The major advantage with the firm model is they will have multiple coaches to serve your needs. This usually surfaces in bench strength and more timely support of your ad-hoc needs. However, these firms will have coaches at varying levels of experience and you’ll rarely get the chance to cherry pick the best coach that provides your best match. Instead you’ll be engaging the firm rather than a specific coach.
When engaging individuals, you’ll almost always engage a sole proprietor with perhaps a handful of like-minded colleague partners behind them. Often you’ll have to wait for their schedules to “free up” and, if they run into problems such as illness, it may impact your engagement.
However, the advantage is that you’re engaging a known quantity and there will be no unintended “bait and switch” activity going on. It also makes selecting the coach easier because you’ll be interacting directly with your coach.
Purist vs. Pragmatist
For over 10 years I’ve been categorizing agilists, myself included, as either a purists or pragmatists. There’s nothing wrong with either side, but it’s how they approach implementing and coaching the methods that is at play.
A purist often focuses on one method, and while promoting it, doesn’t take liberties in the implementation. For example, a purist Scrum coach would either implement core Scrum as defined in the Agile Atlas (if they’re from the Scrum Alliance) or core Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide (if they’re from Scrum.org). There would be very little “wiggle room” in their implementation and, if you deviated from anything in the definition, you’d be confronted for a ScrumButt.
I liken pragmatists to being passionate and determined in their agile adoption guidance. However, they apply experience, common sense, and some situational flexibility to their engagements. They consider where their client is “coming from”, before they suggest next steps—so as to not set the bar unreachably high.
I liken myself to be a pragmatist, but know many purist coaches. The world needs both kinds, but you’ll probably want to be uniquely selective to one side or the other. If you’re selecting multiple (or a team of) coaches, mixing and matching at this level rarely produces good results.
The focus here is does the coach contribute to the overall agile community? In particular, have they written coaching guidance via books, blogs, and articles? Do they have recordings available of presentations or podcasts that you can view? And importantly, how long and how active have they been contributing. This is also a wonderful way to verify the coaches experience claims.
Additionally, do they volunteer in the agile community? For example, have they presented at a Scrum Gathering or Agile Conference. Do they participate in their local agile groups, as a leader, presenter, and attendee?
A big part of this is checking the “passion level” of the coach. Are they an agile coach because they’re simply interested in the money or are they passionate about agile and are they willing to “give back” to the wonderful agile community we have.
Beyond pure experience and skills, the coaches’ personality and style needs to mesh with your teams, your leadership team, and your culture. One of the things I do for prospective clients is give a free lunch & learn as a means of getting to know one other. Borrowing a term from a famous dating service, I refer to it as: “It’s Just Lunch”. This is the chance for us to meet and explore the compatibility between myself and the organization.
And don’t forget the match goes both ways. As a coach, I want to make sure that the organization I’m coaching aligns with my own principles and practices. I’m primarily looking at the leadership team to determine if they’re sufficiently knowledgeable and committed enough to guide their teams through the agile transformation. And they’re checking me out to ensure I don’t do “too much damage” during the transformation.
I highly recommend this approach of “trying before you buy”; usually by having immersed discussions and potential ‘auditions’ for nearly a day.
Of course rates matter. But my recommendation is to make cost a secondary consideration. You’ll want to get the best coach possible for your organization, by aligning with as many of these selection considerations as possible. I think it best to defer rate discussions until quite late in the process.
Once you have narrowed the field to one or two coaches, then bring rates into play. Usually the length of the engagement is a significant factor for discounts and some coaches even provide a pro bono aspect to their coaching, so explore these as options. In the end, don’t let money influence you towards a lesser coach. You’ll pay dearly for this misstep.
Finally to check references or not to check, that is the question. The answer is…please check! But be sensitive to the timing of checking references. You’ll want to go through your due diligence and basic analysis first. Most coaches only want to engage their references (remember they’re customers like you) if the deal is reaching maturity and as a near final step in the process.
And don’t ask for too many references. One or two should suffice. Once you get the references, you want to strike quickly. The coach has probably primed the references for your call, so you don’t want to take 2-3-4 weeks and then surprise them out of context.
So here are questions and a critical consideration list when it comes to selecting your next agile coach. You may not want to run through all of them, but I hope they help your selection conversations:
- How much experience do they have? Internal vs. external coaching? What about variety in their coaching? Explore what ‘typical’ coaching engagements look like—how do they ‘enter’ an organization? And when do they know it’s time to ‘exit’?
- How much method breadth do they have within their coaching? Do they apply cross aspects of one method to others? Ask for an example or two of how.
- It’s one thing to be well-read. It’s another to be well experienced. Explore the latter. Ask about their successes AND their failures as a coach. What determines success? Or failure?
- Ask the coach if they’ve ever turned away clients. And if so, what are the general reasons for this decision. Here you’re looking for indications of their selection criteria and “hot buttons” for agile coaching success.
- Check their certifications. This is a two-edged sword. Some coaches have a literal “alphabet soup” of credentials. Others have a much smaller list. Some certifications are much stronger than others. For example the CSC and CST. You can go to the Scrum Alliance site and check certifications here:
- It’s not easy to determine whether your coach is a purist or pragmatist. Questions on non-Core Scrum activities, such as Hardening Sprints or Sprint #0 or multi-tasking Scrum Masters will probably evoke discussions that will give you a clue as to their ‘leanage’.
- Have a “bench strength” conversation with your coach, if they’re an individual or part of a group. Speak to coaching consistency as they scale. Ask how many teams they can coach in parallel with their preferred model.
- Ask your coach where they spend the most time coaching, at the team level, management level, or leadership level. Does organizational maturity influence these percentages? Ask where they are the most “comfortable”?
- Ask your coach how they serve the agile community? How do they share lessons learned? Have they ever coached an individual or team pro bono? Ask when and why. What about sharing their knowledge and wisdom—how have they done that. Or if they haven’t, ask when they plan on doing so.
- Try to ascertain the ego level of the coach. Ask if one of their coached teams or organizations fail (or regress) how do they take that? Have they failed? How do they retrospect on failures and successes? How do they adjust their coaching styles for different situations—ask for a couple of examples.
- Ask them to rate themselves as coaches. Ask them to identify 2 coaches who are better than they are; and ask why? Ask them to share who they’ve been mentored by most recently and what have they learned.
One final point, please don’t perceive these steps as daunting to the point of preventing you from pursuing a coach. I see so many agile teams that could use a solid coach that I don’t want the selection process to scare you away. Take whichever of these considerations make sense to you and leverage them in your search. I’d rather you simplify the criteria and steps and get the best coach possible, then shy away entirely.
Good luck in your agile journey…Thanks for listening,
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