How to Hire an Agile Coach

Like this post? Check out my proposal for how to hire and Agile Coach for the 2016 Toronto Agile Tour.

Sally, the recruiter, called me up the other day, “Hey Jackson, I’ve got a great opportunity for an Agile Coach!  I saw your resume said Scrum, something-or-other, and you’d be perfect!! How much do you charge per hour?“.  Jackson had been coaching for a few years and was interested to learn a bit more.  “We’ll get to my rate later, Can you tell me more about what this organization is looking for“, probed Jackson.

Sally proclaimed, “it’s a great company to work for, about 350 people, there is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about going to Agile, management is 100% fully supportive of it!”.

“That sounds great”, said Jackson, probing a bit further he asked, “can you describe what they are looking for?”

Oh sure,” replied Sally.  “They are looking for an Agile evangelist, someone who can coach executives on how to change their organization, someone who knows how to relate to developers and QA, someone who can mentor all their Project Managers who are now Scrum Masters and somebody who has experience with doing training, empowering self-organizing teams and someone with extensive project management, product management and technical background.  They really need help!

Wow, that sounds like a lot responsibilities, how long have they been ‘doing Agile’?“, a less-than-surprised Jackson said.

Oh, a couple of years, they’re just looking for something to help kickstart them to the next level. It’s a 6 month contract.  What hourly range are you looking for?  They have budget for about $90 an hour“, said Sally.

Interesting“, replied Jackson, “Can you tell me about the structure of the organization, who this coach reports to and what type of work they do?

Sure,” said Sally, “they have a PMO, oh, and you would be reporting into the Senior Manager of the PMO, and they have Scrum teams on the ground who work on their Widget X products, an Ops group, an architecture group, a BA group and a QA group.  You know, the standard Agile stuff.

Sounds like there are lots of handoffs going on based on what you described, I’m guessing they are having some challenges with quality and getting their projects done on time.” , said a concerned Jackson.

Yes, that’s why they’re looking for a coach, someone who can come in and mentor people to help get the quality bar raised.“, said Sally, sounding a little annoyed at all of Jackson’s questions.  “So what’s your rate?  I can setup an interview today if your rate is within their budget.”

Always the curious cat, Jackson agreed to have a call with the company.  “Great!”, exclaimed Sally, “I’ll be in touch!

Does this sound familiar to you?  While I may sound like I’m being a bit snarky towards organizations looking for a coach and recruiters, there’s a whole lot more going on then the words in the fiction-yet-based-on-experiences story above.  I’ll leave that up to you to discuss and I’ll follow up with a more in-depth post later.

Lately I’ve noticed Agile, and Agile Coaches in particular, are getting kicked around on the interwebs.  Everything from the evils of Agile coaching to the hypersensitivity  to tools in Agile.  I’ve seen many tweets about snake-oil salesmen, why nobody but <insert twitter handle here> really gets Agile except me and more.  What seems to be getting lost, IMO, is the Prime Directive: “People are doing the best they can with what they have, which includes skills, training and experience.”  That’s paraphrased of course.  I don’t know any Agile folks I’d consider to be ‘snake-oil’ salesmen.  I know a few that are thought-leaders (well known and not-so-well-known), a few that haven’t figured out how much they don’t know yet and everywhere in between.  The point is, they are doing the best they can with what they know and the skills and experience they have.

So how can you find the right Agile Coach for your organization?  Here’s some tips based on my knowledge and experience.  Your mileage may vary.

  1. Don’t let the first thing you do be hiring a recruiter:  No that’s not a slight against recruiters, Agile Coaching is a relatively new role and I don’t think recruiters have enough experience in this domain yet.  If you want help with Agile, start with the community.  Find a local user group, online community or reach out to your network.  Implementing Agile takes courage and dedication and if you cannot spend your own time learning or talking to people in the Agile community (FOR FREE BY THE WAY), you are less likely to be successful.  Worse yet, you may develop a mindset that the coach is going to fix everything because, well, that’s what you are hiring them for.
  2. Have a purpose in mind:  Suppose you’ve followed my advice from step 1.  Have an idea of what problems you want to solve and be transparent about them to your potential coach.  Coaches are smart people and many have training and experience in organizational behaviour, human behaviour and have studied (and used) many meta-models and Agile processes.  They are going to see right through  a smoke-screen like “we *just* need some training for our BA’s that hand off specs to the team” and other non-sensical stuff.  The more transparent you can be the better, the coach will figure this out anyway and you will spend more money while he/she figures this out.  Having a purpose will help define what success looks like.
  3. Be realistic:  The odds you are going to find an expert in organizational change, programming, testing, requirements, project management and the other 30 things you list on your job description are slim….really slim.   If you think having a superman coach is a good idea I’m going to bet that you think this coach is going to come in and magically fix everything by sprinkling some process dust on your organization.   Chances are a coach is going to recommend more coaches or consultants with more specialized skills in certain areas.
  4. Have a budget in mind: Coaching isn’t cheap and there’s many reasons for that.  Personally, I spent close to $15,000 on my education last year.  That’s going to training courses, conferences, open spaces, experiential learning workshops etc.  The coaches I know invest in themselves and you, the client, are benefiting from our skills, knowledge and experience.  If budget is constraint, consider options a coach will provide for you.  For example, I was once asked to do a 6 month full time contract to transform an organization at a rate middle-level project managers make.  The skills required for this are much greater than the skills a middle-level project manager have.  Would you hire a CEO to fix your business for $85K per year?   I recommended to use that budget more wisely by not having a 6-month full time coach but instead a front-loaded engagement with recurring touch-points.  That’s one example.  The point is, start a dialogue.  Your policies may state “thou shalt hire contractors in 6-month increments” but don’t let that be a barrier.
  5. Be ready to be challenged:  A coach is going to challenge your assumptions and your organizational processes and structure.  A good coach will risk getting fired by challenging your status quo and they will do it with respect and professional courtesy.  Be ready for it.
  6. Understand what a coach is:  It sounds hypocrtical for me to say this given my domain is “” but “Agile Coach” is a made up term.   I don’t know where it came from but it sure sounds cool.  Better than “Agile Consultant” anyway.  Recently Michael Spayd and Lyssa Adkins have been bridging the gap between “Agile Coaching” and, well, actual professional coaching.  Some Agile Coaches may be process specialists only and not understand organizational change.   That described me many years ago.  I learned quickly there is much more to Agile Coaching than meets the eye.  If you want to hire me as a coach, I will have my own expectations of what you want right off the bat simply because you used the word “coach”.  If your intent is to “hire a coach” and put them on a project as a project manager or Scrum Master, you don’t want a coach.  You want a project manager or a Scrum Master.
  7. Don’t try this at home:  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “meh, we’ll do it ourselves” in the software industry.  That’s not only for adopting Agile, that’s for building software.  Meh, who needs a usability person, just get Mr Graphics man to skin it.  Bah-humbug, it’s *just* testing, find something who can work a mouse.  I wish those were fictitious examples.  You will be well-served by a coach and will spend much less on a coach than you will learning the hard way.

Now that you have some tips for finding a coach, what can you expect from one?  Again, this is based on my style and experience.

  1. Some type of assessment:  A coach needs context which means they are going to ask you lots of questions and will need to talk to people to get a deeper understanding of what problems you are trying to solve.  Different coaches will do this differently.  Personally, I take the Naked Consulting approach, I’m not going to give you a document or outline, I’m going to come and talk to you FOR FREE for a couple of hours and figure out if I can help in the first place.   If your needs and beyond my experience, I’ll help you find somebody more appropriate for your situation.
  2. Front-loaded engagement: Unless you are a large company looking to transition your entire organization, you probably don’t need a full-time coach for 6 months.   Most of the effort with coaching is early on when you are in learning mode.  A coach’s goal is to make themselves obsolete as quickly and efficiently as possible and there are numerous engagement strategies.  If you’re a smaller organization, an embedded coach for a couple months might be best.  If you have multiple teams, up-front training/workshops and facilitation may be better.  If you have been trying Agile for a while, a mentor-ship program might be best.  A coach will help you figure this out.
  3. Metrics and ROI are really hard to figure out:  It’s reasonable to expect you want some type of assurance that your money spent isn’t a waste.  As far as I know, there’s no success metric for implementing Agile.  Some of the metrics I’ve found useful are escaped defects (how many defects found in the wild after release – which should decline by the way) and net promoter score (how likely will people recommend your product or service).  “Vanity metrics” like in-process bugs fixed (before release), velocity and on-time releases, IMO are less useful, if useful at all.  More than likely the payoff for being successful with Agile is going to come much later.  If you have ideas for some type of Agile success metric, I’d like to hear it.  Wherever possible, tie metrics into business outcomes.
  4. Kind or Brutal Truth? Decide if you want the kind or brutal truth.  All organizations have politics, expect a coach to kindly, or brutally, show you the impact your organization’s culture, politics, technology and people are having on your adoption or transformation to Agile.  Sometimes under an incompetent manager is a high-performing team that can’t emerge under a controlling manager who treats his employees like cogs in a wheel.  Given there’s a reason for that behaviour, you can do nothing, try to change the manager, fire the whole team and get team members who thrive under that sort of management, fire the manager, move the manager to another department and more.  There are always many options to consider, a coach will help you consider them by telling you the kind or brutal truth as they see it.
  5. Success Criteria and Visibility: A coach will need your help too.  Expect a coach to ask for time for people to learn new skills.  Expect a coach to ask you to set aside budget to send people to conferences so they can learn more.  Expect a coach to be responsible and accountable by making the work they are doing visible in your office.  I like to use an Agile transition war room, or if a room isn’t an option for whatever reason, an open area in the office to be transparent about why the coach is there and what they are doing.
  6. Expect to bring in more people:  Pairing isn’t solely for programming.  Different perspective matters and is much more efficient than relying on one person’s opinion.  I’ve solo coached and pair-coached, pairing wins out every time because when I have a crazy idea, a pairing partner can say “hey, that’s a crazy idea, I think this other idea may be a better option!“.  Voila, you’ve just been saved from a 2 week experiment on a crazy idea.  Again, your mileage may vary, you might not need more people, but then again, maybe you will.
  7. All Coaches are Different:  Personally, I skew on the side of possibilities and people focus.  That is to say my coaching approach is generally skewed towards Agile values and principles.  Some coaches may have a more process-centric approach.  Some coaches may come in and install processes and do training while others may go deeper into your people and culture.  The right approach is the one that works in your context.  I understand that some organizations are built on process and structure. “My Agile” won’t work there and I recognize that and will take a different approach.  Other coaches, despite their personal bias, will do the same.   During one engagement in a highly political and process-heavy environment I beat a Director and Senior manager over the head with values and principles.  It didn’t get me fired but I did a dis-service to that client at that particular time in my career.  When they hired me to “go Agile” I let my personal bias of Agile get in the way of their success.  I am aware of that and have worked very hard to understand culture and people more so I can serve my clients more effectively now.

Above all else, get the phrase “we can’t do that because…” out of your vocabulary.  Agile is change and you would be foolish to expect to adopt Agile without changing your organization.  There’s a reason why Agile is rooted is 4 values and 12 principles.

If you are looking for an Agile Coach, the best thing you can do, in my opinion, is to get involved with the Agile community first.  You will learn a lot.  You will meet coaches.  You’ll be pointed to many books and resources that can help you figure out what you really want.

Finally, you need to be dedicated to making it work.  A coach will help you discover problems and will work with you to experiment with solutions, listen to them, decide on reasonable business outcomes that shape what success looks like and be ready for some bumps along the way.