Agile Coaches are indeed a great investment for companies and if you would like to use Agile coaching to improve your organisation, it’s vital to find the right person to spearhead such an important transformation.
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Do you dream of quicker results, greater flexibility and better quality products? Today, many IT companies are using Agile methodologies to achieve just this, and to great effect.
Many people are now aware that working with Agile principles delivers products fast and efficiently. Agile methodologies - like Scrum, XP, Kanban, and others - follow the Agile Manifesto to achieve optimum results.
But Agile is not just an approach or methodology. It also entails a cultural change to your organisation; one which brings about overall transparency and visibility in all projects.
With so much change in store, it’s therefore vital to be clear on all the facts before you go ahead and hire an Agile Coach.
What do Agile Coaches do?
Basically, an Agile Coach helps organisations rethink and change the ways they go about development, addressing such issues as workflow practices and team collaboration.
Agile Coaches take on many different roles, applying their industry knowledge to help companies achieve optimum results.
According to the Coaching roles originally taught by Agile experts, Esther Derby and Don Gray, there are nine roles that sum up the responsibilities of Agile Coaches.
They vary from being a reflective observer: "You do it, I will just watch and tell you what to do", to being a partner: "We will do it together".
Let’s take a look at all nine roles in a little more detail:
The Counsellor listens carefully to evaluate problems and helps create a safe working environment for Agile to work successfully.
For example, introducing new Agile practices can create tension among employees and a Counsellor uses his or her active listening skills to create an environment in which everyone can freely discuss issues without fear.
A good Agile Coach often acts as a facilitator, so instead of teaching or mentoring, he/she facilitates conflict resolution, as well as establish meetings to improve group dynamics, and so on.
As a reflective observer, your Coach observes interactions between everyone within the organisation, often opening up an external perspective they may not have noticed themselves before.
Coaching differs from teaching or mentoring because of the focus shifts from knowing to unlocking.
Coaches help unlock knowledge through powerful questions and support, the assumption being that everyone has the tools to be able to solve their own problems.
If an Agile Coach notices a lack of knowledge within a team, they take on a teacher role. Sometimes he/she helps reinforce previously learned practices or knowledge which saves teams from struggling through.
When a team has a certain technical difficulty, the Agile Coach accesses or gives technical advice to help deal with the issue.
Hands-on-expert role is most suitable when working within an organisation that is new to Agile because people are naturally unsure where to start.
People often struggle when they adopt new practices. After all, learned behavior can sometimes be very hard to change to suit new Agile practices.
The Agile Coach helps by modeling new, aligned behaviors which later become habits.
Most external Agile Coaches can’t be partners in the true sense as they are not employees of the organisation. Therefore, they are not held responsible for achieving goals despite being deeply involved with them.
Long-term benefits of having Agile Coaches in your organisation
The aim is to create a long-term change; one that improves productivity through building the right partnerships. The benefits of Agile Coaching affect individuals, teams or entire organisations – sometimes all three.
Agile Coaches help establish a long-term strategy across the entire organisation. Following a pilot project, they periodically check that teams remain on track with the new Agile techniques, fine-tuning behaviors as and when required.
What’s the difference between an Agile Coach and a Scrum Master?
Often confused, there are actually two main differences between the two:
Firstly, Scrum Masters ensure teams follow the Scrum process while Agile Coaches focus more on the organisation as a whole, with an emphasis on the change agenda.
Through their extensive knowledge and expertise, Agile Coaches implement an overall vision.
Secondly, Agile Coaches are generally transitory, spreading their knowledge and energy throughout the company, while Scrum Masters are tactical Coaches, working at the team level.
The team´s need for a Scrum Master is not transitory as he/she must continuously maintain and develop strategies.
What are Scrum Masters and their responsibilities
Scrum Masters help teams and Product Owners to coordinate all their project activities effectively. However, bear in mind that Scrum Masters are never bosses; they hold peer positions, set apart only by their knowledge and responsibilities.
In essence, they are important Servant Leaders, being central to team activities.
Indeed, way more than simply team assistants, effective Scrum Masters deeply understand how teams work from the inside and are constantly finding ways to help improve delivery flow.
Another important thing to remember is that while a team’s deliverable is the product, a Scrum Master’s deliverable is a high-performing, self-organising team.
If you’re new to the term Scrum and only ever thought of it in connection with the sport of rugby, let me enlighten you on the important responsibilities of Scrum Masters:
Coaching the team, product owner and business, enabling them to apply Scrum process and related Agile practices themselves to their best advantage.
Fine-tuning processes and team dynamics to achieve greater cohesion with all the stakeholders. This includes bridging the gap between customers and various team members.
Being constantly available to the team to help them remove any impediments, address distractions or disruptions that may be keeping them from successfully completing their work.
Establishing a supportive and secure environment where the team works at its best.
What to look out for when hiring an Agile Coach
Agile has become so popular that all kinds of consulting companies are jumping on the bandwagon with Agile Coaching services. But unfortunately, they don’t always have the right skills for the job.
Before hiring an Agile Coach, it’s a good idea to bear in mind the following:
Everyone calls themselves an Agile Coach nowadays
Make sure the one you choose is well-recognised and recommended within Agile communities.
Get him/her to speak in depth to an executive within your organisation as this helps gauge whether they are likely to be competent enough to bring real value to your business.
Avoid hourly rates
We believe that it is the outcome you should pay for, not the hours it takes to achieve it. Great Coaches measure results which, after all, prove whether investing into your Agile Coach has been worth it.
"By the book" practices
Unfortunately, many consultants apply theories without ever having had any practical experience. A great Agile Coach should have several years of practical experience to draw on in order to advise their clients with full authority.
An IT background is important
Scrum Masters need to talk to developers about issues that may arise so technical experience makes it far easier for the entire team to stay aligned. Developers also tend to have more respect for a Scrum Master with a technical background.
Ability to work with executive leaders
Good Coaches are able to bridge the gap between teams and executives. This requires an understanding of the language used at executive level.
Unfortunately, many Coaches are ex-software developers with very little knowledge of businesses, which can hinder achieving the desired results.
Using recruiters to hire Agile Coaches
Agile Coaching is a relatively new role and not many recruiters have enough experience in this sphere yet. Remember that a certificate is not always the only criteria to be eligible for the job.
Experienced Agile Coaches do not generally work with recruiters; therefore, if you’re looking to hire an Agile Coach, it’s a good idea to seek out local groups, online communities or Meetups which might offer you good recommendations along the way.
Do not hire people from the big consulting companies
Big consulting corporations may have prestige in the market but often they sub-contract junior freelancers or even graduates for Scrum Master or even Agile Coach roles. If you´re looking for the best, do not hire from these corporations.
Make sure you have a clear idea of the problems you want to solve. You need to be transparent about them to your potential Coach, and a great Coach, of course, asks you about your purpose and vision right at the start.
Keeping an open mind
A good Coach challenges your assumptions, organisational processes and structure. He or she even risks getting "fired" as a result of challenging your status quo.
Although it often hurts when someone challenges you with radical, new ideas and suggestions, it’s important to be open to change without falling into the trap of being defensive or unwilling to listen.
Working with you and with your leadership team
All change requires leadership so it makes sense that an Agile Coach must work with your organisation’s leaders. If the Agile Coach works solely at team level, a lack of contact with executives makes Coaching inefficient and unsustainable.
Do not try it yourself
Some companies simply listen to what needs to be done and say: "Great, we can do that ourselves". Be aware of the time and money you could spend doing it yourself instead of hiring a fully experienced Coach to do so.
How to spot great Agile Coaches
A good Coach asks several questions and carefully examines the situation before working with you. He or she obviously needs to fully understand the problems you are trying to solve.
Ability to measure results
Improvements are measured by results and good Coaches are able to measure them as they work with your teams. Important measures include quality, time to market, customer satisfaction, velocity, business impact and more...
An Agile Coach needs to be present at your company for 2-3 days a week, and on a full-time basis in the case of very large organisations. The goal is to gradually make teams fully Agile, rendering the Coach obsolete over time.
The brutal truth
Sometimes Coaches need to tell you the brutal truth if they are to drive change.
In the case of an over-controlling manager who is blocking change and improvements, it might be necessary to take a drastic decisions against his/her will, such as a transfer to a different department, redundancy or even firing.
Expect a Coach to dig deep into the processes and structure of your organisation to find out its strengths and weaknesses. A good Coach increases transparency, even if some employees do not like it.
Why are more companies hiring external Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches?
Nowadays, external Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are in high demand as companies finally embrace Agile, nearly 15 years after it first arrived on the development scene.
Becoming Agile is top of the agenda for many organisations. The business world seems consumed by the knowledge that software is “eating” the world, and that the speed of innovation is ever increasing.
Agile really is a hot topic and companies are hiring more Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters than ever before, providing numerous job opportunities in the process. In fact, the market is fast becoming saturated.
According to an HP survey of 601 developers and IT professionals, two-thirds of respondents described their companies as either “pure Agile” or “leaning towards Agile,” while only nine percent were “pure” or “leaning towards” the more traditional waterfall development approach.
Many companies we talk to say they are already totally Agile and they don´t need any help. But in reality, they are far from Agile. Why?
Their teams have no experience in fulfilling Agile roles in a practical sense. They wrongly think that applying Agile’s Scrum techniques by the book is enough.
Meanwhile, others are aware of the need to call in an extra help to implement Agile and Scrum and they benefit greatly from the fresh, new ideas that Scrum Masters bring to their organisations.
The fact that there are no good Agile Coaches or Scrum Masters on the market to hire as employees is another reason for taking on an external consultant.
Yes, I know I just mentioned that the job market is becoming slowly saturated with Scrum Masters or coaches, but most of them are woefully inexperienced.
This is because they have often spent their careers as developers or managers and recently shifted their career path to these roles.
As a result, many so-called Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches are still only learning about what to do and how to go about it.
What are pros and cons of hiring an external Agile Coach or a Scrum Master?
If you are struggling to find a good internal Agile Coach, hiring a professional external coach could be the best solution, perhaps until you find an internal employee to satisfactorily fill the role.
Companies often benefit from bringing in valuable external expertise with new ideas which are not influenced by company culture or colleagues.
A well-recognised external Agile Coach or a Scrum Master brings a good deal of authority to your organisation.
Team members can be highly motivated by new ideas and influences, giving them the impetus to drive changes they had previously never thought possible.
On-going access to someone who has used Agile methodologies and can share this knowledge is invaluable. A Scrum setting helps teams figure out clearly the best way ahead.
In short, external Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters provide following main benefits:
Better customer satisfaction
Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches improve team delivery commitments and capacity planning for sprints, largely by identifying hidden tasks that would otherwise hinder progress.
Quicker time to market
The world changes rapidly and customers often need to make fast and frequent changes, making flexibility key.
Coaches and Scrum Masters help improve organisational processes by measuring cycle times and making the necessary adjustments to reduce time to market.
Scrum Masters ensure that product testing is not left to the end of a sprint. The premise is that quality is better if defects are resolved early on.
Improved progress visibility
With an external Scrum Master or Agile Coach on board, product development’s progress is clearly visible. This transparency means that businesses can make well-informed, fact-based decisions as development progresses.
Increased collaboration and ownership
The Scrum Master is responsible for improving team collaboration and ownership of tasks, while providing a trusted, safe environment for teams to operate.
There are also some cons of hiring an external consultant:
Cost - Costs are higher than for employees.
Knowledge - External consultants accumulate a lot of knowledge about the company and culture and it´s highly possible that this knowledge gets lost as soon as they leave the company.
Culture and values - They will not get that heavily engaged with the company´s culture and values
Temporary support - They won´t stay in the company forever, they leave because their job is temporary and because they find other and/or better opportunities.
Team will be irritated - Teams might be disturbed when they leave the team.
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