“Arrrrgghhhh” I let my head fall to my desk with a resounding thud. I let the momentum of the bounce carry my head down again, and again, and again. Honestly I’m surprised my desk hasn’t broken with the number of times my head and it have come into repeated and violent contact.
I honestly don’t know how Don Quixote was able to tilt at all those windmills. After months of tilting at windmills I was utterly wiped out. It seemed every time I made a little progress, something would come along and drag me back into the quagmire of command and control planning cycles.
“How on earth am I supposed to engineer an agile transformation when no one in the organization even knows what agile is?” I muttered into the darkness of my office.
“That’s your problem” came a reply from out of that darkness.
I sighed. Just what I needed, as if trying to swim against the tide of anti-agile wasn’t enough, now I had to deal with my 800-pound gorilla conscience telling me just what I did wrong.
Looming out of the darkness, I could just make out Hogarth’s outline. “What now, Hogarth? Can’t you see I’m busy denting my desk?”
He gave a nod as he settled onto the edge of my desk. The desk gave a groan of protest, which Hogarth ignored instead producing a branch of bamboo from somewhere. The only bamboo I knew of in the office was in the CEO’s office and I cringed to think of what worse could happen to me if the CEO found out my gorilla ate his plant. “Relax” he said, waving the bamboo at me. “Bamboo plants over-night from Amazon prime.” He pointed at the spot where my head had been impacting the desk, “so problems with the agile transformation again?”
I leaned back with a sigh, “Yes,” I rubbed my face, “they know they want to go agile, but they haven’t the first clue what it is and every time I try and suggest something I get pigeonholed back into my little box. I can’t make any progress because they haven’t even gotten started. Resistance to change is high. I don’t know what to do.”
Hogarth shrugged, “not much now. It’s what should have been done before you even got here.”
I looked at him confused, “Huh?”
“Before you can pave the road, the path must first be found.”
I glared at my gorilla. He had a knack for pulling just the right quote from history to make his point and I’d been burned enough times by this that I was learning to ask before snapping. “Okay, who said that?”
“I did,” Hogarth said with a certain amount of smugness.
I blinked. He’d done it to me again. Just when I thought I had this whole invisible, conscience gorilla thing figured out he’d done it again. Then I stopped and blinked again. Realization dawned on me. He’d done it twice.
“The path must be found…” I muttered.
Should I hire an Agile Contractor, Agile Consultant, or Agile FTE Coach?
In my last blog, “To FTE or not to FTE” I looked at the Consultant, Contractor, FTE question from the point of view of the Agile Coach. Here I want to discuss it from the hiring company’s perspective. What are the pros and cons of hiring different types of agile coaches?
Full Time Agile Coach: A paid employee of the company, the Full Time Agile Coach is in 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 scrum masters and scrum teams. As I write this I’m working for AOL as one of four internal coaches. Salesforce.com has a large agile coach team to support its 1500 plus scrum teams. Other companies I know that have used full-time coaches at some point are Twitter, Lending Club, Fit Bit 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 when or where you are in your journey. Think of it this way, when the Denver Broncos won the Superbowl, in Feb 2016, did they say “Oh we’re the best now, we don’t need our coaches anymore?” Not likely, while sports team coaching staff may change, what doesn’t change is the need for them. Having the 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 30-90 day consulting arrangement. Your full time coach knows the people, the process, the history and where all the minefields are. They don’t have to “come up to speed” and 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 role, with a big army of directs, they rarely have the positional / role authority to make changes. This leaves them working from within the system on their influence power. This can slow down change and if you are just starting out, can make it very hard on the coach and the company. Often to the point of the transformations failing and the coach looking for a new job. When this happens, it is not usually not the coaches fault.
Consultant Agile Coach: The hired guns of the business world. The have deep expertise and a broad background of knowledge gleaned from many clients and past jobs. 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 to hiring an Agile Consultant: They are the expert. You hire them because they have a deep well of knowledge on your problem. They know how to fix pretty much any problem you may have and thanks to the “hired gun” aura, they can actually get the problems fixed. Even the lowest tier consultant carries the authority equal to a director (a manager of managers) and often has the aura of authority to go all the way up to the CEO and direct what should be done. When you need something done and done fast, hiring a consultant is often the most expedient solution.
Downside 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 stays until the work is done (scope driven). So 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 pressure deadline, they will often 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 hand-off 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.
Consultants also come in two major flavors, Independent and “Firm”.
The independent consultant is a sole proprietor business, sometimes with a support staff and sometimes not. They can also range from the small name shop up to a “named” agile thought leader. When you hire an independent you know you have their attention. If you hire one of the “names” you also get their specific expertise, which is often what everyone else bases their work on (If you hire Jeff Sutherland, you know you’ve got the expert on Scrum theory). However the Indie is also always going to be partially unfocused. They always have to be sourcing their next client. Even with a support staff, you often need the consultant to make sales calls to close deals. For the smaller independents, they can be a great choice for a small company getting started.
Hiring a “Firm” means you are often getting the combined knowledge of the whole organization. Even if only one coach shows up, that coach has the backing of their firm and can tap into the tribal knowledge. Three of the most notable firms that fall into this category are SolutionsIQ, Leading Agile, LeanDog and Thoughtworks. Other Firms are more like a talent scout, finding really good independent talent and connecting them with the best fit. cPrime and Agile Transformations are a great example of this type as they work with many independent coaches, while also having an internal practice org that supports them. Hiring a Firm comes with a lot of benefits on the engagement, however they can often be more expensive than the small indie coach. Though likely less expensive than one of the “named” independents.
Contractor Agile Coach: The hourly agile coach. Like the brilliant coffee aficionado, working behind the Starbucks counter, their knowledge and skills are often not seen or used because of the perception they are just a “temp” or the “hired help”. Added to all the other issues, contractors have plenty of rules around them so that they never really one of your employees and rarely have support from a parent company like a consultant.
Benefits to hiring an Agile Coach Contractor: There isn’t. Companies that hire contractor coaches are losing out on nearly all the benefits of either the FTE or the Consultant. The only real value comes in the lower costs and being able to source them from contract firms (there are several that either specialize in agile or do a lot of agile business). However, you get what you pay for. While scrum masters as contractors works out okay, coaches as contractors is bad for the coach, bad for the business and I’m not aware of any successfully sustained successful transformations with a contractor coach.
Downside of hiring an Agile Coach Contractor: You get what you paid for. Contractors are usually considered “Staff Augmentation.” This puts them into the org structure like an FTE, only they generally end up at the bottom of the social and role power pecking order. Coaches need to have stability or authority to operate and get neither as a contractor. As Nancy Reagan used to say “Just say no.”
Let’s get the hard and fast out of the way. Never hire an agile coach as a contractor. While this is an excellent tactic for a Scrum Master, for an agile coach you are getting none of the benefits and all the of downsides possible. It may save you money and it may be easy. And you will get exactly what you pay for. Every company I’ve heard of, that tried to use contractor coaches to work an agile transformation, has not only failed to make any real change, they have burned through multiple coaches and gotten a poor reputation in the agile community.
So then, Consultant or FTE Coach?
My belief and recommendation is that for a successful agile transformation to take hold in an enterprise company, one must take a little from column A and a little from column B.
Start by hiring a good enterprise-class agile consulting company. 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 though is to set you up for success once they have left. Before they leave 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 (or coaches) will then carry forward using the inertia of the agile consulting firm. 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 the long run.