They say you have one chance to make a first impression. If your first impression as an agile coach is that of an overbearing know-it-all—and come on, coaches, you know we all can be—then you've just closed a lot of doors before you ever had a chance to be invited in.
"Invited in" is the key phrase here. An agile coach can't help a person, team, or organization unless he or she is invited, but that invitation can be easily revoked. Only by creating a relationship based on trust can we be effective in aiding an agile adoption. But how do we do that?
I find that the best start is actually to do nothing. Spend time observing the team first. This helps you understand the people and processes, which will help you determine the best course of action.
The 90-Day Rule
As an agile coach, your first three months with an organization should be for building relationships. (If you're an outside consultant, this is cut down to "The 30-Day Rule” because your entire engagement may only be around ninety days). Trying to shorten the relationship-building period any more than that, however, comes at a significant risk. If you're doing a contract of less than three months, you're not a consultant, you're a trainer, and you need to approach things differently.
If a CEO comes in on day one and fires half the executive staff, employees will tend to distrust the CEO for making a sweeping decision without knowing anything about their company. If, however, the CEO spends three months going around and meeting with people, listening, and engaging, then fires half the executive staff, it’s perceived more as an educated decision.
This applies to you as well. You can be the world's gift to agile coaches and the company may have literally begged you to help them, but if you come in on the first day and tell people everything is wrong, you've just set up an adversarial relationship and ruined your credibility. Get to know how things work first.
However, “observation” doesn’t mean you should spend your first three months with an organization sitting in a corner and watching. During this time, there are three tools you can use to create understanding, trust, and good relationships: introduction interviews, agile observation interviews, and shoe-leather coaching.
Before you jump right into asking the tough questions about the organization, it is immensely important to get to know the people you’ll be posing those tough questions to. Likewise, it helps if they know a little about you. When you're just a stuffed shirt asking, "What's your organization’s biggest challenge?" the quality of the answers you get is going to be much less than when you ask someone you’ve chatted with about kids and pastimes.
The goal of the introduction interview is to build a relationship. This can be a formal or informal event, only you don't want to dive too deep into anything specific about work yet. The two main guidelines are to go where the conversation takes you and to respect boundaries—not everyone will want to share personal information.