Agile Academy - McKinsey, you get it all wrong!

In a recent Whitepaper (LINK), McKinsey publised an approach for "growing your own Agile Coaches", i.e. creating an "Agile Academy". While I  may even agree with the general idea and some major points and ideas proposed in the paper, it fosters and relies on a few massive misunderstandings that could plunge your company into disaster.

Executive Summary

With their whitepaper, McKinsey have proven that they themselves are indeed nowhere near what they claim that you need to become an agile organization - so don't take their advice, they've disqualified themselves!

Since the below article is quite extensive, let me provide an abridged version:
McKinsey demonstrated that they have a low understanding of what agility is, what agile coaches actually do, they argue fallaciously to suggest a solution to a problem that you don't even want to have: the need for masters-of-all-trades.
The suggested solution doesn't match the problem statement: They ignore the temporal dimension of the problem and move it into a different domain to make it look like it addresses the proposed challenge. The approach doesn't yield what they claim you need.

By following the McKinsey approach, you will end up with a lot of people with decent, but limited understanding who won't have what it takes to make a breakthrough change.

What McKinsey gets right

Some of the key points that they get right:

  • "Scaling Agile" isn't done by copy+paste. An Agile PMO isn't a solution, either - as agility and PMO are contrary approaches.
  • In a VUCA world, we must move away from consultants who "implement best practices". It's more sustainable to use coaching to help people learn and discover.
  • Without good coaches, your chances of becoming or sustaining an agile organization diminish rapidly.
  • Enterprise agility also requires taking care of processes anchored outside IT, such as budgets or performance reviews.
  • You can't ignore current reality - agility isn't a cloud castle.
You don't become a master by attending a course.
I also agree that a 2-days course doesn't make one a "Scrum Master", especially not an "Agile Coach" and that just the prospect of a higher paycheck inspires people without even the remotest form of qualification will appropriate these titles in their profile.
I'll even concede that people who have little to no understanding of agility will rewrite their CV's to make it look like that their project manager Command and Control role in a classic Waterfall project which gloriously went down the drain was actually an "Enterprise Transformation Agile Coaching" project - and that makes it incredibly difficult for classic HR mechanisms to filter out who is indeed a qualified coach.

Where things get fishy

There are many assumptions in the article that I'll just put into question, as they haven't been backed up.
McKinsey clings to a number of beliefs that are questionable and will not help your agile transition.
  • For what and how many "Agility Coaches" do you really need? Why even introduce yet another role instead of helping Scrum Masters learn to expand their horizon, when self-organized teams need a supportive environment, not even more complexity?
  • How can there be "a clear approach to enterprise agility" when the entire problem is that in the VUCA world, there is no One-Size-Fits-All solution - which is the reason why we need agility to begin with? And if so, how is this approach better than approaches like SAFe or LeSS, which have been around much longer and have been used in a broad spectrum of organizations?
  • Why do they believe that "the role of the Scrum Master is limited when it comes to scaling agile" when all they quote as reason for their beliefs are antipatterns on how not to be a proper Scrum Master? Isn't that like saying that you believe ships are unfeasible because you threw a rock into the river, and it sank?
  • Why define "the vision and scope of the agile transformation, informed by assessment of the organization today"? Is this how you do strategy? Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to define goals by where the organization needs to be than by where you currently stand?
  • How do you define an "Agile Blueprint" if the entire point of agility is that adaptability to circumstance isn't universal, a point they themselves made in the introductory section?
  • Why do they talk about "the agile operating model" rather than about being flexible, responding to change - which isn't a model, but an attitude and capability?
  • How can you change your reality by operating within current reality? Wouldn't establishing a new reality require going beyond current reality? And isn't "reality", as described in the article, merely a perspective held by people without agile experience?
  • If we realize that the problem of Enterprise Agility is that complex system change isn't molecular, but rather molar in nature - how can we succeed by focusing on subsystems within an otherwise static environment? 

Where it gets really problematic

The article creates a false dilemma and then so conveniently proclaims a solution, which isn't even one.
McKinsey sets up a false dilemma to sell their "solution".

Setting unrealistic expectations

A person who can do everything at mastery level won't be interested in a limited role.

The "Agility Coach" as defined in Exhibit 2 has a role complexity that shrinks the amount of people who could meet that responsibility to Zero.
Just ask yourself: How many people do you know in your organizations who have management skills, facilitation skills, developer skills, agile framework skills, technical skills, business skills - and the time to do all of this at a Mastery level? Each of those domains requires focus, otherwise mastery will wane rapidly. Top it off with that person also being creative, innovative thought leader, and you're looking for a Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-all.

Typically, a developer who learns management will lose their technical edge within a few years. The line manager who works strongly to coach and grow their people will not be spending time to learn facilitation techniques. The manager who moves in strategic management will have little time to work on empathy and listening skills, simply because their responsibilities lie elsewhere. The business expert will not be a technology expert - and vice versa. And finally, being innovative and a though leader doesn't combine well with being tied to a single organizational context.

Now imagine that you put up mastery in all of these areas as a mandatory requirement - and answer: Why should such a person work for your organization rather than start their own business?

Basic training

Even a 20 weeks curriculum won't remotely give a person the breadth and depth to be an "Enterprise Agile Coach".
Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of an "Agile Academy" and I have worked with organizations who have one. And I have worked with people who went through Agile Academy curriculums. They're great people to work with, as they do indeed both understand the basic tenets of agility and their specific role within the organization.
But a 12-20 week course (3-6 months, taken generously) in addition to the regular work isn't going to make the cut, either.
A Scrum Master training is just a starter, a teaser, a foretaste. It's nowhere enough to say one has mastered agility. A 12-20-week part-time academy is definitely one step further, but still a far shot from the experience and qualification that professional agile coaches bring.

I have stated in another article that the Scrum Master journey, if taken seriously, over the years, might take a person into the domains of technology, personal and team and systemic coaching, quality, process, general and strategic management, mathematics, psychology, sociology and philosophy. Just two days on each of these subjects, and we haven't covered any business domain yet. There is no way that even a 1-year part-time curriculum will give a person even a remotely viable understanding.

Moving the Goalposts

There is no single curriculum to do what McKinsey claims is required.

Participating in an "Agile Academy" program doesn't produce anything that even remotely resembles the Jack-of-All-Trades proposed by McKinsey's Exhibit 2. An academy program has to set a clear focus and may give teasers on fringe areas. The outcome of participating in an Agile Academy is not a technological mastermind who can innovate, coach teams and management, develop a strategy roadmap and lead enterprises to success. It's simply people who are decently equipped to meet a specific function within an enterprise,
There would be different programs for people who would:
  • support one or multiple agile teams ("Scrum Masters"),
  • professionally coach individuals ("Coaches"), 
  • organize and facilitate larger events ("Facilitators"),
  • train organizational units who are yet unfamiliar with agile approaches ("Trainers"),
  • accompany agile organizational units with methodology advice ("Consultants"),
  • take care of the transition itself ("Organizational Change Managers"),
  • lead program and product development from a business perspective ("Product Owners"),
  • create and innovate ("Developers" / "Designers"),
  • fill day-to-day coordination roles ("Managers"),
  • have people responsibility ("Leaders").
And this isn't even talking about the domain of technical mastery yet, where a decent training program outdates before it's completed.

If we would - for argument's sake - say that a person goes through all of the domains listed above, then each domain gets like a day or two: does that qualify for "mastery"? How much trust would you place in a Change Manager who has taken a single course? Would you put anyone on your Board of Directors whose management experience is limited to one day of training and a week of practice?

While it's indeed possible that one individual goes through a series of such academy programs, and while indeed many of us senior agile practitioners on the free market have enhanced capability in multiple of these domains, let's be blunt: You can't have a Master-of-All.
Finally, a person who ran through ten quarter-year programs to gain "mastery" has been in education for a minimum of two and a half years - and that's definitely not something that you will have at the start of a transition.

Limited quality

Part-time focus isn't the same as full-time focus
There's a reason why world thought leaders like Marshall Goldsmith don't excel in all of the domains proposed by McKinsey. To be the best in your field still requires full-time dedication and serious effort. Nobody becomes a thought leader by spending a couple weeks in a training academy. The best people coaches aren't software developers, the best software developers aren't people coaches. Taking the "T-Shape model" - people who have a broad insight into many domains lack depth in at least one of them, worst case - in all.

I like to use the circle illustration. A person has 100% of their time, and it doesn't matter whether we're talking about lifetime, work time or agile coaching time. Let's just talk about 100% of their time. What would you want them to invest this time into - you can choose anything.
You will realize that as you put the items into the circle, each additional item decreases the proportional share available for all the remaining ones. An increase in focus on agility automatically decreases the focus on everything else - and putting four items in there ("Self mastery", "coaching", "agile mastery", "commercial acumen") would mean that at least one gets neglected unless the person spends no more than a quarter of their time on each of these domains.
You will not become a "Master" by spending 25% as much time on a domain as a full-time dedicated expert would - and definitely not a "thought leader!"

McKinsey started with the broad claim that they have a clear solution to the self-created dilemma of finding people who have a large list of qualities, but the solution is setting up a pool of people who, if following their proposed suggestion, will not have any of the qualities on the level they insist are required!

Ignoring the setup

Agility is based on empiricism. You have to start by inspecting and adapting, not by setting up an academy.
Starting your own, internal "Agile Academy" isn't done overnight. To create curriculums that match your need, address your challenges and have a sufficiently high quality of materials is a high-effort process and relies on having the expertise to begin with. This is essential to keep agility flourishing over the years, but if this is your first step, you're not going anywhere in the next couple of years.

As agility is based on empiricism, you need people who can bring both the theoretical and practical experience of empirical ways of working into the organization. These are the people who typically get hired as "Agile Coaches". There is no way to eliminate this step, and you can't copy+paste another organization's curriculum to circumvene it.

You have to run agile development within your organization to learn what works - and what doesn't. After you did this, you can roll this out in whatever way you choose - for example, by seeding multiple teams, pulling in additional units, doing a strategic rollout, setting up an academy or whatever (I have opinions on these approaches, but that would be too big for this article). But the first step of bringing in seasoned practitioners who can shine some light into how agility practically works within your specific organization is inevitable.

The big lie about agile practitioners

"outsourcing these key roles will often lead to an influx of agility coaches who are disconnected from a company’s culture and want to dogmatically apply agile the way they know it rather than the way it needs to be molded to a particular organization" - McKinsey
Basing a core statement of the paper on a lie about agile coaches doesn't further your cause.

Let me call it for what it is: a lie, as if McKinsey had any experience in the field (which I will take for granted, otherwise the entire whitepaper is moot), they would know that the last attribute that can be used to describe proper agile coaches - is dogmatism.
I would therefore disagree with the sweeping statement that agile coaches who do not come from your specific organization are often dogmatic and will insist on pushing their pet framework rather than understanding and working with your current reality.

The first big part of the lie is that a person who pushes a specific agenda isn't a coach to begin with
The second part of the lie is that anyone who has experience with agile enterprises will know that enterprise transition is a long, strenuous process that requires deep understanding of systemic interactions, specific attenuation and oftentimes, compromise

There's even a community of so-called "Agnostic Agile" practitioners, which I would highly recommend looking into, who reject framework dogmatism, because dogmatism isn't agile. 

Not addressing the real problem

If you don't know what qualified external people are, why would you do a better job in selecting internals?
McKinsey proclaims that companies often find themselves hiring external coaches who are, in short, utterly unqualified. I agree. This happens. Organizations who aren't agile often have trouble selecting for the right people and qualified agile coaches are not dime-a-dozen.
They then proceed on the very flawed assumption that organizations who find themselves incapable of identifying who the right externals are would do a significantly better job at identifying the right people internally.

What we see here is a classic bait-and-switch: "You have no way of figuring out who the right external coaches are" [Reason: You don't know what the right mindset is and your HR mechanisms often make it impossible to onboard the right people] "so just identify people internally and grow them" . This doesn't answer the question how to identify what this right mindset is that you couldn't identify when selecting for external agile coaches. It also doesn't answer how to fix the broken HR processes which prevented getting qualified people on board. And to draw a full circle, if you can't even spot the right mindset when recruiting - how are you supposed to teach it?

If you can't find the right people externally (where a few fairly talented people exist) - what makes you think you're better at doing it internally (where definitely nobody with all the requirements from Exhibit 2 exist)?

Closing Remarks

Every company has employee churn, just by statistics. Some people leave, others come in.
Everyone in the company should be familiar with the company's specific ways of working. Agile principles and practices should be understood by everyone.
An Agile Academy, which sets up both starter curriculums and ongoing education in which interested employees can choose to participate is a feasible way of achieving this. Formulating your own curriculums to bring people with overarching responsibility "into the know" is an effective way of moving forward.
I do indeed support agile academies as an ongoing mechanism of sustaining enterprise agility.

An agile academy is not strategically viable to start an agile transition - and it is not a replacement for onboarding external expertise in the early phases.
Finding the right external agile coaches in the beginning is essential to get your initial seeds of agility to flourish, and it's important to ensure the curriculums aren't imprinting the Peak of Ignorance as per Dunning-Kruger-Effect, because that would kill enterprise agility before it could ever start. By just following the ideas proposed in the initial whitepaper, this is exactly what would most likely happen.

Even when an "Agile Academy" is set up, there are a number of immense dangers:

  • Curriculums focus too much on specific methods and practices, thereby being limited in usefulness and outdating rapidly
  • Standardization" or "blueprinting" is anti-agile, any curriculum aiming in this direction doesn't go in the right direction
  • Forcing or coercing employees to participate in the Academy invalidates the entire idea
  • Senior managers and HR need to lead by example and go through the curriculums lest the Agile Academy becomes a mockery of itself.

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