I recently ran into The Oath for an Agile Coach. There are clearly some great ideas in the oath and it would be hard to argue that you wouldn’t want to adopt the advice contained within it. So I won’t do that. However, I do feel that there are some serious challenges surrounding the oath but that with a bit of hard work we could do better.
Some Great Ideas Here
Frankly, what’s not to like? The oath promotes the idea that coaches should do no harm, that they’re guests, that they should respect learnings, that they value discretion, and many other wonderful philosophies. Several of them are arguably a bit naive, for example:
- First, do no harm. From one point of view the definition of an agile coach is to do harm – harm to the status quo, harm to the incumbent mindset, harm to the corporate politicians who rose to power building the current environment that the coach is there to help the organization improve. You wouldn’t be much of a coach if you weren’t doing harm to the bad stuff in your organization.
- I prevent dysfunction. Really? I’ve worked in many environments that are “target rich” when it comes to dysfunction. I’m expected to help prevent all of these dysfunctions right away? I’m supposed to prevent dysfunction that is beyond my current scope of influence? Of course not. I need to help the people that I’m working with to identify and prioritize their pains, then help them address these pains as and when it is appropriate to do so (if ever). Clearly the advice in the oath is context sensitive and it isn’t meant to be taken literally.
It’s clear to me that a lot of smart people have put a lot of effort into the oath, that they’ve thought it through, and are honestly trying to make things better. I also believe that this is a step in the right direction, although at the time of this writing there are some serious challenges surrounding it that can and should be addressed.
A Few Serious Challenges
First and foremost, we should give the authors of the oath the benefit of the doubt and assume that they aren’t doing the things I’m about to describe on purpose. Although what I have to say is harsh, I honestly believe that the authors have their hearts in the right place but have not thought through the implications of what they’ve started. So here goes.
The oath is deceptive and as a result possibly unethical. The reason why I say this is that they claim to have based the coach’s oath on the The Hippocratic Oath (which I’m sure they’ve actually done). The problem is that they’ve merely skimmed the surface of the Hippocratic Oath, lifting ideas such as “First, do no harm” (which the oath doesn’t actually say, that’s the Hollywood interpretation of it) without also adopting the context in which the Hippocratic Oath is taken. This is important. New medical practitioners, after years of training, are asked to take the oath, or something similar, by medical schools. These schools are governed and the medical professionals themselves are governed. Control mechanisms are in place to ensure that the people who take the oath know what they’re doing and work in a trustworthy manner. Therein lies the rub – no such governance exists for agile coaching and I suspect the vast majority of agile coaches would chaff at the suggestion.
To see why this is an issue consider the following example. I have no medical training or background, with the exception of taking a few first aid courses over the years. Come to think of it, by agile standards I have more than enough medical training to be considered a Certified Surgery Master (CSM), so it’s all good. I have just now recited the Hippocratic Oath and have pledged to abide by it. As a result I now feel that I am qualified to offer plastic surgery procedures as I’ve heard that this is a lucrative business to be in. If you would like a face lift, liposuction, or augmentation of a body part please contact me to arrange a procedure. You can trust me because I’ve recited the Hippocratic Oath and I’m a CSM. What? You’re not interested? I’ve pledged to do no harm, so you can trust me.
I think that you inherently know it would be a bad thing for me to perform plastic surgery on you. I’m obviously not qualified. Therein lies the rub. I could easily advertise that I’ve pledged the oath, tell people about my CSM credentials, and make it sound like I’m qualified, particularly to people who don’t have much of a background in agile. In fact, recently in Toronto, a 19-year old woman did something very similar to this and as you’d expect it didn’t work out well for the recipients of her surgery endeavours.
By claiming that the agile coach’s oath is based on the Hippocratic Oath the authors are taking advantage of something called “prestige association.” The Hippocratic Oath is prestigious – the people who pledge it have to work very hard to be asked to pledge it and are subsequently held to its high standards throughout their careers. By explicitly associating the agile coaching oath with the Hippocratic Oath the prestige of the latter is conferred to the former. This is deceptive at best and unethical at worst. I believe we can be better than this.
How We Can Do Better
It isn’t appropriate to complain about the Agile Coach’s Oath without also providing some possible ways to fix it. Here are my initial thoughts:
- Avoid prestige association. The very first thing, and easiest thing, that could be done is to stop comparing this oath to the Hippocratic Oath.
- Define paths to becoming a great coach. A straightforward, and relatively easy, way to add real value would be to put together a path, or more likely several paths, that people could follow to become a great coach.
- Help people to follow those paths. In short, build a respectable agile coaching guild that focuses on helping people over making money off of them.
- We need to respect ourselves. This is an observation for agilists in general, but particularly important for agile coaches. At the present moment the Agile Coach’s Oath is yet another vapid agile band wagon for people to jump onto without having to do any real work. As coaches we lament the large number of lame agile “certifications” that are little more than participation ribbons, so perhaps it’s time we choose to say enough is enough. We know that effective coaching requires skill, knowledge, and experience that require years of hard effort to earn. Just like the medical community requires years of education and training before extending the privilege of asking someone to take the Hippocratic Oath, we could choose to do something similar. But first we’d need to respect ourselves enough to actually do that.
I believe the people who developed The Oath for an Agile Coach have good intentions. They’ve gotten a great start on an interesting and potentially valuable idea. But, they need to follow through and make it something real if they really want this oath to be meaningful. I hope they choose to build a vibrant community that does exactly that. Time will tell.