Hiring an agile coach

A colleague of mine was once asked for help in creating a job description for an agile coach. One of the suggestions was “5 years of agile project management experience”. Though longevity is certainly helpful, it is not sufficient to find a good coach.

For example, I once heard a presentation at a software architecture user group meeting from an agile practitioner. The guy presenting had done agile for a couple of years, all at the same company; he had no diversity of experience and had found the way to implement agile within his context. The examples were all slanted towards what his team had found to be effective, yet they were not explained that way. For example – “you always do a burn-down within a sprint and a burn-up for a release”, without discussing the differences and explaining why they did it that way. The audience had no agile experience and almost came away with the perspective that agile was just another process.

If this guy had spent 5 years in the same environment, I think he’d have had the same myopic perspective of agile. If he took a job as an agile coach, he probably would have coached what worked for him in his old company without considering the client’s context.

I think there are other factors that are at least as important as tenure to seek in an agile coach.

Seek diversity in your agile coach.

That is – diversity across

  • technical stacks (not just yours)
  • business domains (not just yours)
  • team sizes (both large and small)
  • multi-team and single team.
  • local and distributed (across both building floors and oceans)
  • internal and external projects

Seek experience doing (working as a part of an agile team) as well as experience coaching. Agile coaches (or coaches in any endeavor) can lose perspective of the practical challenges in implementing agile if they dedicate all of their time to coaching. On the other hand, a good practitioner is not necessarily a good coach.

Seek strong communication skills. Find someone who is comfortable and effective communicating to the team, to project managers, iteration managers, and line managers and to executive management.

Seek a coach who is more pragmatic than dogmatic. For example avoid a coach who might seek to change your estimation scale at the outset, or who insists that all stories should be broken into tasks without understanding the context in which you operate.

One of my favorite questions I suggest you ask a potential coach: “What do you suggest we seek in an agile coach?”. If the first answer is certification, be wary.

In any question you ask, beware answers that do not take your organization’s context into account.

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