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Agile: Coaches or Consultants?

What agile coaches and consultants can achieve for an organization, as well as frameworks for adopting agile.

· Agile Zone

Learn more about how DevOps teams must adopt a more agile development process, working in parallel instead of waiting on other teams to finish their components or for resources to become available, brought to you in partnership with CA Technologies.

The distinction is often made between agile adoption and agile transformation. The agile coach, from my experience, is often working at an intimate, team level; evangelizing, guiding, and embodying agile principles. When the entire enterprise is hoping to "transform", they need more than a coach; they need an agile consultant. No disrespect to agile coaches; many can and do perform enterprise evolutions that add agility, not only at the team level but across the organization. I’ll make the case that, as agile evolves from a software discipline to a differentiating corporate competency, the skills of agile advisors must change as well.

An agile consultant, in my definition, can engage at the strategic level, facilitate executive meetings, influence recalcitrant teams, and negotiate the breadth and depth of agile evolution with executives, managers, and teams. If the momentum for agility is driven at the enterprise level, the mature advisory and relationship skills of a consultant are essential. Executive-level credibility and competence, enterprise change management experience, and a history of transforming cultures, along with a framework for transformation, are expected at the strategic level.  As agility evolves from a software methodology to a business strategy, “grassroots” agile is no longer sufficient. 

As Micheal Sahota reminds us, many agile coaches are working at the accidental level, the lowest level of advisory skill. Sahota says:

“I make the assertion that the vast majority of Agile change agents are at the accidental level. The key reasons are: 

  1. Failure to understand Agile as a system of culture and values,

  2. Failure to understand the disruptive power of Agile in general and Scrum in particular,

  3. Not understanding the difference between adoption and transformation,

  4. No explicit adoption or transformation framework,

  5. Weak or mis-alignment with management goals and objectives."

Let’s walk through Sahota’s list and discuss the distinction between coaching and consulting. Failing to understand that agility has become a strategic idea, no longer a technical one, is a core misunderstanding of recent developments in agile theory. As many consultants have learned with experience in TQM, BPR, or ERP, the attempt to evolve culture requires a unique combination of skills, traits, and experiences. It’s a long-term, iterative relationship with incremental progress and frequent setbacks. In enterprise agile evolutions, when you push the boundaries, the boundaries push back. Integrating agile culture and values into a resistant, hierarchical culture, for example, will test the consultative skills of any agile change agent.

Agile methods are built to disrupt.  They necessitate, by their practices, that traditional hierarchies, roles, and expectations shift dramatically. The guiding of teams, executives, and the entire enterprise through the disruption with skill, grace, and humility is a rare and precious aptitude. Mature consultants have tangled with the stickiness of enterprise culture and history, and know how to build the appropriate relationships, take the emotion of out it for both themselves and the client, and use a disciplined process for analyzing options and making decisions. Guiding the enterprise to enhanced agility requires all the subtle relationship skills we display in our personal life; patience, compassion, acceptance and delicacy.

In my mind, the difference between adoption and transformation is clear. Adoption is about practices; Transformation is about strategy. The gap between guiding a “grassroots” team to agile practices and advising an executive team in considering the ramifications of an agile, real-time enterprise is cavernous. I’ve known agile coaches who have spent many years, moving from team adoption at one organization to team adoption at another, without ever having a strategic conversation with leaders. Agile consultants will increasingly be called upon to present a strategic vision for the evolution to agility that addresses vision, communication, change management, organizational structure, team structure, job descriptions, roles and responsibilities, metrics; the list goes on. We must be able to talk the language of ROI, operational dexterity, business risk (such as digital disruption), competitive advantage, and the depth of transformation the enterprise actually wants. Not every enterprise wants to, or can afford to, go through the disruption of transforming their culture; a superior agile consultant  can sense, then negotiate, where the boundaries are in capacity and desire to change. We evolve the enterprise to its maximum agility within those boundaries. Of course we want to push the envelope, to help them get results they never expected, but as sincere as we are in our desire to spread agility, many enterprises aren’t prepared to go the whole route with us.

The lack of an adoption or transformation framework is of real concern to the agile consultant.  We may understand that we’re embarking on an iterative, experimental voyage with the client, but professionalism in consulting requires us to put some structure around the engagement. No client will, and no consultant should, embark on an agile engagement without some guiding framework, in my experience. 

For instance, Mike Cohn, in his “Succeeding with Agile”, recommends an adoption framework based on the acronym ADAPT

Awareness that the current process is not delivering acceptable results. 

Desire to adopt Scrum as a way to address current problems. 

Ability to succeed with Scrum. 

Promotion of Scrum through sharing experiences so that we remember and others can see 

our successes. 

Transfer of the implications of using Scrum throughout the company. 

Cohn’s framework, an adaptation of the ADKAR model, has great applicability in defining the elements that must be in place for agile adoption in a scrum-based environment.  For agile consultants, it presents a stepwise series of symptoms that we can look for within the client organization. Based on extensive ADKAR research, this sort of framework has rich academic credentials as a barometer of change readiness, and as a set of goals to achieve in order to transform. 

Cohn’s framework has much to teach agile consultants, whether we’re guiding the adoption of scrum practices within a team or driving an enterprise transition. Approaching a client engagement in a structured and orderly manner is a sign of experience. It reassures nervous clients that they’re in competent hands. Agile consultants don’t want to validate the negative view of agility, that it’s just an excuse to make it up as we go along. We, instead, want to demonstrate that, even though agile is iterative and experimental, we can approach its adoption and evolution in a disciplined way. 

I’m humbled by the insight and real-world experience that Cohn has built into his ADAPT change framework.  Humbled, but not satisfied.  I’m not satisfied because, as an agile consultant, it has flaws for me. Cohn’s ADAPT method, apart from its scrum specificity, seems to be addressed to inside change agents. Awareness and desire come from within the organization and the individual.  We can try to raise awareness and desire, but without them, why would the client engage an agile change agent in the first place? The elements of Cohn’s approach are necessary conditions and tactics for agility, but not a prescription to take the client there. For an in-depth tour of other frameworks for organizational transformation, check out Sahota's views here.

As Jim Highsmith said:

"Many organizations seem to be stuck at Agile 101, the rule-based approach to Agile (do this, don’t do that)…a necessary first step towards becoming Agile, but only a first step.  To take advantage of the responsiveness of continuous delivery, the entire organization—from delivery teams to executive management—needs to embrace the changes required to respond rapidly, collaborate effectively, and embrace an adaptive, exploratory mindset."

My central point is that agile consultants, as opposed to practice-focused coaches, are entering an experimental, experiential engagement with an entire enterprise, with all its cultural, legacy, personality, and market issues. The capability to coach a team through scrum adoption doesn’t necesarily translate into the competence to advise leadership in the drive to an agile vision, or the ability to determine how far marketing is prepared to go with their agile evolution. Practice-focused coaching is necessary and effective at the beginning of the agile journey.  A consultative skill set, with the capability to engage at the strategic, leadership level as well as the intimate, tactical team level, and to guide the enterprise through a sustainable, intentional agile evolution, will be required, as agile evolves from Agile 101 and becomes a strategic differentiator.

Discover the warning signs of DevOps Dysfunction and learn how to get back on the right track, brought to you in partnership with CA Technologies.

agile adoption,agile coaching,agile frameworks,agile management,agile organization

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