Agile Transformations need Coaching

The connections between Cargo Culting, Training and the Dreyfus Education Model

Some folks continue to believe that training on Agile is all that should be necessary to transform an organizaton.  I respectfully disagree and will try to explain why in this article.

First, let me briefly describe “Cargo Culting” (Anthropology Guide).

The term “Cargo Culting” may be traced back to World War II, when air bases were created on islands in the Pacific.  To appease native inhabitants, US airmen dropped gifts: perhaps chocolate bars, rib

Hellcats - WW II
Hellcats – WW II

eye steaks or whatever. Of course, the airmen set up control towers and runways and ran aircraft missions from their base.

After the war, the airmen left and the natives missed the gifts dropped from above.  To restore the gifts, the natives built bamboo plane like things, towers, put coconuts on their ears etc … and of course this did not work (Wikipedia).

In Agile Transformations, cargo culting translates to adhering to some of the rules of agile (e.g. ceremonies) without really understanding why, and so expected results never appear.

Let’s next talk about the Dreyfus Model for learning (Wikipedia article). The Dreyfus model applies well to unstructured problems where the number of potentially relevant facts are numerous, and many solutions are possible.  That problem description almost always applies to organization problems and management issues.  This sort of learning is quite different from learning facts in a History Class.  Where many problems and many solutions are possible, varied experience is necessary.  You need to develop a sense for what works in your context and what doesn’t. It’s easier to head off problems when they’re found early,  and experience will help you see problems earlier.  Eventually patterns are uncovered, and general principles may be derived for solutions. The Dreyfus Model clearly applies to Agile Transformations, and that idea is widely accepted.  The concept of “Shu Ha Ri” is very similar to the Dreyfus Model (Martin Fowler has a nice quick description here).

The Dreyfus Model asserts that skill acquisition goes through 5 stages: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient and Expert:

  1. The Novice simply follows rules, and does not feel responsible for anything but applying the rules.
  2. An Advanced Beginner has found other conditions where the rules apply but still is just applying rules with no personal responsibility (e.g. I’m just doing what training said to do).
  3. When Competent, the rules are starting to become excessive. Some organizing principles are realized that help sort out relevant information to assist in decision making.  Responsibility for decision making appears at this stage.
  4. With Proficiency, multiple organizing principles have been attained from multiple real world experiences, and problem solving becomes more intuitive.
  5. With Expertise, the patterns are intuitively recognized with little or no decomposition needed (Agile Coaches should be expert).

Dreyfus Model

 KnowledgeStandard of workAutonomyCoping with complexityPerception of Context
NoviceMinimal/textbook knowledge not connected to practiceNot satisfactory unless closely supervisedClose supervision/ instruction neededCluelessSees actions in isolation
Advanced BeginnerWorking knowledge of key aspects of practiceStraightforward tasks can be completed in acceptable fashionSome tasks can be completed using own judgement, but supervision needed for manyUnderstands when problems are complex and can apply some analysisSees actions in a series of steps
CompetentGood working and background knowledge of area of practiceFit for purpose but lacking refinementCan achieve most tasks based on own juedgementCan copy with complexity using analysisSees actions partly in terms of broader goals
ProficientDepth of understanding of discipline and area of practiceFully acceptable work routinely producedCan take full responsibility for own workHandles complex situations thoroughly and confidentlySees big picture & understands how actions fit into that big picture
Dreyfus model stages


During initial training, people pay close attention to rules, want to learn the rules, and don’t understand and don’t care to listen to principles.  New learners have no foundational experience, and so are not ready for larger concepts, patterns or principles.

Scrum Master, and other Agile basic training follows this pattern.  Students initially want to learn the rules … standup meetings every day, check; maximum of 15 minutes, OK; Standups are not status meetings … hmmm … they sure look like status meetings.

For Agile Training students, the importance of the words in the 17-page Scrum Guide, and the Agile Manifesto are not yet comprehensible.  For new students, talk of principles is just noise.  Students are not ready for principles until they have more experience.  That’s a key point of the Dreyfus Model (and Shu Ha Ri).

I’ve seen an over reliance on initial training to accomplish Agile Transformation.  Let me describe about how this can happen.  Management likes what they hear about agile, and wants to realize the benefits.  So they decide to train everyone and then they’ll be Agile.  Of course training everyone is expensive so they get the Scrum Masters trained (and certified – they’ll be able to tell others what to do if they’re certified).  So Management contracts certified trainers to come to their business to train their employees at perhaps $1300 per.  With some trainers, employees taking the course can easily become Certified Scrum Masters after taking a two day course.  Employees take a certification test (previously no test at all), but the test is easy enough to pass based on the two day course.

Graduates of this training are Beginners (in the Dreyfus sense) …but they may now be certified.

After training, scrum masters start by following the rules they learned in training.   But they encounter difficulties.  Without expert advice, simply following Beginner rules often doesn’t get results.  Because management has made it clear they’re transforming to agile, employees continue to follow the rules, but employees don’t understand how to get the results … they’re now cargo culting.  Without expert advice, Scrum Masters may skip ceremonies they find useless, and invent processes that are Frankenstein blends of old and new practices.

Training Problem

The “Training Problem” diagram above sums up the scenario.  Starting from the bottom, training produces Novices.  Novices without expert guidance will move into Cargo Culting.  Improvement is not realized, so the transformation is not successful

Management will eventually figure out that the transformation based soled on training is not working.. Some clever managers will then hire Agile Coaches.  The agile coaches have seen all this before. But now their problem may be more difficult.  The coaches have to deal with bad habits and misunderstandings.  Perhaps even worse is dealing with “Certified” employees that are actually Beginners.  Some employees will insist they’re agile, but Agile doesn’t work.

Most coaches would rather work with folks new to agile than work with an organization that developed bad habits and bad attitudes.

The Dreyfus model has it right.  You cannot start with principles and patterns when teaching.  Folks need to first learn the basics, then, through practice learn some patterns.  They need to see multiple examples of things working badly and then working well..  After understanding the patterns, they can move on to principles.    Expert guidance is key to succeeding on this journey.

Initial training need only cover the basics (e.g. the rules) suggesting that deeper explanation will follow.  Then people need to practice the basics, and get coaching from an expert on how they’re doing and how to grow some more.  Regular meetings to discuss problems and learnings go well with this approach.  Advanced training can proceed at a pace appropriate for the learners.

Coaching Solution

This approach is summed up in the “Coaching Solution” diagram. Initial training covers the rules, and may suggest some of the principles.  Learning continues through experience, coaching, and advanced training. The Dreyfus model suggests that you must be at least at Proficient level to be able to coach. I assume Agile Coaches should be at expert level.

After a year or two of education and real work experience, perhaps people are then ready to take a more difficult exam and become certified.

Agile can work.  But please do not train folks in one session and expect success.  The initial training results in knowledge of basics that can lead to cargo culting, Frankenstein practices and transformation failure.

My advice:

  • Training alone won’t work. Expert guidance is needed, and Agile Coaches should be expert.
  • You might well start by hiring coaches, and let them give initial training on the basics. Coaches can then keep employees on track as they gain experience, revealing the principles through multiple examples as employees learn.
  • Be very wary of education that promises certification in just a few days. Certification exams can test the basics on the ceremonies and techniques. But certification tests must also verify that deeper understanding of principles that enable achieving agile goals.