Agile coaches are everywhere these days. The nice thing about that is that agile has become so popular. The sad thing is that there is now a greater risk that you end up a with an agile coach that doesn’t really make things better for your company. Here’s what you need to think about before you bring in an agile coach.
There are so many different ways of defining what an agile coach does that to hire one, you need to be really clear about what kind of help you’re looking for.
One very fundamental distinction to consider is if you’re looking for an extra pair of hands or if you’re looking for someone to truly challenge you to grow and develop.
In my consulting work I do mainly the latter. My clients hire me not to run their project for them, but to support them in clarifying and understanding their organizations, their way of working, the motivations of themselves and their colleagues and so on.
Of course, I also bring a certain level of expertise that I can share where it fits. That said, I’m always amazed (but not surprised anymore) at how all the knowledge needed to perform better is already available inside my client companies. Often it’s not a bunch of new ideas that’s needed but better ways of really discovering and using what is already there.
If you’re considering an agile coach, I would advise you to consider making it a consulting type of role more than a pair-of-hands role. Let me explain why.
Everyone in your organization is busy working inside their sometimes very specific areas of responsibility. However, how well an organization performs isn’t decided by how well everyone is doing their jobs in isolation. Total performance comes from how well the individual performers play together.
Here’s the thing. An organization can fail from everyone doing their job as well as they can. What you need for success is that eternal management consultant buzzword: synergy. Synergy simply means that individual performances blend together into beautiful music. That music is what you should ask your agile coach to help you find.
So what? So far, nothing new here. Well, if you believe me when I say that coaching for performance needs to be about finding the synergy that creates beautiful music, then you should also consider the consequences of this.
What are the consequences of focusing on synergy? The consequences for the agile coach is that the coach needs to to work with your entire organization as a system, not just with parts of it in isolation. In practice, the coach you choose for this needs both the skill and the freedom to:
- Explore all parts of the organization that need to be explored if performance increases are to be found
- Ask all the questions that need to be asked
- Work with all the people in the organization that need to be worked with
The coach’s part in this it to have the skill, confidence, curiosity, and experience needed to undertake such a systemic exploration. Your part as client is to make sure the coach really can do this, and then help your coach gain access to as much of the system as is needed to get to the performance you are looking for. This does not mean you should give the coach a carte blanche—it means that you should clearly define what you are aiming for, and then make sure to contract in a way that actually supports reaching this goal as effectively as possible, and in a way that makes the results stick.
In other words your agile coach will need to do much more than hands-on work with one or several teams. Your coach will need to actually coach, and coach in all directions. Working only inwards with your teams will not be enough simply because many forces that determine team performance are best dealt with outside of the teams.
To state it more bluntly: if the team is performing badly because you as a manager did a bad job creating the supporting circumstances for effective team work – then you need help too, if things are to improve.
Summing up: performance in organizations is about making sure all the parts work well together. Therefore the agile coach needs to work with all the parts of the organization.
Here’s the tricky part. Coaching while inside the hierarchical organizational pyramid is really difficult. As soon as you are part of the power pyramid, you become influenced by it. After all that’s the point of the hierarchy: to influence people to do their assigned job and report back upwards. It’s not impossible to coach from the inside, just a lot more difficult.
It is always hard to see an intricate system such as an organization clearly. It is harder by a magnitude when you are inside of it, being pressured by both seen and unseen forces to look at it in a specific way. This is why it may be wise to bring in help from the outside from time to time. Someone who sees things with fresh (and preferably kind) eyes.
If you tell your agile coach to “just make this team improve” while kindly asking for you to be left alone, I wouldn’t bet my money on your success. If, on the other hand, you sit down and have an explicit conversation with your coach about how to safely approach and engage with all those who need to be part of your journey to higher performance, then I’d say you’re off to a promising start.
By explicitly starting out by discussing what agile coaching means to you, you stand a better chance of discovering whether the candidate you’re talking to is up to the challenge of engaging with the whole organizational system. Or vice versa, if you’re looking for a pair of hands for a limited time and the candidate believes you want coaching.
If you do want coaching and it turns out that your candidate’s definition of agile coaching is “just enforce my favorite method and drop the rest in your lap”—then you’ll be very happy you caught that earlier rather than later. If you don’t, you might just discover that you’ve just used “agile coaching” to lower the performance of your organization rather than elevate it.
- For more on the different ways we can hire help, read Johanna Rothman’s article about contracting versus consulting.
- For more about clear and effective contracting, but also about working in an internal coaching role, see Peter Block’s “Flawless Consulting”.
- For about ways to work with a systemic approach to agile performance, check out Bas Voddes and Craig Larmans two great books about scaling agile.