and sovereignty of an organization and its dedicated coaches, there is a higher chance of running experiments, inspecting & adapting, without fear of failure, or being prematurely judged and becoming a subject to repercussions.

Why False Dichotomy?

Sometimes, we hear a concern that because of decentralized coaching approach, there will be no adequate shared learning across the whole organization.  But why should this be the case? Why should decentralized coaching and shared learning be mutually exclusive (false dichotomy)?  Could not be there some other effective ways to ensure that coaches succeed in both: remain dedicated to their own, distinct organizational areas, for the reasons described above, and are still able to collaborate, synergize, learn from one another and create full transparency for their individual methods and styles?  

All of this could be very effectively achieved by forming self-organized/self-governed coaching communities of practice, where coaches from different organizational areas, of different focus (team-, enterprise-) and with different skill set (technical-, career-, process-) consistently share their knowledge and experience, in a safe, reporting-free environment.

Conclusion

If an organization is relatively small and centralized coaching does not turn into a PR showcase, with a small group of privileged individuals, trying to set a tone for thousands of others, by enforcing KPIs, metrics and best practices, AndIf there is a way to prevent centralized coaches from rushing towards year-end target numbers, AND instead, engage deeply and narrowly with clients, while offering continuous support and conducting safe experiments, THEN centralized coaching approach is worth a try. Endlf

However, if the above conditions are not possible, because of historic organizational malfunctions, then dedicated coaches that are deeply embedded with vested customers, is a better choice.

Here are some more quotes from this writing’s influencers:

From Bas Vodde, of Odd-e and the co-founder of Large Scale Scrum framework:

If you have a centralized team that can *truly* go to products and coach them, they’re very valuable as they see a lot of cross-product dynamics. If they can’t do that, then a decentralized group is a better chance of getting at least some value out of the coaching.

From Rowan Bunning, of Scrum WithStyle:

If the goal is for Agile thinking and practices to be disseminated throughout an organisation in a way that everyone feels that they “own” their ways of working, then coaches should be co-located and deeply embedded with teams and business units they support.  Furthermore, if a message from coaches to developers is to move from single function groups to cross-functional teams, then having coaches centralised into a single-function group may seem hypocritical. It may also be perceived as a pursuit of control over how Agile coaching services are procured and disseminated - potentially to the benefit of those in a centralised group.

Author’s note: By way of illustration, in LeSS adoptions, a LeSS coach would focus on a 2-8 Teams (about 50 people) that work on the same product, for the same Product Owner, out of the same product backlog.  LeSS coach would also focus on additional organizational layers that are in immediate proximity to IT-side of LeSS organizational construct, specifically, on a product/product-people side, and their respective senior leadership.  LeSS coaching engagement is meant to be deep and narrow (as oppose to broad and shallow), and is focused on a small “sushi roll slice” of a whole organization.  For LeSS coaching to be successful, bigger does not mean better, and it naturally supports the idea of organizational descaling.

About the Author

Gene Gendel is Agile Coach, Trainer and Organizational Design Agent.   Gene is a proud member of the small community of Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coaches (CEC).  Gene’s goal is to help organizations and individual teams with improving internal dynamics, organizational structure and overall efficiency.   He strives to engage at all organizational levels: senior- and mid-level management, teams and individuals. In his work, Gene uses various methods, tools and techniques to strengthen learning of others and to ensure that teams and individuals gain autonomy after he “coaches himself out of the job”. Throughout his long career, Gene has served small, mid-size and large companies, domestically and abroad.

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