Organizations that can figure out how to use coaches effectively will have a competitive advantage. Coaching doesn’t represent capacity on its own. Coaching, whether internal or external, is leverage. It’s a multiplier. And if you have that leverage and your competitors don’t, that’s a big advantage. You can get more results for the same investment.
In this episode, Richard and Peter answer the question: “What are your thoughts on all these ScrumMaster and Agile Coach layoffs? Many companies seem to be eliminating these roles altogether. What do you make of it?”
- The 3 Jobs of Management: Adding Value in a World of Highly-Empowered Teams (virtual, instructor-led) – A half-day workshop on Nov 9, 2023
Unable to join us on Nov 9? Join the waitlist for future offerings.
We’d love to hear from you! Tell us what you’ve found useful on the show. Tell us what you’d like to hear us talk about more. Maybe share a challenge you’re facing in your work that would benefit from a Humanizing Work Show perspective. Shoot us a quick email at email@example.com.
Welcome to the Humanizing Work Mailbag, where we answer questions from the Humanizing Work Community!
In this episode, we’re trying to make sense of the wave of ScrumMaster and Agile Coach layoffs that we’ve seen lately.
If you’ve been impacted by these layoffs, please let us know. We work with lots of companies, and we’ll keep an eye out for opportunities. We also want to thank those of you that responded to our request to hear from our listeners. Hearing how the show impacts you has been very meaningful to us. If we haven’t heard from you, please let us know your thoughts on the content of the Humanizing Work Show by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And just a quick reminder to rate and review the Humanizing Work Show in your podcast app, or if you’re watching on YouTube, would you please subscribe, like, and share today’s episode if you find it valuable to you? We really appreciate your help spreading the word about the show.
And if you want to get access to more content we produce, beyond the show, you can sign up for our newsletter where we share one key idea every week. Sign up in the footer of any page at humanizingwork.com
On to this week’s mailbag question: Long-time client Nicole asks: “What are your thoughts on all these ScrumMaster and Agile Coach layoffs? Many companies seem to be eliminating these roles altogether. What do you make of it?”
First off, we feel bad for those who have been laid off. Thinking that you have a good job and suddenly losing it is hard. We know many people who’ve been caught up in this who were really doing good work.
If you’re hiring for one of these roles, please let us know. We can probably refer some solid candidates from among our clients.
Like I said, if you’ve been directly impacted by one of these layoffs, please let us know and we’ll keep our eye out for those opportunities. While the immediate stress of looking for work is brutal, we all know, we also know that great people often find new and interesting opportunities they never would have considered in times like this.
It’s true. In fact, the original iteration of Humanizing Work started in 2008 precisely because my company at the time decided this Agile Coach role was no longer going to be necessary. Our consulting clients don’t need this. My role went away, so I went independent. And, ironically, my first gig as an independent was coaching a different part of that same organization—so, you never know what’s going to happen.
In this episode, though, we want to zoom out from particular layoffs and reflect on what this trend of layoffs for ScrumMasters and coaches might mean more broadly.
One way to look at this is what it might mean for the Agile movement in general.
I could see interpreting this as another bit of evidence that Agile, as a brand, is declining. It happens to all management trends. We can think of previous ones like Six Sigma, Lean, Total Quality Management movement– all of these things – it happens over time. If companies no longer see Agile as an innovative management practice, they’ll naturally start looking for something else to improve their organizations. It probably doesn’t help that there are many large companies that have gone through multiple, well publicized rounds of what they call “Agile transformations,” which were anything but transformative. Those companies have paid millions to try to get the benefits promised by the Agile movement, and for a variety of reasons, haven’t seen a good enough return on that investment to keep at it. We won’t go into our perspective on what caused those transformation efforts to fail– that’s not the point of this episode– but send us an email if that’s something you’d be curious to get our take on. Mailbag@humanizingwork.com is the best way to do that. Suffice it to say those transformation efforts didn’t work from the leadership perspective. There’s no use throwing good money after bad, as the saying goes.
A less extreme version of this is that agile concepts have become business as usual. It doesn’t feel to many leaders like it’s a thing they need help with anymore. Like, “I don’t need a typing coach anymore. Everybody in our org knows how to type just fine.” Which isn’t to say that typing is out. It just doesn’t feel like an innovative thing that requires direct attention anymore.
As the water level of excitement and interest in Agile has dropped, it may have exposed some issues, though, with how those roles were hired for and done in practice that were able to float under the radar for a while, to mix the metaphor. Fixing those issues is probably more work than moving on to the next thing given the brand perception around Agile.
Even if the general feelings about Agile remain positive in an organization, ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches are admittedly among the easiest to lay off since they’re not directly doing the work, so they don’t obviously seem valuable.
And there are probably lots of examples of people in those roles not having real value, either due to lack of skill or organizational challenges, which just exacerbates that ease of laying them off. There’s a reinforcing loop there—they don’t seem like important roles, so they don’t get skill development or influence, and that causes them to seem even less like important roles.
It’s actually similar to the manager role, but without that positional power or authority to protect them in it.
An example of this is the layoffs we’re hearing about are largely happening in big companies. That’s why we’re hearing about them. In these environments, we’ve noticed, people spend a crazy amount of time in meetings. This makes it hard for anyone to do focused work. As a result, the potential for a good ScrumMaster or coach to create a high-performing team has a ceiling on it, because the potential to have a high performing team has a ceiling. So their contribution toward that is necessarily limited.
It’s ironic that this is the kind of context that particularly benefits from a high-value coach to cut through organizational impediments like excessive wasteful meetings and no time for focused work, but it’s really hard to do that from within the system, or at the team level.
It did seem like there were way more coach roles than people who likely had the experience and skills to coach effectively. That’s not new, but I think there was room for some excess capacity when economic conditions were good. Now that times are tough, that’s more visible. I vividly remember Agile2010, the big Agile conference in 2010, as the first time a plurality of people at an Agile conference were introducing themselves as coaches rather than some kind of practitioner. You could be sitting at the breakfast table and ask what people do, and they’d say “Coach. Coach. Coach.” Most of the people at that time had maybe one experience as a practitioner, and limited training or practice in any kind of coaching. That bubble had to pop at some point. And like the lean metaphor Peter used earlier about the water level going down and exposing the rocks is, I think, something that may be happening here.
I think the lack of a career path for ScrumMasters would have contributed to that. Many people got promoted into coach roles with larger areas of responsibility across a business unit or multiple teams but didn’t get the distinct skills required for that kind of coach work that would have allowed them to be successful.
There’s a risk for these organizations of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While there is probably some waste in how the roles were and are being done in some organizations, we know of many really effective coaches and ScrumMasters that are creating huge positive impacts both for their teams and for the organization in general.
It reminds me of the example of Harry Nyquist at the original Bell Labs, which was really the most innovative organization in the world at that time. They came in to study what made the scientists at Bell most effective. They started with who had the most patents, as one way to say “Who should we study?” And so they were studying the scientists who had the most patents to see if they could find common themes, like what degrees they had, where they went to school, or fields of study. They didn’t find any obvious resume similarities, What they did find is that the most productive scientists all ate lunch with the same guy, Harry Nyquist, who didn’t have many patents and had a fairly limited field of practice, but Harry knew who they should talk to about their current project, and asked great probing questions as they ate their lunch and was really helpful at connecting dots that seemed separated. Like “Oh, this idea that you’re talking about sounds sort of like this thing over there. Have you considered that?” Based on traditional measures of output, laying off Harry Nyquist during an economic downturn would have seemed like a good move. He was not the most patent heavy scientist at Bell. But it also would have, in hindsight, set Bell Labs back by a few decades.
A few implications to this trend that we’re seeing:
One is that managers in these organizations are going to have to level up big-time because a lot of the capability building and system improvement work that was previously delegated to ScrumMastrs and coaches is theirs now. If you don’t have that role, it still needs to happen, and now it’s yours if you’re a manager. We talk about this in our Three Jobs of Management model, which we’ll link to in the show notes—previous episode about that. And a lot of the focus areas there ended up delegated to Scrum asters and coaches, but now they are not.
Organizations that can figure out how to use coaches effectively are going to get a competitive advantage. Coaching, as we’ve said, doesn’t represent capacity on its own. But coaching, whether internal or external, is leverage. It’s a multiplier. And if you have that leverage and your competitors don’t, that’s a big advantage. You can get more results out of the same investment.
I expect some smart organizations to do some combination of keeping their effective coaches, hiring the best coaches who are now on the job market, and engaging external coaches for the unique contribution they can make from outside the system.
That’s our take on it. We’re curious about yours. Share in the comments how you’re making sense of this trend. Let us know if you’re impacted by it or if you’re looking to hire and we can try and connect some folks there.
Please like and share the episode if you found it useful and keep the questions coming! We enjoy digging into tough topics, so please send them our way. Thanks for tuning in.