Friday, September 20, 2013

Business Wolves in Agile Clothing

Sorry if this upsets anyone, but I'm going to be transparent about something I've been wrestling with ever since I've gotten into agile coaching and training. These are just my thoughts as I'm processing them. I don't have a concise summary, and certainly not an answer, for it. But I'm hopeful it will resonate with like-minded people in the community, and perhaps, together, we can change the world of business.

I understand that most of the world behaves in ways that are not transparent, open, respectful. They used processes and tools, such as $100 Billion in ads or commissioning sales forces (odd, because we don't give programmers commissions for doing more work) to do get more business. And most business grows their business for no other purpose than to make more money and grow more.

Yet we know it shouldn't be this way. Seth Godin makes fun of the Revlon and Betty Crocker model. Daniel Pink warns of when the profit motive gets unmoored from purpose (which we all need).

And as agilists, I always felt it was going to be different because our work was values-based. We'd be freed from the profit-driven model, and we'd show the marketplace how it could be.

I mean, how do you teach about collaboration over contracts and then ask someone to sign a large contract? How could you work intimately with others while not having the openness or respect to let them know any of the business agreement details - the dollar value put on your service by the customer vs. the value from your business partner? What about teaching about the importance of sustainable pace, while putting three times the standard working hours? Where is courage to tell a client that there are others who could provide the same services you provide and letting the client choose what they think is the best for them?

Below is a fictional conversation stitched together from many that I and others have had.


A customer needs help and asks ACME for coaching. ACME doesn't have a coach, they hire on a contract basis. ACME doesn't tell the customer this, but says "We should have one available in about two weeks." "Great!" says Customer.

ACME then calls up Joe Coach. "Hey Joe, this is Don. Are you available for a coaching contract? We have an excellent opportunity. You're the best one out there, and we'd love for you to be part of our team on this." 


"Okay, let me send over some documents and set-up your email account real quick. "

"Email account? Why?"

"Because you're doing it under our brand."

"Okay, but why as ACME and not just me, a trusted partner brought in via your valuable network?"

"Because we found the client. It's our opportunity."

"Yes, but I'm known for [X], and that might be confusing when you guys are known more for [Y]. I'm happy with the rate you're offering, and that is monetary compensation for the lead, but I'm confused why you want them to think I'm ACME, when I'm not. I'm not right now, haven't been, and even when I'm there, I'll only be introduced by the ACME sales rep and handed off. You don't offer anything in the way of supporting me on the engagement, do you?"

"Ummm..well, no."

"So I'm not really ACME, am I? I'm a subcontractor. Since we both teach about transparency, shouldn't we model it ourselves and be transparent about the arrangement?"

"Well that's different. This is business."

"Aren't we helping businesses become agile? This might be an opportunity to help your business be more agile, too."

"Look, we landed the deal. It gets arranged according to how we want it set up. The name it's under matters because that's what we use for further lead generation."

"Uh-huh. To get more opportunities that you can't staff. I see. It's your deal, but aren't we partnering on it? You said I'd be part of your 'team', so doesn't that mean collaboration over contracts? 

"Look, I want to grow the business. It's that simple. Same as everyone else."


"What do mean why?!"

"I mean what's the purpose in more business? We both know the importance in purpose in work, the big vision. What is it for ACME?"

"Our mission is to be the market leader."

"So that you can…what? Let's say you became the market leader tomorrow. How is the customer, the market, the world any better?"

"Look, it doesn't sound like this is going to work out, and we're not really getting anywhere with this interesting conversation."

"It seems to me that you need to wrestle with some tough questions. It's just my observation, but it appears that you might be teaching principles that you don't fully practice, or perhaps even fully believe yourself. The short term goal of immediate gain overshadows any core values. It seems like the same problem we're trying to help business avoid. We're all on a path that is taking us somewhere. Where will we be in one, two or five years? Is it success, or significance? I understand we're not on the same page now, but I hope we can keep this dialog going. I appreciate the offer, nonetheless."

Don gets back to say inform them there's a delay on getting the coach in there due to some reason other than the real reason. 


David Chilcott said...

Annoyingly common though, isn't it?

It's hard to come up using the current way of organizing our economic/business activity without getting a bunch of it on you. After a while it becomes invisible. "Just the way it is!"

Thanks for speaking up!

David Chilcott

Daniel Gullo said...

It's disappointing when this happens although, I wouldn't say it's the rule. There are various shades of control and misdirection that some firms use. Much of it has to do with politics and what it takes to be granted an audience before "the king".

There is a great quote by Otto Von Bismarck: "Politics is the art of the possible." So, one thing that might help is to consider what's possible and finding a workable solution. It's pretty transparent when a firm is just a body shop vs. when they are actually a solution provider who truly believes in what they sell.

Contracts, unfortunately, are a necessary evil. That's the society we live in. "Trust, but verify." has never made sense to me. However, it only takes one time of getting royally screwed in a business deal to cure that sense of open trust. Again, this is an area with shades of grey. One approach would be to make smaller deals and gradually build the relationship that way, iteratively. "We have worked well on the past 3-4 SOWs, so this time, I don't need a fully executed document before I do any work. I will trust you based on the accrued balance of trust we have and the SOW can be finalized later."

Is there really any harm in flying under someone else's banner? If that bothers you, then, why aren't you investing in your own BD machine? You are essentially hiring them to do BD for you and part of that cost is that you are working under their brand. At the same time though, you are building your own personal brand and that has value irrespective of the shell to which you are subbing.

I have been an independent consultant, an FTE with a small firms large firms, an FTE for non-consulting companies, etc. My experience has ranged from being completely censured and my livelihood threatened as an independent because I was being truthful to having completely free reign. If I were independently wealthy and at liberty to walk anytime I want, then I probably would have. If you run away from problems, the only thing you learn is how to NOT deal with problems. So, it's about striking a balance and understanding when you will fire your patient; e.g. when the relationship is no longer benefitting either of you.

The cost of doing my own BD and accounting and managing benefits, etc. is what inspired me to move away from being independent toward working for someone else. I sat down and ran the numbers and if I factor in the opportunity costs in terms of time spent away from my wife and 4 kids, I have a much better deal currently than I would have doing my own thing. Again, I see it as me paying my company to do the things I hate (accounting, billing, sales, benefits, expenses, etc.) while I get to focus on the things I love (training, consulting, coaching, etc.).

I am happy to say that while my current company does reach out to partners, we absolutely DO provide support and a network of folks and treat the partners as part of the organization; i.e. we aren't just landing deals and then scrambling for bodies. We absolutely DO embody the values that we preach, which is why I just celebrated my one year anniversary there. Might be a place that would interest you... just sayin'. ;)



Mark Kilby said...

Scott, I think you are taking an important step here by making the problem highly visible. The question is, how can we continue to do this to amplify the better way of working together?

Contracts will not go away and neither will a need for a "unified partnership". However, how we do these things and with those we trust? This is what we can control and should.

When I was managing partnerships at another firm, I truly sought to bring my agile principles into the relationship. From that, I found other great individuals and organizations to partner with.

But how can we amplify this? There is no Better Business Bureau or Glassdoor or Angie's List for coaching. Perhaps it's time to start one. ;)

Lyssa Adkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyssa Adkins said...

Thanks for the clear depiction of what I have also seen. Lately, I've been thinking about a keynote presentation called something like "How NOT to get sold agile." Geared toward people looking for help with agile, but also hoping to give a new view to those who do agile (and maybe even can be agile) but are somehow stuck in an off-kilter capitalist idea of how to run their businesses. Who knows? Maybe this will happen, maybe it won't but it's been brewing in me for some time now.
(Just re-posted this. Too many typos in the original comment. Embarrassing.)

Devin Hedge said...

I was going to say something. I spent far too long writing it. I deleted it before posting it because I realized it was pointless. I'll just say that I appreciate and share your frustration.

Mr.Now said...

The problem is not a problem. The invitation is an invitation to play a well-defined game called [subcontractor coaching engagement], a game with rules defined by the primary vendor. You either opt-in or opt-out, based on your core values. The alternative is to compromise what you believe and what you value. It's not complicated.

sanam arzoo said...

Thanks for the clear depiction of what I actually have conjointly seen. Lately, i have been pondering a keynote presentation known as one thing like "How to not get sold software" engaged toward individuals yearning for facilitate with agile, however conjointly hoping to present a brand new read to those that do agile (and perhaps even will be agile) however ar somehow stuck in Associate in Nursing off-kilter capitalist plan of a way to run their businesses.

Scott Dunn said...

I have an update to make on this, with a view (and my own actions) that are actually counter to some of what I said. Hard for me to admit, but I realize now that I didn't see the full picture on how business clients see the relationship with a vendor (especially these large, late adopters). Meeting them where they are, in order to help them, may mean more focus on brand and image.

More later....