What Kind of Agile Coach Should I Hire?

Having your organization make the mental shift necessary to adopt agile is the first important step in an agile transformation. But once you decide you want to change, now what? Should you attempt your agile adoption yourselves or hire an expert? Joel Bancroft-Connors details the benefits and downsides of going it alone and of using contract, consultant, and full-time agile coaches so you can decide what's best for you.

So, you've decided your organization needs to change its ways of working. You've recognized the wisdom of the Marshall Goldsmith quote "What got you here won't get you there," so you're looking at implementing agile in some way. I congratulate you.

Now what? How do you go from decision to action? How do you start your organization down the path of change?

After asking those questions, usually the next one is, do you do it yourself or use an expert?

DIY versus SME

There are hundreds if not thousands of books on agile. There is a similar volume of videos, and I'd wager at least quadruple that in audio podcasts—and we just won't even talk about the number of blogs. With all that data out there, it stands to reason that your organization could do some self-study and try to figure it out yourselves, right?

I'm a huge fan of learning to do it yourself. I've become a regular handyman thanks to YouTube, fixing my toilet, replacing a valve on my water heater, and putting new headlights on my car.

But I also know my limits. If my car needs brakes, I go to a professional. Yes, I could still get the parts and read up on how to do it myself, but if the complexity is beyond my skill set, I know I'm going to save more time and money by getting help from an expert.

Organizational change is one of those things that falls into the complex, “call an expert” space. While you can try and DIY a solution, and you may even be successful, it will almost certainly cost you more time and money than getting expert help.

This brings us to our next question:What kind of expert do I hire—contract, consultant or full-time?

I'm going to cut to the chase on one of these. A contract agile coach doesn't work. I've seen it fail over and over for a simple reason: Contract agile coaches have all the negatives of a full-time hire and a consultant. At the end of the day, you have a staff augmentation person, at the bottom of the totem pole and inside "the machine." It just doesn't work. If you don't agree, post a comment and I'll explain why in more detail.

With contractor coaches out of the mix, the question is, consultant or full-time?

Working with a Full-Time Agile Coach

As a paid employee of the company, the full-time agile coach is in it for the long haul. They are directly invested in the long-term well-being of the company, often in the extremely measurable form of stocks and options.

While still relatively uncommon, there are several notable companies using full-time coaches to help their ScrumMasters and Scrum teams. Salesforce.com, for example, uses full-time coaches with a large and dedicated team of internal agile coaches to support its more than 1,500 Scrum teams. Some other companies that have used full-time coaches include AOL, Yahoo, Twitter, LendingClub, Fitbit, Costco, and General Electric.

Benefits of hiring a full-time coach: It is an oft-stated truism that you are never truly done with an agile transformation. It's an ongoing journey that never ends. And if your journey is never truly over, having a full-time coach means you have someone helping you no matter where you are in your journey.

Think of it this way: When the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl (again), did they say, "Oh, we're the best now, so we don't need our coaches anymore"? Not bloodly likely. While a sports team coaching staff may change, what doesn't change is the need for coaching. Having a full-time coach means you always have access to this critical resource.

Something else you gain is organizational knowledge. There is only so much you can learn about a company in the common ninety-day consulting arrangement. Your full-time coach knows the people, the process, the history, and where all the potholes are. They don't have to "come up to speed," and they have plenty of time to build strong relationships.

Downsides of hiring a full-time coach: The downside to a full-time coach is that being part of the system impacts their ability to effect large-scale change. Unless your agile coach is a vice president or higher, with a big army of directs, they rarely have the positional or role authority to make changes. This leaves them working from within the system to influence policy.

This can slow down change, and if you are just starting out, it can make it hard on the coach and the company—often leading to the transformation failing and the coach looking for a new job. Just a note: When this happens, it's usually not the coach’s fault. But it’s still a bad outcome for all involved.

Working with a Consultant Agile Coach

Consultant agile coaches are the hired guns of the business world. They have deep expertise and a broad background of knowledge gleaned from many past clients. The consultant's job is to come in, solve the problem, and then ride off into the sunset while you murmur, "Who was that masked coach?"

Benefits of hiring an agile consultant: They are the expert. You hire them because they have a deep well of knowledge about your situation. They know how to fix most problems, and thanks to the hired-gun aura, they can get the solutions in place.

In contrast to a full-time coach, even the lowest-tier consultant carries authority equal to a director and often even has the ability to go all the way up to the CEO to direct what should be done. When you need something done fast, hiring a consultant is often the most expedient solution.

Downsides of hiring an agile consultant: Eventually, your “hero for hire” is going to leave. And that is usually a fixed-schedule event—it's the rare consultant who adopts a scope-driven contract and stays until the work is done. Just like your average product release, they have a fixed schedule and way more features than they can ever hope to deliver.

This requires the consultant to work fast to get everything done. And, like in software, when you work under a deadline, you can end up sacrificing quality or documentation. When the consultant rides off into the sunset, your implementation may be incomplete, have undetected flaws, still have organizational resistance, or lack the education handoff needed to sustain the change. I know of many agile transformations that were initial successes and then slid back into their old waterfall ways because they lacked a sustaining force.

It should be noted that not all consulting firms are created equal. From the “single shingle” through the dedicated consulting firms to the resource pool firms, they all have pluses and minuses. Choose the one that works with your organization.

Choose What Your Company Needs to Succeed

So, do you go with a full-time coach or an agile consultant?

In a word, yes. For a successful agile transformation to take hold in an enterprise company, you must take a little from column A and a little from column B.

Start by hiring a good enterprise-class agile consultant. Bring them in to help you find your path and get you on it. They will have the ability to overcome the institutional inertia and get the transformation rolling. Part of their transformation work is to set you up for continued success after they leave. Before that, they need to help you raise up an internal resource or bring in an external resource to carry on as your full-time coach.

The full-time coach will then continue forward using the momentum of the agile consultant. They will keep the transformation on the rails and act as the guides whenever things start to get lost.

By combining the authority change-agent power of the consultant with the stable expertise of the full-time coach, you will greatly enhance the chances you will be successful in your agile transformation in the long run.

User Comments

Clifford Berg's picture

Some strong recommendations and some things I disagree with. At the end, the author recommends, “Start by hiring a good enterprise-class agile consultant.” Indeed. That is the best advice I could offer as well. The challenge is, it is really hard to find them. They are usually not at the big firms - they are in boutique ones. The good ones don't usually like working for big consulting firms because they want to focus on their work - not on the pressure to win more business or work their way up toward partner. But how do you find one?

The best way is to look at what they write. The good consultants publish. Read about Agile and DevOps and take note of who is writing it, and if they are a consultant. If you like what you read, reach out to them.

It is also hard to find long term coaches. It is just the personality of a coach: they tend to be nomads. Even if you hire them, you won't keep most of them. They are among the most restless in the IT community, which is pretty restless as a whole. So I advise to forget about long term coaches - probably won't pan out.

Also, it is important to realize that team coaches cannot effect much change. That takes the "enterprise-class agile consultant" that the author refers to. That person is able to effect real change if, and only if, (1) they have the cover and authority of a senior executive behind them, and (2) they really know what they are doing. Let me parse that out:

A consultant, no matter how respected, will still not get on the calendars of senior managers, unless the consultant can say truthfully that "the CIO says I need to meet with you". The consultant also will not get access to teams, to see what is happening on the ground, unless the consultant can say, "The CIO told me to". And finally, the consultant needs to understand the whole breadth of IT - development, security, architecture, release management, and so on - otherwise the consultant will not be able to have intelligent conversations with the senior IT managers to help develop a vision with each of them. And that also means that the consultant needs to know contemporary models - DevOps models, in addition to a-lot of experience with Agile approaches that work in large organizations - because many standard Agile practices don't.


July 5, 2018 - 11:34am
Joel Bancroft-Connors's picture

Thanks, for the comments. 

You're dead on about there being many kinds of consulting firms. I looked to include something about this in the article and realized that it was a whole article itself. I do have a bias for the smaller consulting firms myself, so I would underline your advice on articles. Look at what individuals and companies are writing. If you find something that resonates, pursue that person or company. 

Regarding long term coaches, I've been a long-term coach before and I know several long standing FTE coaches. I find a lot of the restlessness has to do more with companies not being mature enough to make space for a permananent coach. I definately would not advise skipping long-term coaches. Just becuase it's hard to find good ones, does not make it not worthwhile. In many ways it is a sign of just how important they can be. 

Getting the right support is a given. It's true no matter if you are a consultant or FTE coach. Then again, this isn't anything new to agile. It's true with any knid of change. 

Thanks again for the great comments. 

July 15, 2018 - 6:00pm
Doug Husovsky's picture

Using Agile consultants, you are setting up the company for a long-term failure. With no plan for what happens next, or relying only on the consultant the knowledge will walk out the door and with it the ability for the program to succeed. 

Unless one is working with leadership to have a comprehensive plan to put internal coaches in place prior to the departure of the hired gun teams will have no one to turn to at the most critical point of the transformation.  Teams will have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. This normally coincides with the time of the departure of the paid consultant. 

If internal resources are kept in a separate silo the issues without having influence or being influenced by others within the organization. By keeping them separate you can create an organization that can work across the company supporting teams of all areas.

July 5, 2018 - 1:11pm
Joel Bancroft-Connors's picture


You're right. If the external consultants don't have a plan, that includes how the transformation will be sustained after they leave, it's a recipe for disaster. Of course, some consulting firms plans are to never leave. They get a foot in the door and they stay as long as they can. That's not what a good and ethical agile consultant should do. 

When you go to hire an agile consultant, you want to be asking them "So, what's your exit plan?" It's part of the engagement plan. 

July 15, 2018 - 6:05pm
Scott Duncan's picture

I agree with Doug. I believe it is a responsibility of an external coach to develop an internal coaching capability for the organization that contracts with her/him. It's a bad sign iof that is a goal of the engagement. Long-term, embedded coaching is, also, a bad sign since an organization that is serious about moving to an Agile way of working and a coach really able to help them should have demonstrable results in that direction in a few months with less frequent involvement of the coach for a few more months. If after 6 months, the organization is not ready to fly on their own with little further help from he coach, something is not right on one side of the contract or the other. [I will agree that organizational size would affect this schedule and adding further parts of an organization would affect the time as well. but the general idea would remain.]

July 5, 2018 - 5:57pm

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