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2 Cents of Caution Before Hiring A Coach for your Agile Team

Recently I read Esther Derby’s blog post on Five Reasons to Hire a Coach for Agile Teams. While I agree with all her points, following are the questions or concerns running through my mind.

  • What are the risks involved when hiring a coach?
    • What is success ratio? How many teams you know (not heard of in some cooked up report by a consulting company or a tool vendor) who are successful adopting Agile with a coach’s help? And how many teams do you know who have failed trying to adopt agile without using a coach? Let me clarify, when I say adopt Agile, its not about a bunch of practices. Its about continuously evolving the process to make it lean and more efficient and more enjoyable.
    • Can any coach do or do we need a special type of coach? Point I’m getting at is, your chances to succeed is based on the quality of the coach and her experience.
    • In my opinion your chances of failure is much more if you hire an average coach from outside who does not understand the business, organization and team context & culture.
    • The big problem we face today is we don’t have a good way to know if someone is a good coach or not. What are the chances you’ll end up hiring the right coach? Its not sufficient if someone is a certified professional. In some cases, its not even sufficient if someone has written a couple of books.
    • Also in my experience, ability to connect and influence the team members is very important. A good team member is in a much better position to achieve this than any average coach from outside.
  • How sustainable is the model of hiring a coach?
    • What happens when the coach leaves? Is the team evolving their process or still using what the coach put together?
    • Hiring a coach from outside might speed up things. But I’m not sure if people will be able to understand the rationale behind doing certain things. In my experience failure is a great learning tool. Taking more time to achieve something (and in the process failing a few times) is not bad, it make something more sustainable and scalable.
  • Can you teach/coach someone to be agile? Agile has been around at least for the last 10 years, what are the chances one or more coaches can change that? (I’m not saying its not possible, I’m trying to highlight that its not simple. It involves organizational transformation and change in individual’s mindset).

My advice is before looking for a training or coaching, do sufficient homework?

  • http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/ George Dinwiddie

    Naresh,

    Good points, and they should all be considered. I’d hate to see people interpret them to mean that a coach won’t provide value, though. I’d rather they use these points to ensure they get value.

    It has long been true that consultants, particularly from big companies, often try to insert themselves into a client such that they become a necessary part of the future. This builds in a revenue stream with a captive client. As these consultants/companies move into the “Agile Transition” space, they’re likely to do the same.

    This is not the hallmark of a true coach, however. A coach starts with the intent of working herself out of the job. The job of coaching is not only teaching the skills of the task, but the skills of learning and evaluating the skills of the task. An experienced coach can notice situations when they’re still subtle and ask questions that help the client see and deal with situations before they become large and baffling. An outside coach can see things that the client just accepts as “the way things are” and can stimulate the client to change the situation. A coach can demonstrate skills when a client gets stuck trying to apply principles to the context at hand.

    Even coaches seek other coaches for their own improvement. http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/2008/11/13/aye-2008-congruent-coaching/ It’s a poor strategy to expect to learn everything you might need, on your own, without any help.

    As for finding a good coach, it’s not /that/ hard. Certifications will never tell the story. Talking with others will, though. Word of mouth is still the best means. Don’t look for “the best” coach, just an effective one. There is no universal “best.” And don’t just ask for a name, or ask is this coach a good one. Ask what made this coach effective in the referee’s experience. Ask for stories. Get enough detail that you can imagine the coach doing a good job, or not, in your organization. And if the coaching relationship turns out to not work so well (You are paying attention to that, aren’t you?), then end it and try another.

    Hiring a coach can be a lot of work, and can be expensive. Not hiring a coach can be more so.

  • http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/ George Dinwiddie

    Naresh,

    Good points, and they should all be considered. I’d hate to see people interpret them to mean that a coach won’t provide value, though. I’d rather they use these points to ensure they get value.

    It has long been true that consultants, particularly from big companies, often try to insert themselves into a client such that they become a necessary part of the future. This builds in a revenue stream with a captive client. As these consultants/companies move into the “Agile Transition” space, they’re likely to do the same.

    This is not the hallmark of a true coach, however. A coach starts with the intent of working herself out of the job. The job of coaching is not only teaching the skills of the task, but the skills of learning and evaluating the skills of the task. An experienced coach can notice situations when they’re still subtle and ask questions that help the client see and deal with situations before they become large and baffling. An outside coach can see things that the client just accepts as “the way things are” and can stimulate the client to change the situation. A coach can demonstrate skills when a client gets stuck trying to apply principles to the context at hand.

    Even coaches seek other coaches for their own improvement. http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/2008/11/13/aye-2008-congruent-coaching/ It’s a poor strategy to expect to learn everything you might need, on your own, without any help.

    As for finding a good coach, it’s not /that/ hard. Certifications will never tell the story. Talking with others will, though. Word of mouth is still the best means. Don’t look for “the best” coach, just an effective one. There is no universal “best.” And don’t just ask for a name, or ask is this coach a good one. Ask what made this coach effective in the referee’s experience. Ask for stories. Get enough detail that you can imagine the coach doing a good job, or not, in your organization. And if the coaching relationship turns out to not work so well (You are paying attention to that, aren’t you?), then end it and try another.

    Hiring a coach can be a lot of work, and can be expensive. Not hiring a coach can be more so.

  • http://agilefaqs.com/nareshjain.html Naresh Jain

    Great points George. I don’t think the goal of this post is to say that coaches don’t add value. All I’m trying to say is hiring a coach is not holy grail. One has to be careful while hiring a coach. Also just hiring one will not solve the problem. The organization has to closely work with the coach.

  • http://agilefaqs.com/nareshjain.html Naresh Jain

    Great points George. I don’t think the goal of this post is to say that coaches don’t add value. All I’m trying to say is hiring a coach is not holy grail. One has to be careful while hiring a coach. Also just hiring one will not solve the problem. The organization has to closely work with the coach.

  • http://www.borisgloger.com/ Boris Gloger

    I like your ideas. The basic problems of hiring coaches is as old as the business we are in. What makes a good counselor, a good teacher, a good doctor a good handyman? His results. Not his talks, not his cool brand and not his books.

    How to identify them, by looking into what they have done. The only thing that works is reputation and a the “word of mouth”. Our industry is not different.

  • http://www.borisgloger.com Boris Gloger

    I like your ideas. The basic problems of hiring coaches is as old as the business we are in. What makes a good counselor, a good teacher, a good doctor a good handyman? His results. Not his talks, not his cool brand and not his books.

    How to identify them, by looking into what they have done. The only thing that works is reputation and a the “word of mouth”. Our industry is not different.

  • http://www.thirstybear.co.uk/ Chris Pitts

    I can’t say that I agree with everything you say, but some of the points are valid, especially how do you tell whether a coach is good or bad – not something I have an answer to, I’m afraid. However, I will take you to task on one point.

    “In my opinion your chances of failure is much more if you hire an average coach from outside who does not understand the business, organization and team context & culture.”

    In my experience it is exactly the opposite. If you understand the team context and culture too deeply then you become tainted as a coach/leader. Things slip under the radar – familiarity makes you accept things that are, quite simply, dumb. This is *exactly* why you employ a coach (even an average one) – as a fresh pair of eyes, and someone who is experienced in best industry best practice as opposed to the team’s or business’ practices. Ignore the advice at your peril.

  • http://www.thirstybear.co.uk Chris Pitts

    I can’t say that I agree with everything you say, but some of the points are valid, especially how do you tell whether a coach is good or bad – not something I have an answer to, I’m afraid. However, I will take you to task on one point.

    “In my opinion your chances of failure is much more if you hire an average coach from outside who does not understand the business, organization and team context & culture.”

    In my experience it is exactly the opposite. If you understand the team context and culture too deeply then you become tainted as a coach/leader. Things slip under the radar – familiarity makes you accept things that are, quite simply, dumb. This is *exactly* why you employ a coach (even an average one) – as a fresh pair of eyes, and someone who is experienced in best industry best practice as opposed to the team’s or business’ practices. Ignore the advice at your peril.

  • David Sallet

    I couldn’t agree more with Chris’s last comment. I have experienced the transition to Agile (Scrum) at two different companies since 2002. The first company hired a coach, the second company did not (they sent a few of us to Scrum Master training instead).

    The coached experience definitely made the transition easier and surfaced many hidden aspects of our culture and questioned many assumptions in very short order (within the first few months.) allowing us to deal with the issues in a thoughtful and careful manner.

    The un-coached experience, while successful for the most part, took much much longer to identify and deal with the underlying cultural and organizational shifts required. And in some cases, we are still not dealing with them because they haven’t been accepted as being “identified” yet (the power of culture is strong).

  • David Sallet

    I couldn’t agree more with Chris’s last comment. I have experienced the transition to Agile (Scrum) at two different companies since 2002. The first company hired a coach, the second company did not (they sent a few of us to Scrum Master training instead).

    The coached experience definitely made the transition easier and surfaced many hidden aspects of our culture and questioned many assumptions in very short order (within the first few months.) allowing us to deal with the issues in a thoughtful and careful manner.

    The un-coached experience, while successful for the most part, took much much longer to identify and deal with the underlying cultural and organizational shifts required. And in some cases, we are still not dealing with them because they haven’t been accepted as being “identified” yet (the power of culture is strong).

  • http://agilefaqs.com/nareshjain.html Naresh Jain

    @Chris I agree with you that if the coach gets deeply familiar with the team’s culture and context, they might miss the forest for the tree.

    I was not suggesting they get deeply involved. (in my experience its takes quite some time for this to happen, by then you’ve got the value you wanted). Having good understand is very important to provide sensible advice. Why don’t doctors give prescription over the phone?

    Fresh eyes are very important, but the context is equally (if not more) important. You can’t get a guy off the street and ask for advice.

    Rotating people between teams, attending conferences and user group meetings, having company wide open spaces, etc are all ways of getting fresh perspective. Bringing a consultant from outside is not the only way.

    someone who is experienced in best industry best practice as opposed to the team’s or business’ practices

    I come from a school of thought that does not believe in Best Practices. In a complex adaptive system like software development, you can only have emergent practices. IMHO “Best Practices” has done more harm to our industry than GoTos.

  • http://agilefaqs.com/nareshjain.html Naresh Jain

    @Chris I agree with you that if the coach gets deeply familiar with the team’s culture and context, they might miss the forest for the tree.

    I was not suggesting they get deeply involved. (in my experience its takes quite some time for this to happen, by then you’ve got the value you wanted). Having good understand is very important to provide sensible advice. Why don’t doctors give prescription over the phone?

    Fresh eyes are very important, but the context is equally (if not more) important. You can’t get a guy off the street and ask for advice.

    Rotating people between teams, attending conferences and user group meetings, having company wide open spaces, etc are all ways of getting fresh perspective. Bringing a consultant from outside is not the only way.

    someone who is experienced in best industry best practice as opposed to the team’s or business’ practices

    I come from a school of thought that does not believe in Best Practices. In a complex adaptive system like software development, you can only have emergent practices. IMHO “Best Practices” has done more harm to our industry than GoTos.


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