Agile Consultancies Aren’t

Agile Consultancies Aren’t

Why not? Well, at the very root is the the Myth of Redemptive Violence, which gives power to both the Domination System within which we as humans are for the most part emprisoned, and to the Analytic Mindset with its anachronistic and oppressive (Theory-X) view of human beings as e.g. cogs in a machine. More specifically, there’s a whole passle of “failure modes” which I’ve seen in numerous self-styled Agile Consultancies:

The Path Of Mammon

  • Consulting teams in name only. Consultancies like to supply teams. Many times, these teams are selected by managers, and run by Project Managers or Account Managers. And from there, it’s managers all the way up (down). Even whilst espousing the benefits of Agile, these consultancies fail to walk the talk.
  • Analytic Mindset. Consultancies, not wishing to look too alien to their largely Analytic-minded client base, and perhaps lacking the imagination to see beyond conventional management models, most often adhere to the hierarchical management models now beginning to look very dated.
  • Theory-X. At the beating heart of Agile lies the Theory-Y disposition. How many Agile consultancies have Theory-Y type relationships with their staffers, as opposed to the more traditional Theory-X stance?
  • Play. Innovation. Creativity. All espoused values of Agile, and all conspicuous by the absence in many consulting engagements, where margins, revenues and milking the client for as much money as possible seem to take precedence. And where things have to be done “by the book”, both by the consultants and the client’s staff they’re supposedly “helping”?
  • Delivering value. This. How many consultancies do you know that offer an unequivocal value-for-money guarantee?
  • Incremental delivery. Another core value of the Agile approach. How often do contracts with clients reflect this? How often do contracts (do you remember “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation?) stipulate fixed terms for the consulting engagement?
  • Agility. How many consultancies do you know that start an engagement with a plan of campaign, or agenda, vs sensing the clients evolving needs and responding to those changing needs as they flex and unfurl?
  • Agile is about human relationships. How many Agile Consultancies do you know that major on that? On building long-term relationships between their company and their clients’ companies? (Much more that just relationships between individual consultants and individuals in the client company). On becoming a trusted parter at the heart of clients’ businesses?

I could go on, but I think I’ve listed the main points of my argument.

Two-Way Street

It’s a two-way street, of course. Agile Consultancies follow the Path of Mammon mostly because that’s what their clients expect, or demand. That’s what many imagine it takes to survive and thrive in a Market for Lemons. It looks risky to buck that demand in favour of another way. But another way there is.

Another Way

There is another way. A way which eschews short-term revenues, and skipping from one unsatisfactory engagement to the next, in favour of helping clients in the longer-term. With non-dogmatic advice and help that attends to the needs of everyone involved, not just the consulting company’s big-wigs. This Other Way is the path I myself have chosen to follow. It’s not as easy nor well-travelled a path as the Path of Mammon. But I find it immeasurably more satisfying, all-in-all.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.“

~ Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

– Bob

Further Reading

Joy, Inc. ~ Richard Sheridan Why Familiar Was Europe’s First 100% Agile Software House ~ FlowChainSensei

  1. You’re hitting the needle on the head, as you often do Bob. Customers get what they ask for. Replacing processes by hiring a consultancy organization with a fixed scope/time/budget contract doesn’t make an organization agile as I described in We Want Agile Processes (

    There are ways to work together, to improve continuously and help everybody becoming better in what they do and increasing value, supporting and respecting everybody who is involved. It still surprises me why companies choose to ignore this.

    • Totally agree, consultancies promote processes over people which violates the Agile Manifesto so essentially everything is wrong at the onset.

  2. Paul Beckford said:

    Hi Bob,

    This is a subject that interests me greatly. I’ve explored loads and have some partial thoughts that may be worth sharing:

    1. Yep, you summarise the problem well. The Path of Mamon is the only “service” most (all) clients are interested in purchasing at the outset. It is usually written into the terms of the contract. I’ve tried negotiating the terms of the contract *prior* to an engagement, moving it towards something that would better describe an agreement for co-discovery but with limited success. Most clients simply don’t want to “hold hands” and go on an open ended journey of discovery. They want to be firmly in control, calling the shots and pre-determining the future.

    2. Even so, one can try to engage the client in a dialogue of co-discovery anyway. Again, I’ve had some success with this. Approaches such as positive inquiry can work very well in this regard, but the problem is that the client has not consented to such probing, however flattering you make it 🙂 The problem with using positive deviance is that if the client hasn’t consented to it from the beginning then you quickly run into Jerry Weinberg’s 4th law of consulting:

    the Fourth Law of Consulting–“if they didn’t hire you, don’t fix their problem”

    Basically don’t start fixing stuff you weren’t contracted to fix. This rule becomes even more pertinent when the centre of your attentions become the client herself 🙂

    3. In lieu of a journey of co-discovery, many clients opt instead for analytical evaluation, measurement and metrics. Now given Weinberg’s 4th law, if you are *contracted* to deliver metrics there is very little to do but acquiesce. After all, changing mindsets is not part of the deal 🙂

    4. A very useful lesson I’ve learned from Peter Block, is to do everything possible to ensure that the client feels like they are the ones in control. Now I mean *everything*. Bringing in an *expert* makes most clients feel very vulnerable indeed and it takes very little for them to feel sidelined. Challenging clients over control may win the respect of their subordinates, but isn’t a great business model 🙂 Besides we should be moving away from benevolent dictatorships anyway, however good. This means allowing the client to make *the final* decision. Your role is to offer advice, it is their role to decide.

    Now this is a double edged sword, with control comes responsibility. Clients love calling the shots, whilst holding the consultant responsible 🙂 This conundrum has lead me to the concept of contractual leadership. The late Bob Crow of the RMT was a contractual leader. He acknowledged the legitimate interests of his members and negotiated the most favourable contractual terms he could on their behalf. I believe consultants (or any employee) should do the same with their clients. This is very different from the Transformational leadership we tend to espouse 🙂 Instead of pretending that everyone shares the *same* interests, acknowledge that our (perceived) interests may differ. As a consultant, I want to be effective, as a client she wants to be in control, these legitimate desires may result in conflict 🙂

    Addressing such conflict openly as part of an ongoing contractual negotiation seems to me to be the best way to proceed. I’ve been in situations where there has been a fundamental conflict, normally in mindset or values, in such scenarios, as a consultant I need to decide what is possible, and what I’m willing to accept. If I can’t renegotiate terms to move things into a window that is *acceptable* to both parties then in my experience the best thing to do is walk away.

    4. Which brings me to my last point. It is their change 🙂 Change *if* it occurs, happens on the inside. As a change agent you may *educe* change in others, but in the end it is up to them! Given this, over the years, I have wound back my ambitions. Any change IMHO is a success and a reason to celebrate 🙂

    Another of Mr Weinberg’s laws highlights this point well :):

    the Ten Percent Solution Law–“if you happen to achieve more than ten percent improvement, make sure it isn’t noticed”


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