Optimization of Human Systems is a Fool’s Errand

Michael James is on a rant against Agile Coaching as it often appears to be practiced, but what he describes doesn’t sound much better, to me.

Michael describes Agile Coaching as “push[ing] processes and ways of working on teams,” and “trying to ‘change management culture.'” He suggests “starting with a clear system optimization goal stated again and again from upper management.” Never mind that this, itself, is an example of trying to change management culture, assuming that’s not what they’re already doing.

A Clear System Optimization Goal

The part that worries me is that a “clear system optimization goal” implies that “better” can be described as optimizing along one dimension. The very word “optimization” implies that there exists an optimal outcome or organization. Optimal from the point of view of whom? For what purpose? Such a goal sets a target that, as Deming alluded, people would meet at the expense of destroying the enterprise.

In truth, there are many aspects that we care about. Some of those aspects may be valued widely through the organization, and other aspects by only a few. While there may be trade-offs between these aspects, it’s unhealthy that any single aspect take precedence over all others. Profitability? Would you give up the lives of the employees for that? Or the survival of the organization?

In a related article, Michael suggests the system optimization goal of the “organization’s ability to respond to change.” Maximizing this at the expense of all other measures, however, would result in an under-damped system with little or no stability. I’ve seen organizations chase whatever is the latest request made of them, and the result is disheartening. While being adaptable is a great strategy, it only maintains its value if it’s accompanied by enough stability to preserve what you’ve already achieved for as long as you need it.

Whose Point of View?

Given that Michael mentions the “system optimization goal stated again and again from upper management,” he clearly has in mind that the choice of goal is solely the prerogative of upper management. Once the “brains” at the top of the hierarchy has made a decision, the “brawn” supporting it has merely to implement that decision. While this point of view makes it easier to sell consulting services to top management, it doesn’t help the organization. Instead, it creates a single point of failure.

Each person in the organization has their own set of values and priorities. There is power in all of those sets being coherent to some degree, and pointing mostly in the same general direction. There is danger, though, in trying to make them absolutely aligned in lockstep, or in ignoring those that are not.

No one point of view is reliably “right,” even for the person holding that point of view. Every point of view overlooks or dismisses something of value to someone else. If we’re trying to broadly meet the needs of individuals, subsystems within the organization, and the organization itself, there is strength in the diversity of disagreement and the redundancy of agreement. No, this will not provide an optimal solution for any one point of view, but it can provide a reasonably good solution for the bulk of those involved. We can improve on that if we take some care to intentionally look out for those whose needs are being systematically overlooked.

All Of This Is Hard Work

All of this is hard work. There is no rote process that can ensure success. People have to weigh the intangibles, and they need to revisit the questions they have to course correct both intent and implementation.

There are a number of cognitive biases that describe how people get stuck seeing only part of the view, and consistently overlooking other parts. In a large organization, those things “stated again and again from upper management” tend to align the blind spots of people within the organization. One of the big values of external consultants and coaches is that they come in without those particular blind spots, though they certainly have others.


Coaching is not as completely directionless, as the statement, “pure coaching is a legitimate profession with no agenda,” would imply. This is a view that organizations selling coaching certifications seem to be pushing. It’s true that the coach’s agenda should not override the clients, but if no directional nudging were needed, then the ELIZA program from the mid-1960s would suffice. Rogerian counseling, which I studied in the early 1970s, can take a long time, perhaps approaching infinite, to converge on something helpful for the client. Effective coaching needs to be helpful in a shorter time frame than that.

Sometimes the client can be helped to reframe their situation so that it looks different to them, and perhaps triggers some different responses. Sometimes the client is missing some information, and providing that information will help them. Sometimes the client benefits from being “pushed” to consider more options than they have so far. Deciding to provide a reframe, some information, or prompt continuing the search for options all betray an agenda of the coach. The underlying agenda is to be helpful to the client rather than neutral or destructive.

When you’re coaching a group of people who interact with each other, it gets more interesting still. I say coaching teams and organizations is fundamentally different from coaching individuals. I find much of the difference lies in helping people become more aware of the patterns of their interactions, but there is more than that. I still struggle to articulate team and organizational coaching clearly enough to describe it succinctly to others. I can often sense places where it’s likely to be productive to probe the system and see how it responds. This gives me, and the client organization, more information about the complex pattern of interactions within it. That awareness can help the organization adjust itself and try to move in a beneficial direction, keeping an alert eye for any detrimental side-effects.

Iterative Improvement

This is an error-prone process, and needs to be done gradually and cautiously to avoid damage. It’s more a matter of iteratively growing into the organization we’d like to see than it is of designing and implementing that organization. Organizations made of people are far too complex to be fully understood, much less designed from scratch.

Yes, it’s quite different from what is often termed Agile Coaching or Organizational Design, neither of which is likely to “just make everything better.” Too often both of these take a mechanistic approach, assuming that they can install the right solution. That assumption indicates people are trying to operate in the Cynefin Complicated Domain rather than the Complex Domain. It’s that insufficient respect for the complexity of human systems that makes them fail to provide much help. The best practitioners of both have a sense of the subtleties and are able to help their clients, sometimes in deep fundamental ways. This requires exploring the reinforcing and the balancing feedback loops in the organization, as well as being alert to the unexpected effects of relationships that aren’t visible to you.


The titles Agile Coach and Organizational Design Consultant are not the problem. Those who are bearing those titles but practicing with insufficient understanding and skill are a problem, but they can also improve iteratively. There is no Optimal Coaching or Consulting. It’s all a process of doing and learning and getting better. There is no finish line.

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