It’s Time to Move On

 “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

– Maimonides

I love searching for butterflies and unicorns in the wild.

This last blog post of the year is a tribute to those I’ve had the good fortune to have found in the past and those I will have the honour to find in the future.

What do I mean by butterflies and unicorns?

As a coach, I feel the greatest contribution I can make is to help someone realize another version of themselves. To metamorphose from their former self to a new self. Think of a butterfly as representing that new self.

A unicorn is a mythical, single-horned animal. It is also used to describe something that is unusual, rare or unique.

As an Agile coach, I seek butterflies that can sustain the change in ways of working that I was brought in to help with, long after I’m gone. These butterflies are rare which makes their existence all the more reason to rejoice. Rarer still is organizations that are able to nurture environments conducive to Agile ways. Environments that transcend a few agile pockets here and there to pervade throughout the enterprise. Think of these organizations as unicorns.

When butterflies and unicorns start to appear, could it be a signal for me as an Agile coach, to leave? Having fulfilled my purpose?

How will I know when it’s time to move on?

One of the reasons I aspired to be an Agile coach was a maxim that a wise veteran Agile coach shared with me a long time ago. He said,

When an Agile coach starts an engagement, they can’t wait to leave the engagement.

The point of the maxim being, the sooner the client becomes self-sufficient with sustaining Agile ways of working, the sooner the coach can leave. At the time, it was a refreshing change from all the other consultants I dealt with who were focused on creating a long-term dependency on whatever services they provided. The sooner the maxim is realized, the better for both client and Agile coach. Better for the client to create a more effective and longer lasting change tailored for them by them. It also provides an opportunity for the client to experience a diversity of wisdom and ideas from other Agile coaches. Better for the Agile coach to see their efforts come to fruition so they can move on to help others.

As an Agile coach, I’ve tried to live by that maxim in service to my clients. I’ve also learned of related ideas. One such idea is “The Pickling Effect” of staying too long with a client.

One of the greatest benefits of engaging an external Agile coach is the objectivity they bring to any situation. Objectivity that is unfettered by any political capital in the client’s organization. The result is independence of thought and unbiased feedback.

The longer one is engaged with a client, the less objective one will be. In effect, the external coach risks fermenting into a “pickle” from being submerged too long in the brine of the client’s organizational culture.

On the other hand, the search for and emergence of butterflies and unicorns takes time. Time to seek, struggle, learn and grow.

As an Agile coach, how long should one stay, then to avoid turning into a pickle and yet still nurture butterflies and unicorns to carry on?

From “J” to “X” to “Y”

I recently left a client. What started off as a 4-month coaching gig turned into a wonderful 26-month adventure. Did I turn into a pickle? Well, yes. Maybe not a full-on Dill pickle. More likely a Gherkin pickle. Did I regret it? Not at all. The client was as close to a unicorn as I’ve seen, and its people held the promise of many butterflies. Turning into a bit of a pickle was a price well worth paying to develop and support those rare butterflies.

If I were to summarize my adventure with 3 letters, here’s what they would be.

First, “J” to represent the J-Curve of change the client struggled through to seed its new culture.

Letter J
Adapted from The Satir Change Model

Second, “X” to represent the transition from a small guiding coalition led change to an all-inclusive leadership and staff led change.


Letter X

Third, “Y” to represent the fork in the road at which the client and I parted ways.


Letter Y

The appearance of butterflies and unicorns during this adventure would have been enough of a signal for me to move on. But there were other signs towards the end of my  adventure that filled my heart with joy and confirmed it was time to part ways. Here’s a sample of what I observed.

You’ll know it’s time to move on when…

  1. Leaders model vulnerability in front of staff
  2. Co-creation becomes the norm
  3. You hear the word “experiment” at least once a day
  4. Leaders listen more than speak
  5. Teams aren’t waiting for their Scrum Master to start events
  6. A preference for business value over triple constraints
  7. Internal Scrum Masters start replacing external Scrum Masters
  8. Random team members walk the Portfolio Kanban board weekly
  9. The words “Agile” and “Transformation” are used less and less
  10. Leaders experiment with role of the manager
  11. The arrival of massive, floor-to-ceiling freestanding whiteboards everywhere
  12. The #1 reason for “Why Agile?” becomes: To improve team welfare and way of working
  13. Leaders and staff share their change stories internally and externally
  14. Sandwich Run for the Homeless” shows up as a work item on the Portfolio Kanban board
  15. Teams ask to visit with their business users
  16. Businesspeople listen to Agile podcasts
  17. People are encouraged by leaders to pick who they work with and what they work on
  18. IT leaders advocate for “How do we look at our work through the lens of our customers?
  19. Leaders initiate and HR partner on changes to performance management processes
  20. The client is happy

I’ve arrived with the client at that fork in the road. I’m sad to part ways but happy we will both continue our journeys forward having each benefitted from the other’s company along the way.

I was in Huntsville, Ontario over the holidays enjoying the wintry outdoors with family. As we stopped in at a local coffee shop for a snack, we met an older gentleman in line who smiled and greeted us in Italian with “Sempre avanti”. It means “Always forward”.

We may not know which direction our journeys will take us. Let’s hope it’s “sempre avanti”.

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