Do We Really Need a Code of Ethics in Agile Coaching?

Ethics: moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.

— Oxford Dictionary

One of my favorite improvements to running conferences (when we used to attend those in person) was adding a code of conduct. It was clear the behavior of a few dictated the need for everyone to play by a different set of rules. Granted, it hasn’t halted all of the behavior it was meant to prevent. It cannot be denied, though, that progress has been made.

Combine that with an expanded view of what it means to be inclusive to all, the amazing work Women in Agile has done, and providing a safe environment for all, I must say how proud I am to be a part of this little family.

I was reminded of that this week when I discovered something that’s been going on this calendar year. Not sure how I missed it before, but it seems the fine folks at the Agile Alliance are taking another step forward towards addressing ethics. Shane Hastie and Craig Smith are chairing a project to define a code of Agile Coaching Ethics.

Launched January 1 of this year, the intended outcome is to address a “lack of consistency in the discipline of Agile coaching and the lack of any ethical framework or code of conduct for that profession.” It’s a Big Hairy Ass Goal to be sure, one that immediately got my mind spinning. What does it mean for us to work under a single set of conduct guidance?

In the last week, the two wanted to advance the conversation by asking what the community felt should be addressed in the code.

Quick disclaimer: my company is a corporate sponsor of the Agile Alliance, and I’m a proud member. I’ve also chaired tracks for the Agile 20xx program team several times. In no way do these thoughts represent any of those entities. Just wanted to share my thoughts since Shane and Craig asked for them. Also to stoke more conversation on the topic.

What does a code of conduct for my profession mean to me?

First off, do we need one in the first place?

I dont mean to imply the request is faulty on it’s face. When the conference code of conduct was first rolled out, I asked the same question. Mostly I was unaware that some of the poor behavior being displayed at our events, and once the stories of some were told on social media I couldn’t have been more in favor.

So what behaviors are we trying to prevent in the agile coaching cohort with a code of ethics?

This group consists of independent consultants, trainers, full-time employees, consulting companies of all shapes and sizes, and curious individuals trying to constantly come up with better ways. It strikes me that each group might have a different factor driving their work.

Could I be an internal change agent trying to be the foreign element in Satir’s change model? Perhaps I’m trying to show early returns on value for my work so I can get a contract extension. Conveying material related to a framework to achieve certification. I might want to improve technical practices within an organization that is at odds with business goals.

Each of those outcomes on their face dont have to be at odds with each other, but sometimes they are. If I can’t even reach alignment on outcomes within my own company at times, how am I to align with the entire community. It could be conveyed the moral compass needs to be aligned first.

Can it be done? Perhaps, just curious of how we get there.

Do we all agree what coaching actually is?

When I meet with clients interested in the topic or agilists somewhere on their journey, we discuss what it means to be an “agile coach.” If you peruse the Agile Coaching Institute website, in all of the references to the profession there isn’t a ton of definition per se. According to the role is defined as, “training corporate teams on the agile methodology and overseeing the development of agile teams to ensure effective outcomes for the organization.”

Is that really what my job is defined as?

Inside the big industrial complex of the world of IT, I could see that angle. Many of my friends working on their own might not see all of that as their role. Perhaps they do, or agree in part. The crew at the Business Agility Institute are looking at a more expanded view of people bringing agility as the, “impact of change, both technological and cultural, is greater and faster than ever before…companies that are agile, innovative, dynamic, and perfectly designed to thrive in today’s unpredictable market.”

I could view my responsibilities according to the International Coaching Federation as, “to discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve; encourage client self-discover; elicit client generated solutions and strategies and hold the client responsible and accountable.”

You might be reading all of that and hear the same message. Others might argue there are tons of nuanced differences. If we are to align on our ethics, then we should align on our mission first.

Once we are aligned on those two ideas, what else are we missing?

Hastie and Smith toss out some topics to consider as part of the code (in addition to asking for others. Exploring what they mean to us could provide insight into our ethical compass. While all the topics merit review, these were where my mind centered.

Working with multiple relationships: e.g. sponsor, team, team member, manager.

This relates to my comment earlier about our underlying motivations in the coaching agreement. If there’s no way to ensure the coachee wants you in their life, because leadership often makes that choice for them, it points to a damaged management of relationships.

While it is important to manage those relationships well in a good working agreement, it would appear many roles require this. I wonder if this could be related to anyone in our community (coach and otherwise), and thus a more broad code.

Reflective practice and continuing professional development, including self-care and sustainability.

I’ve written about this before, but anyone calling themselves a coach who hasn’t put themselves in an intentional position of being coached has to look hard in the mirror. How can I expect myself to know what it feels like to sit on the other side of the table (or Zoom call) from me if I haven’t been coached?

A lot of the work could include meditation, mindfulness exercises, journaling, life coaching, continuing education classes, and mentorship. Admittedly, I’ve not been the most coachable person at times in my journey, but I can proudly state I’ve done all of those exercises. Sometimes at the same time.

It also relates to another bullet in the list about acting within your ability. If we put in the work to know ourselves and stay in a mindset of self-awareness, we can continue taking steps along the journey and act appropriately.

BTW, if you’re up for a great life coach. Contact my friend Pradeepa. Tell her Murman sent you!

Conflicts of interest.

We are inundated with these conflicts every day in our work. If the manager is funding my work, is he my client? Are the teams whose work is meant to be improved? Perhaps the proverbial “value” that I’m supposed to help deliver daily? Those and others aren’t always aligned. Choosing which one to rank higher have left me flummoxed on many days.

I want this to feel easier than it is often, but every coaching situation are as unique as the possibility of outcomes. Navigating this conflict leads me to vary my approach. A one-on-one coaching relationship often appear out of nowhere organically, and have the most opportunity for growth. However, when you balance their wants with the needs of their leadership and organization can muddy the waters.

Perhaps if we hone in on making the conflicts of interest visible and navigating those waters with open transparency, we are less likely to lead people where it wasn’t meant to go.

Agreeing on boundaries and acting within your remit.

I have said this many times, but I was raised very well by two amazing parents. However, I entered adulthood with a poor understanding of what healthy boundaries were. The fault for that lie in many places, most of all me not really being forced to confront what a boundary was. Just live by whatever rules I felt like making up on the spot and let the chips fall where they may.

Boundaries are a huge part of any professional success I’ve been lucky to have. Do I give of myself to those around me professionally without expending so much energy that there’s none left for my family? Perhaps I look out for the needs of those paying my consulting bills at the expense of those who need my help (but didn’t ask for it). Choosing to deliver a deck because it’s easier can really swipe at my credibility.

There’s also the boundary of wanting to just get along with everyone else and not ruffle feathers. Being a huge people pleader has often gotten in the way of healthy professional boundaries. Some might say, “who cares if you piss off the client if it’s for the right reason?”

Understanding my boundaries and the constant movement of those borders can really set me up for success. It should also accompany the courage to defend them at nearly all cost.

Responsibility to the profession.

This can truly be a deal killer if we dont remember what the point of our profession is and who we are supposed to be serving. When I enter engagements where I’m not allowed to help understand and co-create expectations of success with the client, I feel truly irresponsible to how I feel we are supposed to work.

It might also help if we identify what we could agree on irresponsibility to the profession means. Personal or hidden agendas could perhaps be added to this list. Craving the spotlight could lead to what I often refer to as “lone-wolf coaching.” Does every agilist in the same area of business need to operate uniformly or can we all find our own way regardless?

This is crucial to understand, and honestly I’m looking forward to the exploration.

Finally, what happens to people who dont sign on the dotted line?

Nothing would make me happier to add my name to a list of ethical statements of our profession. Standing arm in arm with our community in the name of bettering our profession could be just the thing we need in this messed up year. Just curious of the rebels who dont want to play ball.

Agilists are notorious rebels. Hell, the manifesto was almost written with middle fingers blazing to those who didn’t want to find a better way of working. I often find myself stiffening my neck when I’m told I can’t or shouldn’t do something. It’s just a thing to consider when we ask people to sign on to something that could affect our standing in the community.

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Perhaps we could create an unofficial cohort of those brave enough to share with the two chairs. This blog is in effect my hand raising to participate.

Who’s coming with me?


2 thoughts on “Do We Really Need a Code of Ethics in Agile Coaching?

  1. Thanks Chris!
    Great points that reflect some of the conversations we’ve had as the team has worked on the content and also added food for thought. Really appreciate you taking the time to get engaged with this.
    We’re very close to releasing the first draft of the ethics statements – I will post the link here as soon as it is visible on the Alliance website.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Chris – thanks for the useful information. I deeply appreciate it myself (as someone working with Shane and Chris). I know we are looking over your comments very seriously.

    All the best!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s