Where “Meet Them Where They’re At” Meets “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”

In the agile community, there is a gradual, non-disruptive approach to agile transformation which is represented by the phrase, “Meet them where they’re at.”  This approach is in contrast to a more confrontational, disruptive approach to agile transformation, where there is a kind of monolithic, across-the-board “from this moment forward, and until further notice” sudden change to people’s roles, flattening the hierarchy of the organizational structure, and drastic update to the processes and tools being used, which may bear absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to their predecessors.  The latter approach can add such a huge shock to the system that the company cannot continue to deliver its product or services to the market, and possibly go out of business as a result, theoretically.  I haven’t seen such things happen yet, but with some research examples may arise.  (Feel free to raise an example if you are aware of one.)

Predictably, there has been a recurring theme among the agile coaches conversations in online social networks that a “Code of Ethics” or “Hippocratic Oath” be taken as a sort of standard in the trade, that business coaches, consultants, and organizational designers essentially promise to “do no harm” to our clients.  While the intention is probably a good one, the harsh reality of profession is that there are many ways that an agile coach could be unintentionally complicit with harm happening to their client, even when pursuing either end of the Disruptive to Non-disruptive spectrum of Change Management in pursuit of agile transformation.

Here’s why: The Tyranny of Structurelessness is constantly looming, and “Give The People What They Want” can end horribly, horribly wrong depending on which people in particular, we are talking about.

Permit a short anecdote, or jump to the end of the anecdote.
In my extended family there is a short story for why children should eat their greens at dinner time, even if they don’t really want to.  My grandfather was a botanist by training, and a national park forest ranger by trade, and for better or worse brought home a chipmunk as a Christmas gift for his youngest son, Rick, who is now psychologist and to my knowledge working for the United States Center for Disease Control, incidentally.  Little Rick loved to play with his chipmunk and endeavored to be a responsible steward of this wild, living creature whose care he was newly entrusted.  He made the natural diet of nuts (pine nuts and acorns, presumably) and fresh water available to the chipmunk, which ate them with relish and without hesitation.  Clearly, there was an element of trust that the chipmunk had placed in Rick, that his offerings were safe to consume.

The curiosity of boy like Rick knows no bounds, however, and he decided (at the prompting of his older brothers and sisters, no doubt) to place a peanut in front of the chipmunk to see how it would respond to something new, that it had probably never eaten before.  Initially the chipmunk was confused, not sure what the foreign object was, already removed from shell and husk.  Then, the chipmunk began to inspect it, with cautious nudges to see if it moved on its own power, which it did not.  Then, the sniffing began.  A series of fast, short bursts of sniffing all around the exterior of the peanut eventually confirmed it’s worth trying a bite.  The chipmunk bit into the peanut, chewed quickly with nose to the air and eyes rolled backward in its little head, then froze…Eureka!  A better food source!  Oh how it loved that meal of a peanut.

The children giggled with delight to see this little creature come alive with energy and a passion for peanuts.  But then the children and Rick noticed something odd; the chipmunk wouldn’t even touch his old acorns, pine nuts and walnuts anymore.  Those were no longer interesting to him.  You could place the old food around him, but he’d just turn the other way, waiting for a replenishment of the peanut supply.  He was adamant about it: no peanut, no eat!  To the kids, gathering pine nuts, acorns and walnuts was more of chore than simply opening a can of peanuts, so, the children reasoned, if peanuts are “the new acorns” then so be it.  A chipmunk has got to live, ya know!  So, peanuts it is, then.

Living the peanut life was all well and good for the chipmunk as December turned to January, then February, then March, and then April arrived.  One Easter morning the children arose to Easter presents and every manner of candy you could imagine.  There were malted milk ball eggs, candy corns, and jelly beans.  This part of the story is intentionally left vague to preserve the peace of mind of the parties involved, but at this point one of the children had some curiosity around the chipmunk again.  How would he respond to a jelly bean?

Unsurprisingly the entire sequence of inspection started: nudges, cringing, sniffing, bite, chewing…delight!  A better food source!  The chipmunk had adapted to jellybean life instantaneously.  The jellybean is the new peanut.  At least it seemed it would be to Rick and the bigger kids until the next morning when they went to the cage where the chipmunk slept.  Rick found his trusting chipmunk laying on his back with all 4 paws extended. Rigamortis had already set in.  He’d died during the night.  Was it the jellybean?  Or lack of peanuts?  Or lack of acorns, walnuts and pine nuts?  We’ll never know, and certainly the chipmunk didn’t either.  Sometimes, animals and people don’t know what’s good for them, and want what they shouldn’t have.  So eat your greens, live long, and prosper.  Take this advice from someone who’s already been doing that for a longer time than you.
End of the anecdote.

The job of the consultant/coach is to get the client from where they’re at, to where they want to be, in some aspect of the client’s life.  The word “coach” actually refers to a horse and carriage kind of coach, where the horse and carriage pulls up to wherever you’re at, invites you in, you open the door and get yourself inside it, and the carriage reliably delivers you in 1 piece to the place you said you wanted to go.  The deal is that you trust the coach driver to know how to get you there, and know much better than you.  You’re not expected to be screaming out directions to the coach driver about how to get you to your declared destination.  Now, please stop for a moment, and review the words made bold and placed in italics.  This is the crux of the relationship between client and coach.  If you don’t want it, then what you’re really saying is that you don’t want coaching, which is fine.  As an organization, everyone needs to be perfectly clear about that.  When we’re talking about an agile transformation, the same is true.

However, in actual practice, what I am seeing is some amount of clients who both say they want coaching, but also want to tell the coach exactly how to get to their declared destination.  They will say how many hours or days of coaching with which locations and teams, and how much or little change to roles, process, and org structure will or won’t happen, and these are the constraints of the coaching engagement, so build your quote, as the coaching organization, based on their transformation plan.  What an oxymoron!  Not only do you suppose that the irreversible process of transforming oneself is knowable to the pre-transformed client’s self, but that it can be planned, budgeted, managed to budget, and all risks mitigated by the coach, or between the coach and the client.  How naive.  I wish I could see into the mind of the coaches that just tolerate and work with such prima donna clients.  Perhaps the coach figures, “Meh! It’s paid work.  They’ll get what they get.”  or perhaps something more enlightened, “Meet them where they’re at, and take them as far as I can.”  Maybe there’s even some strong optimism, “Sure, they say that now, but after the transformation they’ll sing a different tune.”

Perhaps there is something deeper still, afoot.  Sometimes the client is just cavalier.  They hear through the grape vine that agile transformation is good for business, and so go taking bids from a coaches.  They don’t have a particular problem to solve, so they suppose that we’re talking about a tweek to process and we’re done changing, and all the benefits to customers, employees and the organization start flowing in.  I call this “playing fast and loose” with agile.  To those clients I say, “Prepare to be surprised.”  The agile transformation is going to be a constant thrill with peaks and valleys and a long term pay-off that you’ll love, but never expected.  OpenSpace Agility (OSA) is a great platform for an organization of any size that wants to play fast and loose with their transformation, just as long as you’re prepared to be surprised.

A different scenario that I’ve seen is where latent resistors are actually forced to “be agile.”  In this case, the agile transformation is a box to check off, to receive a promotion, bonus or even stay employed.  They take a “This too shall pass.” attitude toward the agile transformation and subversively introduce too many constraints to allow real change to happen inside the organization.  They like things the way they are, but are cunning enough not to say so publicly and especially to the “powers that be” which mandated agile transformation in the first place.   A vacuum of informed, experienced Leadership forms inside the organization.  It will be filled, but in a bad way.  The latent resistors are the Tyranny of the Structurelessness waiting to happen…they wait for the flimsy coach who will take a “Meet them where they’re at” Approach to it’s logical extreme.  -No matter how ill-equipped and unwilling a client’s employees, organization and culture may be, the flimsy coach take the engagement with all the false constraints intact, built in for a purpose.   The flimsy coach never questions or challenges those false constraints and does NOT call out what will actually need to happen for valuable transformation to occur.  The flimsy coach only does 2 things:
1. Never disagree with the client
2. Collect the quoted fee

I’ll point out that only half of the 2 items above require any activity of the coach per se.  It will be the Perfect Storm where absence of business benefits that likely puts an end to the agile transformation effort, and agile is newly understood by the organization to be nothing more than a “fad” or “hoax.”  I’m calling that expenditure of funds with no counter value and only an incorrect learning “harm to the client.”  I would like to see agile coaches who wish to rise to higher ground avoid doing such harm to future clients, by refusing to practice their trade like a flimsy coach.  This is the main focus of the uprising of agile coaches against the Agile Industrial Complex (AIC) you might be reading about online.  Particularly as large, multi-national consulting firm gobble up the boutique consulting firms, this pattern of coaching grows more prevalent, unfortunately. Coaches properly trained, certified, and experienced in OpenSpace Agility know how to identify and avoid Perfect Storm scenarios or being complicit with them as the result of living the flimsy coach life.  I invite you to investigate the possibilities of helping someone in your organization get conversant in OSA today, by engaging the community on Linkedin, or Facebook.

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