Agile Consultants vs Agile Coaches

It is common practice in the Agile Community for everyone to call themselves a “Coach”.  We’ve even stratified coaches, Transformation Coach, Enterprise Coach, Team Coach. What is a Coach and how does it differ from a Consultant?  How do you know which you need?

There are different definitions for Coach out there, for this article we’ll use the following:

Coach:  Helps people become their best selves through inquiry and introspection.  Draws on the knowledge and direction that is already there, without imparting their own expertise or knowledge.

Consultant: Brings specific expertise and knowledge, tailors strategies and solutions based on expertise and experience.

To be fair, the Agile Community has bundled these both into one role.  There are a few very dynamic individuals out there that can play both roles.  Most can’t. Here are some guidelines on sorting through Coaches.

I view the Consultant as “building the engine” and the Coach as “gas and oil to make it run.”  (or electricity if you have a Tesla)

You need a Consultant when:

  • Your organization doesn’t know what to do.  Either you don’t know where to start, or you don’t know how to break through a plateau.  In this case, you need specific knowledge and experience to help you build a strategy and plot a course.
  • Your organization is not bought into the change.  If you need someone to sell executives on the need for change, to show ROI projections and evangelize, you need a consultant.  Many coaches will not work in an organization that is not bought in, consultants need to pave the way.

You need a Coach when:

  • The culture change is hard.  Your organization has old patterns to break and emotional blockers to knock down.  Coaches will work with people individually and as a group to overcome emotional barriers.
  • You’re asking people to change their mindset.  When people shift into empowerment and self-organization, the change needs ongoing coaching in order to break the old habits.  A single training won’t suffice, you need someone challenging people to work in new ways.
  • Your organization has faith in the strategy.  Coaching is really difficult to measure. Unless your organization believes that getting people aligned and empowered is the right thing to do, you will have a really hard time justifying coaches.  Also, it's really hard to coach if the organization undermines the coaches.

Is my Coach really a Coach?  Many of the Agile Coaches out there are actually Agile Subject Matter Experts.  They know what needs to be done, but they lack the Coaching Competencies to get it done. A great many Agile Coaches are actually trainers.  If you truly need a coach, you’ll need to verify that your candidate can actually get situational with the team, and not simply preach.

Here are some interview questions to help you separate true coaches vs trainers vs subject matter experts:

“Tell me about a time you coached a someone to overcome a blocker?”  Look for actual examples and beware of answers that start with “I told them to…”  Real answers will contain failed attempts before they were able to be successful.

“What is the biggest challenge you face as a coach?  And how do you handle it?” Some red flags to look for are answers like “people don’t do what I say” vs forces working against them i.e. “leadership enforcing top-down thinking undermines the team priorities.”  The key to either answer lies in what they are doing about it.

How do I measure coaching effectiveness?
Because coaches are not responsible for outcomes, the only way to measure a coach is qualitatively.  If the people being coached feel that they are valuable, then the coach is valuable. Make sure to probe for co-dependent relationships that can develop.  If people love the coach because the coach is doing the work, then they may love them for the wrong reasons.

Have teams assess their coach for things like:

  • shifts our thinking
  • helps us overcome emotional blockers
  • shows us how to resolve conflict
  • creates space for us to come up with solutions

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!