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I Didn’t Learn to Drive by Reading the Manual
I Didn’t Learn to Drive by Reading the Manual

I remember that day like it was yesterday. The click of the camera, the awful picture, the waiting for what seemed like hours and finally, that moment where I was handed, still hot off the lamination machine, freedom, emancipation, liberation – or as you may call it, a driver’s license! That was one of the most memorable moments of my life (don’t tell my wife). And it was hard-earned! All those days of repeatedly practicing K-turns, parallel parking, mastering the art of the 4-way stop and just generally surviving driving in New Jersey! All those skills that we can now exercise in our sleep (but really, really, shouldn’t) weren’t as intuitive or simple back then. It took a lot of practice and more importantly, coaching when we were learning.

Even though I knew that Driver’s Manual inside-out and received only one question wrong on the written exam (which I still don’t know the answer to, btw), I would never dream of getting behind the wheel of the car with just my learner’s permit and a vision to one day own that 1983 Honda Civic. I needed a coach sitting beside me, working with me and guiding me as I was driving. It was nearly impossible for most of us to go directly from passing the exam to the road test. I needed that guidance and practice in my own car.

Getting a driver’s license is the same learning model as becoming a doctor or an Agile practitioner:

  • Training and reading build knowledge
  • Applying that knowledge so that the desired outcome can be repeatedly achieved is skill
  • Repeated application of that skill in different circumstances forms experience

This process, unfortunately, is lost on most sponsors who cause one of the biggest transformation anti-patterns: Coaching not necessary – the thought that one 2-day course or just reading some books will instantly create a set of Agile practitioners. It takes time, dedication, experimentation and most of all, coaching, from an experienced coach that is either in-house or external.

Would you trust a lifeguard who received her certification on the Internet based on an online exam and no practice? What about a surgeon who has never had any internships, residencies or any hands-on experience? Would you trust him to operate on you? I understand that a newly trained Agile practitioner isn’t going (usually) to kill anyone if they miss an iteration goal or their retrospective goes sour but the concept is still the same – getting results from an Agile transformation takes experienced practitioners. Training, no matter how good, will only build knowledge. Applying that knowledge so that the desired outcome can be repeatedly achieved is skill. Repeated application of that skill in different circumstances forms experience. One cannot go from knowledge to experience and one cannot build skills in the classroom. To achieve the desired results from a team, it takes time to nurture and grow them, and that includes coaching along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to say that agile practitioners aren’t bright and can’t apply what they have learned in the class or book within their own environment. But consider your unique environment – your corporate culture and the quirks that are yours alone, your current environment, infrastructure, leaders and their leadership style, organizational structure, incentives, and so on. There are so many parts to the makeup of an organization that sometimes it isn’t obvious how to apply what they have learned. A 2-day course (or even a 10-day course) cannot cover all possibilities. And what about scaling? The more teams there are (esp. distributed teams) the more the challenges the newly trained practitioners face. It gets overwhelming, especially for new practitioners.

In addition, please don’t misinterpret my views about classroom time. I have been an instructor for years. I love teaching and I will be the first to point out that classes and books are an essential start. They add the knowledge which is required to start the journey. However, it will never build skills. Application of that knowledge in your own environment will do that. And the more complex the environment, the harder it is to apply that knowledge. Coaching from someone who has done it before and seen many of the pitfalls the team may be headed for will work with them to navigate the rocky terrain, teaching them within their own context and arming them with the tools to apply that knowledge to make wise decisions. In essence, the coach’s job is to work themselves out of a job. Repeated application of that skill in different circumstances forms an experienced practitioner who, by the way, is your next coach.

Don’t try and save the cost of some coaching and try and get everyone trained instead, thinking those will bring about results. Instead, consider picking a smaller subset of the whole who can be trained AND coached in their own environments, who, because of the coaching, would come up to speed faster, avoid common mistakes and would ultimately coach the next generation. Consider what you may consider an expense may actually be an investment, which will pay dividends for years.