I always get asked this question – I am looking for an Agile Coach, but how do I know that I actually have the right one? There is a short and a slightly longer answer to this question. The short answer is: you don’t know and you have to try it out. Of course, the right chemistry should be established in the preliminary talks, and if you have heard recommendations, that is also a strong signal – but it is no guarantee. You have to try it out.
Fortunately, there is also a longer answer. The longer answer – my answer – starts a bit earlier, namely with the question of what you actually want to achieve with the person. What exactly is your goal? Introducing agile methods? Creating self-organised teams? At team level or in top management? A team, a department, squad, tribe, swarm? Whoever you bring into the organisation, they should be able to work out a course of action with you.
1. The path must be adapted to the terrain
If s/he already has a solution at hand, you should be careful. It is about your organisation, it is unique and individual. One-size-fits-all often means that the organisation has to adapt to the solution. Do you want a steady transition, an approach that improves your organisation cyclically, or do you want the big bang – rebuild everything once and then start again? Do you think the latter will work in your organisation? So we need a consultant who can help us explore the terrain and draw the map. We need an intervention plan.
2. Leading by questions
The term coaching is used in a somewhat fuzzy way and is not clearly defined. In principle, coaching is a counselling method that supports clients in finding their own solutions. This counselling ranges from self-reflection, to dealing with conflicts, to coping with leadership tasks. Coaching is often described as leading by asking questions. But I wonder if that is really enough and all we need to improve organisations. Because quite honestly, if we want to introduce agile methods or LEAN or whatever – we want to improve the organisation and we have had a good look at the terrain – then we cannot fall back on existing knowledge. The solution to our problem is not within us. We have to learn first. So we need a trainer who can specifically give us the necessary knowledge.
3. Pragmatism based on theoretical knowledge
Whoever appears as an Agile coach has probably undergone coach training in one way or another. Unfortunately, there is no standard. There are Agile Coach trainings that last five days, other programmes take place over the course of a year, and still others are a specialisation within the framework of a psychology degree. And that’s just the coaching part. Agile methods are countless – the right tool for each of the different use cases. Does my Agile Coach have to master them all? If not, which ones? And preferably be certified up and down in addition to their training? To accompany an agile change, Agile coach/consultant/trainer must certainly be a pragmatist. Dogmatism and monothematic set-up only help if I know I need the coach for a pointedly nameable issue. If I still have to work out the way with him/her, dogmatism is counterproductive. So we need a companion who is also open and does not come up with ready-made solutions – a real guide.
Counselling, coaching, indeed helping in general, is based on voluntariness. I cannot help someone against their will or coach them against their will. So the counsellor has to bring the people along. The counsellor has to show the people in the organisation the benefits, the improvement of their own situation. For this, as a coach/consultant/trainer/guide, s/he must understand the challenges and problems of the people. For that, the coach/consultant/trainer/guide has to speak my language and it is absolutely ok if s/he does not speak all the languages in the organisation. Some consultants are particularly good at speaking the language of top management, others are absolutely at home in the operational. Where should my consultant intervene, which language should my consultant primarily master? How often has s/he already accompanied such interventions? How experienced is s/he in dealing with difficult situations? Would I want to ask the counsellor for advice?
5. Culture, Gut, People
The right Agile Coach must fit the company culture. In other words, support and inspire it or be diametrically opposed to it in order to demonstrate a radically different concept. All ok, as long as I think it through and want to achieve a planned effect with it. But our counsellor must also – and I am amazed how often this is lost along the way – carry out a mission and achieve a goal. No organisation, at least I hope, starts an agile transition without a concrete goal to achieve. And the goal is not ‘become agile’ or something. It’s ‘shorten time-to-market’ or ‘innovate more’ or something like that. So the consultant must always keep his/her own actions in line with the entrepreneurial goal to be achieved. Consultant self-realisation, diva-like behaviour or secret changes of plans because the consultant thinks the client’s decisions are wrong and the client himself/herself is perhaps incompetent must be absolutely taboo. So we need a consultant who enriches the culture of the organisation, who is fun to work with and who is open to dealing with people (yes, I take that for granted too, but there are amazing surprises).
There is one more requirement I would put on an Agile coach, which might sound a bit strange at first. My agile consultant(s) must be economically independent. S/he must not have me as the only client and s/he must not be fully utilised by me. Only independent people can say ‘no’ even when it hurts. The longer a consultant works in the organisation, the more s/he becomes inventory and the less weighty his/her word is. If I am the only source of income for my consultant, s/he will start to avoid conflicts and create dependencies. To initiate an agile transition requires cultural change. And cultural change never happens without conflict. Often the clients are also affected by these changes, which can lead to conflicts between consultant and client. This can only be done in a value-creating way if the consultants are independent.
My Agile coach/consultant/trainer/guide must therefore create an intervention roadmap together with me. What can we work on in a meaningful way? In what order do we proceed? Who is affected?
My Agile coach/consultant/trainer/guide is able to build knowledge, convey it, anchor it and make it usable. What training formats do we use? How do we cut the groups? What is the didactic approach?
My Agile coach/consultant/trainer/guide is a pragmatist. How much theory does the organisation need? How do we get started? How do we get people ‘doing’?
My Agile coach/consultant/trainer/guide has experience. She or he may never have done exactly the same thing, of course, organisations are too different for that, but s/he has accompanied many transitions and is looking forward to ‘the undiscovered country’.
My Agile coach/consultant/trainer/guide is on stage in the second row. It’s not about him or her. We are not looking for superheroes.
A good Agile Coach lets his/her coachees shine and makes sure that they are in the front row and can fully enjoy their successes.