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Should Agile Coaches Have a Code of Ethics?

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Recently on the Agile Leaders mailing list, Dan Mezick initiated a discussion on the need for Agile Coaching Ethics. Dan wrote:

When a potential client calls to discuss coaching, they usually have a low level of experience and understanding of Agile. Further: the client, knowing little, typically seeks highly authoritative guidance.

Meanwhile, the Coach must generate revenue to earn a living, and may be tempted, even unconsciously, to engender dependencies in the Client. There is great potential here for dysfunction-- dysfunction that can quickly devolve into a serious co-dependence. Client seeks authority to tell client what it "should" do, in effect drafting Coach into a more authoritative role and stance. Coach is now on the horns of a dilemma, in several important dimensions

To which James Schiel replied:

My tendency is toward a strong belief in karma. In other words, don't mess with your customers, because whatever you gain financially you will lose in credibility.

James O. Coplien was not in favour of the idea:

I have found that codifying ethics — as the ABA does, for example — has little or no effect. In the end I think good ethics come down to a grounding in common sense, an attitude of removing obstacles to transparency, and an environment where open and productive dialog can take place. That is, if you're already living the Agile values, I would find an ethical system to be in the category of processes and tools in an area where people and interactions should reign. It also adds invariants that contribute to rigor-mortis and inflexibility in one of the areas where a coach should be the most Agile.

Dan Mezick compared Agile Coaching to other forms of coaching that have established standards:

Ethical standards are well established for general coaching, and form a solid foundation. These come from the ICF and are used by others such as CTI. The "ICGCodeOfEthics" class can be inherited as a base, to create the new elaborated class specific to us.....we might call the "AgileCoachingEthics" class that uses the ICF standard as a base. There is nothing in the ICF standards that addresses the taking up of authoritative stance (or not) regardless of what "client wants".

Clients often have no clue what they really need and often ask for "pain killers". Our job is to serve them regardless.

James indicated that a structured ethical system may work against Agile principles:

Remember that ethics are designed to help you take action when the situation is too difficult, or you are too embroiled, to make the "right" (whatever that means) decision. That flies in the very face of Agile, which is all about having the transparency to support the open dialogue in lieu of taking the arbitrary actions stipulated by an ethical system.

I don't say this pointlessly but as someone who has made such study part of his career. There are few universal morals, let alone ethics. I think the only way you will accomplish the publication of a list of Agile ethics is by fiat, and that goes against the principles of Agile.

I therefore think that such an effort is likely to defeat itself, not for lack of will or desire, but by its very construction.

Peter Stevens added:

The Scrum Alliance has a code of ethics. I believe CSC's are required to sign that code, but I'm not sure (and i'm even less sure about CST's).

Dan concluded with:

My current belief is that a specific code for Agile Coaches is something we do well to discuss. Agile Coaching is a distinct vocation that has at least the potential to do tremendous help or harm to client organizations. There are also implications for how Agile as a whole is perceived in the world, because Agile Coaches (in theory) engage in the modeling Agile virtue and principles.

And Gene rounded out the discussion:

I think that this topic is very important to discuss in detail. Since the role of Agile Coach is still relatively young (for one thing, it cannot be older then agile/scrum itself, right?) we do have to recognize that there are still areas for improving it, and Ethics – could be very well one of such areas.

Clearly, as coaches, we are given a great power of changing landscape of the industry, restructuring organizations, affecting human relationships and potentially causing changes to the job market. We must make sure that while giving recommendations and providing guidance to our clients we always keep their primary interests in our minds and don’t tempt to steer them in a direction that provides us, coaches or entities that we represent, with more benefits then those of our clients.

Dan Mezick has some further thoughts on the topic posted on his blog. See his post on Free Standing Agility as well as his Epic User Stories for Coaching Ethics.

What are your thoughts? Should Agile Coaches have a code ethics?

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