6 Questions to ask before hiring your next agile coach

It’s safe to say Agile software delivery is here for good. With so many agile coaches in Chicago, where I live and out there in general, it’s helpful to understand the differences between them so you can make an informed decision when hiring one for a full-time role or a consulting engagement. What follows will help you craft the right questions so you can get the appropriate help for your unique environment.

1. Do they have the right background?

No two agile coaches are the same. They might come from project management, technology development, from a business background, or maybe they a former English teacher. You’ll need to look deep into the backgrounds of those you are looking to hire to ensure they have the right experience for the position.

If they will be working with technical teams helping to improve delivery, a technical background is key. Experts in technology will more quickly respect and respond to someone who has been in their shoes. If you’re looking to make bigger change in an organization, look for someone with broad experience and interests. Here are some other questions you should be asking:

2. Do they have scaling experience?

If you’re working with multiple teams that have to stay coordinated, its best to find someone that has a deep understanding of how to scale up software development by scaling up the number of teams. Challenges teams face include issues communicating with one another, integrating and testing their work with the other teams, and in the hardest cases, working with teams and individuals that are scattered across different buildings, different countries and even drastically different time zones.

Scaling is hard and an agile coach with the right experience can help guide you to success. Be sure to find someone who understands scaling principles as well as scaling practices. Many scaled efforts fail to produce the desired results because they apply merely the structure to scale and ignore the people issues that inevitably derail the best intentions. Find someone who understands the process, technology, and especially the people side of change.

3. What is the length of engagement?

You need to know is If you’re going to bring someone on full-time or for a short-term engagement. This will impact where you look for talent, how you interview them and how they fit into your organizational plans.

If you’re looking for someone full-time, you’ll want someone who can fit in to your culture. You’ll want someone that wants to grow with your team. To play the internal consultant role well, they’ll need to have a culturally compatible approach while not losing the impact they bring as someone with outside experience. This is tough to balance. Often when consultants work an engagement for too long, they start to become shaped by that organization reducing their impact. In The Secrets of Consulting, Gerald Weinberg calls this the “pickled” effect, when “cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered.”  Find an agile coach who is privy to the danger of getting “pickled” and knows how to avoid it. You’ll have better luck looking locally since it can be more challenging to find someone willing to relocate for work. Often locals you’ll find to take up a full-time position will have more experience working with fewer total companies but will have local experience and a local network. This is good if you’re looking for someone who can fit in to an organization since they will have demonstrated the ability to embed themselves. However, they may not have enough variety in their experience to identify common patterns across many companies and regions and apply common solutions.

If you’re looking for an agile coach for a short-term engagement, then you’ll be looking for someone else entirely. You’ll need someone who has broad experience working with many different kinds of clients. They’ll likely be traveling into your location. They’ll bring a fresh perspective and be able to maintain it, and they’ll be able to spot patterns and advise on reusable practices applied at other clients. However, beware they’re not the taming type. They’ll do their work and move on to the next engagement like many nomadic consultants eventually do.

4. Is their approach broad enough?

What stance an agile coach takes will be different in different situations. Sometimes they will need to play a professional coach. In this stance, they will not have all the answers but may be able to guide their client to solutions through the use of questions and facilitation skills. Be sure to find someone naturally curious to not appear manipulative. They should have a good handle on the different types of questions that could be asked, when to use which, and how to lead a discussion. In the interview, be sure to ask them about the different categories of questions they use when working with a team to get a sense of their depth of knowledge in how to use questions.

Sometimes an agile coach will need to be a teacher. They should feel comfortable giving a 20-minute presentation on anything to a group of people and I recommend you ask them to do so. They should be okay with getting up in front of people. They should be cool and confident answering hard questions under pressure. You should make this part of the interview process.

At other times an agile coach will need to be an advisor. If they have the experience necessary to be an agile coach, they should feel comfortable sharing that knowledge in an easy-to-digest format. A skilled advisor knows when to offer advice and when to not. Quiz them on when they would offer direct advice to a client and when they would not.

A good agile coach will know which stance to play in what situation. If they are in an environment in which you expect them to teach, they should be teaching. It’s common for agile coaches to gravitate toward one stance and use it all the time. However, a good agile coach will teach when the client needs to be taught, advise when the client needs good advice, mentor when growing others, and coach when the client needs to find their own answers. Ask them if they know the stances of an agile coach.

5. How articulate are they?

If your agile coach cannot clearly explain difficult concepts in a brief and concise manner, they probably don’t know it well enough. Assuming they do know it well, if they cannot clearly communicate and articulate difficult-to-understand topics in an interview, they’ll surely struggle to explain it to people doing the work and struggle to earn the respect of your organization.

Ask easy questions about the difference between agile and lean. Ask what a Scrum Master is and is not. Ask about the business benefits you might expect from an agile organization. Ask why they got into this line of work. All of the above are simple enough questions that you should be able to gauge how well they can articulate ideas.

6. Are they influential?

An agile coach who can’t influence is like a developer who can’t code. Influence is an agile coach’s bread and butter. Influence takes great people skills. It requires strong relationships. It takes communication skills. And sometimes it requires a bit of strategy. You should ask how your agile coach intends to spread ideas and how they plan to change minds. If all they can say is “this needs to be top down” they are passing the buck and I would recommend you thank them for their time and keep looking.

Closing

It’s not easy choosing an agile coach. With so many in Chicago and nationwide for that matter, you’ll need to be choosy. You need the right person with the right assets such as great people skills and the ability to influence without authority. It’s important to find someone with deep domain knowledge, someone who’s done this before at several organizations. Most importantly, you will need to know what you’re looking for,  know what skills are needed or your situation. You’ll need to know the length of engagement are you after and your long term plans. Read my blog on Why and How I Become an Agile Coach and Trainer to gain more insight on my motivations. Arm yourself with the right questions and you’ll find the right person in no time at all.

Robert Pieper

I like Metalcore, and cupcakes.