Coaching vs Capability Building

If you work for a large organisation and you want to transform the way you work to be more agile, what's the first thing you do? Chances are it's hiring a coach or two. That's not a bad way to start. Experienced people to guide the transformation make things much easier. But what do you do once the first pilot is done, you have proven that it works and demand is growing? More and more people are wanting agility. Your current coaches can't handle the load. What do you do?

What most organisations do is here some more coaches. And some more coaches, and more coaches and more as demand continues to grow. Now, as an agile coach, this has kept me in work for many years so I may be shooting myself in the foot a little when I say that this is a really lousy way to do an agile transformation. Yes, that's right. You heard it. An agile coach says that hiring a bunch of agile coaches is not a good way to transform an organisation. Let's look at why and then look at how we can do things better.

So why is hiring a bunch of coaches not a great way to run a transformation? Well the first is just cost. We coaches do not come cheap. You will be forking over at least a grand a day for a decent coach, probably much more. By the time you add in recruiter/agency commissions plus other costs, each of your coaches will be costing minimum two, probably two and a half grand a day. That adds up pretty quick. Ten coaches and your agile transformation which was probably sold as faster, better and above all cheaper is now costing you 25 grand a day. A cool half million a month. Just on coaches. 

And is ten coaches going to be enough? Not if you are a large company. Say each coach can handle say 100 people (which is a stretch) that's only 1,000 people being coached. You are an organisation of 20,000. To coach that many you would need 200 coaches. There are two problems with this, first, you would be spending 10 million a month on those coaches and second, there just aren't that many good coaches. There aren't even that many bad coaches. The speed of your transformation will be limited by the size of your coaching pool. You simply can't hire enough coaches to cover the whole organisation. You can't hire enough to cover even a fraction of your organisation.

Sure, you can be strategic about it and do the transformation area by area, but what happens to the areas that are being held back? They want agility as well. It just takes too long. If you have 10 coaches coaching 1,000 people let's say it takes 6 months to get those teams to a point where the coach can start to move on. They they start on the next 1,000 and spend another 6 months there. At that rate it will take them 10 years to get the whole organisation done. During that time you have a patchwork of agile and non-agile areas with messy interfaces between them and the resulting confusion ends up costing you time and money.

You just can't hire enough coaches to succesfuly transform a large organisation.

But there is another problem with coaches as well - they are external to your organisation. We are most often contractors, we won't be working for you long term. Relying on contractor coaches means that all your agile IP is external to your organisation. When they leave, so does agile. Sure you can try to make the coaches full timers but this comes with its own problems. You are essentially buying in agile knowledge. It is very easy for the rest of the organisation to see agility as being something that is being imposed from outside rather than being something the organisation is embracing for itself. This gets even worse if you do, as many organisations do, start hiring in experienced scrum masters as well. And experienced agile developers and analysts. Long term staff see the new world as being something that has to come from outside. There is nowhere in it for them. You can lose a lot of good people that way as long term staff jump ship because they can't see a future for their non-agile skills. You get resistance. You get resentment. You get a whole raft of problems to deal with.

At best, relying on external agile skills will give you an organisation that sees agile as being something you do. Not something you are. Because all the skills are external, the organisation never internalises agility. It never becomes part of its culture. It becomes just another process to follow.

So how do we solve this? Is there a way to transform a large organisation relatively quickly, that won't cost a fortune, will let the organisation retain its long term staff and also get agility embedded into the organisational culture? I think there is. And yes (to the great relief of my colleagues) it still involves coaches.

Let's go back to our hypothetical organisation and rewind time a little to the point where they have a couple of coaches and they have just finished a successful pilot. Demand for agility is growing, what should the organisation do? Hire more coaches? We've seen where that leads. What is our alternative?

Imagine that as part of the pilot, the coaches had spent some time building up a strong core group of agile champions within the pilot teams. Really strong scrum masters, experienced product owners, strong agile leaders. They are probably doing that already but only enough for the pilot teams - 5 teams = 5 good scrum masters and 5 product owners and so on. Imagine that you had twice that number. A group of strong agilists you could take from the pilot and move to somewhere else in the organisation to seed a new area with the help of the coaches.

Now imagine that part of their job in the new area was to train another strong group of agilists (again with the coaches' help) that could then spread out onto other new areas. Five agile champions who train another five each who then train another five each and so on. Five become thirty (original five plus 25 new ones) who then become 155 and so on. In each 6 month iteration you expand your capability. Your original 2 coaches, within a relatively short time, have become a small army of agile champions who can transform your organisation.

This is an exponentially growing agile army. The great thing about exponential growth is that it doesn't take very long to cover your whole organisation. If you run through that cycle 4 times you end up with close to 1,000 agile champions in your organisation. That's enough to transform your entire business. In 2 years not 10.

Even better, this small army is made up of your permanent staff. This isn't something the organisation is buying in from outside, it is something they are growing from within. It is inclusive. You have an army of people who can explain the change to the rest of your staff in terms they will understand. Your staff can see a future for themselves in this new agile world.

Your agile coaches should not be just coaching teams. They should be actively building a transformation capability within your organisation. That should be their primary job. Use the coaches' experience to build strong agile capability. Then use that capability, not your coaches, to transform your organisation. The coaches support the transformation, they don't perform it.

How would this work in practice? Let's take a look at that next time.