Oct 072013
He rents furniture, but he knows the truth about the space program.

Marvin discusses credibility issues

In America, we have regulated and unregulated professions.  Regulated professions are the ones where you have to be verified in some way by the government before you can legally practice.  I can’t legally set up a neurosurgery clinic in my basement, for example, and it’s not for lack of trying!

Most professions in America are unregulated.  In other words, the government feels comfortable enough letting the market sort out the frauds from the genuine article.  I guess the consequences are lower or perhaps the market is more effective in some respects at this task.  I admit I’m not sure what the deciding factor is, because sometimes you get some professions that are unregulated that seem to be strong edge cases.

For example, did you know martial arts instruction is an unregulated profession?  It’s true.  You could open up your own martial arts school, today.  You could even invent your own martial art, make yourself the grandmaster (which I guess you’d be by definition), and set up shop, and it’s all entirely legal.  Being a martial artist, myself, I’ve seen this result in all kinds of interesting things, ranging from dubious lineage claims and fighting credentials to an individual who claimed Martians taught him his martial art.  Oh, wow – Martians, martial… I just got that.  Anyway….

The reason martial arts are a strong edge case is because the people who learn from a martial arts instructor usually have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be able to defend themselves with it.  The students, by nature of the case, don’t usually have the expertise to tell a true fighter from a fraud, so they could earnestly be learning a martial art that guarantees they’ll get their tails kicked in a fight (or worse).  Martial arts schools are a great place to be a fraud, because you’re sparring with other people learning the same thing (if you spar at all), you’ve got a built in cult of personality around the instructor, and if a student gets pounded on the street, it’s easy to chalk it up to their lack of skill.  In other words, it’s almost completely impossible to verify a martial arts instructor is a fraud unless they make empirically verifiable claims or you are/have seen the genuine article, yourself.

Even in those cases, the cult of personality is so strong that there are teachers who make ridiculous claims about being able to do things like knock someone out with one touch (or not touching them at all), and despite third parties demonstrating this is not the case, their schools are still swelled with students, and inside the walls of their dojo, they wave their hands around, conditioned students fall over, and the credibility structures remain intact.

Another unregulated profession is business consulting / agile coaching.  There is nothing stopping anyone from claiming they are an agile consultant and marketing themselves this way.  Since this is a field where there’s quite a bit of money to be made, charlatans abound.

This is sort of analogous to the martial arts problem.  There’s nothing stopping someone from setting themselves up as an expert of their own way of thinking, surrounding themselves with people who’ll drink their Kool-Aid, and taking you down a path of “mastery” that’ll end up with the economic equivalent of you getting beat up in a parking lot.

Just like a fake martial artist can “look” like a fighter to the untrained eye, a fake agile consultant can sound like a real one, surrounding themselves with buzzwords, aphorisms, and passionate criticisms of things they don’t understand and have no real experience with.  To organizations that need genuine help in these areas, a well-marketed fake is almost indistinguishable from the genuine article.  The person sitting across the table talking about systems thinking and the pitfalls of various agile methodologies could be some former mainframe guy who hasn’t developed any software in a decade and hasn’t led a single agile effort at any company ever.  He’s a total fraud, but how would you ever know, because he’s read some stuff and heard some stuff and sounds like he knows what he’s talking about?

In the martial arts world, people ask things like, “What’s your MMA record?  Are there any videos of you fighting?  How many fights have you been in?  Can I spar with you right now?”  In other words, they look for some kind of external verification that this person can actually teach them how to fight (or how to compete in tournaments or find enlightenment or whatever a person’s goals are for studying a martial art).

In the consulting world, try throwing this out there, “Tell me about the companies you have specifically led in becoming more agile.  What did you actually do, what were the empirically verifiable results, and who can I contact over there to corroborate your story?”  I mean, this is basically what we ask prospective employees to do when applying for a job.  I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to ask of someone who’s going to be advising you strategically.  Do you have multiple consultants in your area to choose from?  Sit them down in a room together (or separately) and ask them about your real business problems and see what they have to say and where that answer comes from.  When you hold up a fake next to the genuine article, the differences begin to emerge.

This is where you begin to separate the salespeople from the consultants.  This is where you separate the people who have a rich well of theory and experience from the people who have just spent a lot of time around “agile stuff” and say quirky things.  This is where you separate the individuals who have shepherded people through valley of the shadow of kaizen from the recruiters who picked up academic credentials.  This is where you separate the people who have made real strategic laterals with real, measurable impact from the people who just passed a Scrum Master certification course.  This is where you separate the people who have learned from their mistakes from the people who make nothing but mistakes or have made no mistakes because they’ve done nothing of impact.

Now, does this mean you should never bring on someone without experience?  No, because that’s logically impossible.  Everyone has to get experience to have experience, and they won’t get that without someone giving them a chance.  There’s also a lot to be said for solid theoretical knowledge, as that can help make sense of and bridge gaps in experiential knowledge.  Also, there’s a lot to be said for the insights of a newbie to help challenge the thinking of those who are more established.  But just know what you’re getting into.  Do it with your eyes wide open, and don’t just assume that because someone knows all the right buzzwords that they actually know what they’re talking about.

The number of consultants I’d actually trust to help an organization improve their agility in Kansas City, I could count on one hand.  There are a few others who will be great consultants with some seasoning.  There’s a lot of smoke blowing out there, folks.  Do your due diligence.  Don’t learn self-defense from someone who’s never defended anything.

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  One Response to “My Agile Coach Knows Bad Won Do”

  1. […] this is not another rant about frauds and wannabes claiming to be agile consultants in Kansas City.  Rather, despite the fact that the article’s claims are bogus, there is a real issue living […]

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