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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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Community comments

  • Codes of ethics, dependencies

    by Dave Nicolette,

    • Re: Codes of ethics, dependencies

      by Dan Mezick,

      • Re: Codes of ethics, dependencies

        by Dave Nicolette,

        • engagement as coach's

          by Agile Philly,

          Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

          This comment relates to how we engage as a coach.

          We(coach's) should always be cognizant to not create dependency for our clients on a Coach. I agree with Dan's assessment made here:, although I am not very comfortable on the time limits. Some go as far as to say have no engagement or a very limited engagement. I am afraid this one size fit all does not work. Engagement in terms of time can be different based on team maturity etc, but the intent should be to disengage. I like the model where the coach engages and disengages at a regular cadence, and then finally disengages completely.

          When my clients me what my job is or how I know I am successful, I always say this: “By making sure I am out of a job soon”.

          Overall, I am glad this discussion has been started.


        • Codes of ethics, dependencies

          by Dave Nicolette,

          Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

          I read the ScrumAlliance code of ethics, and it struck me as being sort of soft and subject to interpretation. For many years, I've appreciated and subscribed to the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Management Consultants, although I've never actually been a member. It's online here: I take care to follow all the points except #15, since I'm not a member (#15 requires members to report violations to the organization). I don't think "agile coaches" need a separate code of ethics from everyone else in the universe. We're a kind of consultant, and there's already a rather good code of ethics for consultants.

          Regarding the idea of creating a dependency with a client, it sounds like a red flag to me. What sort of professional would think it was a good idea to bind a client to himself with chains of FUD? Where's the professional growth opportunity for the coach himself in that situation? Why would anyone wish to spend months or years of his life doing that? And can't the client tell, after a while, that nothing useful is happening? How could they not?

          IME when an engagement goes over about 3 months, the value to the client erodes. They will either (a) become dependent on the coach, or (b) cease to think of the coach's expertise as anything special. Ravindar's comment about a one-size-fits all time limit is well taken, however. The important thing is not to stay beyond the point of diminishing returns - for the client, or for ourselves. I've found 3 months is about right as a general rule. It's long enough for the client personnel to start doing something, and short enough to avoid the downsides of hanging around too long.

          I worry about getting stale, too. We have to be able to bring fresh ideas to the table, and the way we get those ideas is mainly through our experiences with multiple organizations, multiple teams, multiple domains, multiple sets of constraints and circumstances. If we stay in the same environment too long, won't our knowledge deteriorate? Seems to me we might start to generalize too much, assuming what we see every day is a broader norm than it really is. When I go into a new environment, I can see parallels with several past situations; if I had only been in a couple of shops over a period of years, how could I bring that sort of awareness to my next engagement? I would feel like a weightlifter who never works out, and then expects to win an Olympic medal just because of the spiffy uniform.

        • Re: Codes of ethics, dependencies

          by Dan Mezick,

          Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.


          Thanks for this great set of comments.

          This dependency ... I wonder if we as Agile coaches are willing to swear-off engendering ANY and ALL dependence in our clients.

          Aren't our clients supposed to become free-standing? Isn't that THE measure of success?

          Why not be honor-bound to totally avoid creating ANY dependency in the client?

          What might be wrong with that from the client's point of view? Where is the risk to the client in this scenario of "no dependency?"

          See also:

          All the Agile Coaching Ethics Posts

          Favorite Post: Agile Coaching, Client Learning, and Money

          Thanks again for your great comments, hitting the main issues hard with a common-sense delivery referencing your direct experience. Thank you for the link to the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Management Consultants.

          I cannot help noticing there is no reference to the words "dependent" or "dependency" in the code, nor any commitment from the consultant to explicitly refrain from engendering any dependency.

          I believe our current, collective immunity to this in the Agile Coaching community is almost nonexistent.

          Dan Mezick

        • Re: Codes of ethics, dependencies

          by Dave Nicolette,

          Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.


          I really like the "favorite post" you cited. Great insights.

          You're right that there's no explicit language in the IMC Code of Ethics regarding "dependency." I started adhering to that code in the mid-1980s, and haven't re-analyzed it since discovering "agile" methods years afterwards. I can read "don't create a dependency" into points 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 implicitly, but would all clients or coaches read it that way? Maybe not.

          On reflection, I think it would be good to state this value explicitly. We could, possibly, extend the IMC Code of Ethics for our own purposes. What I show prospects/clients is a statement of ethics that references the IMC code, and adds a couple of statements about not working with governments or companies that violate human rights, and that sort of thing. After reading the posts you cited, I'm going to add something about not creating a dependency. I think that's a key aspect of our work.

          I certainly agree that we want to get clients started on their own, independent path of continuous improvement; "free-standing," as you put it.


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