This is the fifth Advisor in the series “Ingredients for Enterprise Agility,” in which I share practical lessons from leading Agile transformations as a coach. Enterprise coaching combines in-depth knowledge of contextual Agile with cultural change techniques. In previous articles in this series, I outlined the transformational change necessary to create enterprise agility (Part I). In Part II, I discussed using a plan to create structure and alignment for the transition. In Part III, I outlined the leadership team’s role in transformation. Finally, Part IV suggested how to create and maintain transformational momentum. In this Advisor, I describe the role of the Agile coach in supporting and enabling enterprise agility.
Agile enterprises tend to be leaders at every level: profitability, customer centricity, brand awareness, market position, efficiency, and employee commitment. The essence of Agile needed to reach these levels is teamwork, but it is also about the context — doing the right things for your organization, your team, and your product or service. Creating enterprise agility is first and foremost about making your organization deliver profitably for your customers. But how?
Virtually all successful enterprises on this planet have been through similar life cycles. They start as an entrepreneurial network with a few hard and fast rules. Then, the organization collaboratively grows, and that growth comes at a cost. The enterprise develops structure and process to deliver to its customers and reliably manage its affairs. As time passes, it loses its entrepreneurial spirit, is slow to adapt, and experiences performance stagnation.
Changing the organization from where it is to where it wants to be is predominantly about learning. It is about individuals learning new roles, and collectively learning how to adapt to market changes and opportunities.
Do Not Use a Big-Name Consultancy!
At some point, a decision is made that the organization must become more agile. The choice to use Agile may be in response to a threat, or simply because a C-suite executive has discovered an article, been to a conference, or heard something about a competitor. Rarely does this individual understand at the outset the breadth and depth of the ramifications of his or her decision. In the eyes of many organizational leaders, agile is a stand-in for:
Enhancing its market position by delivering solutions faster
Improving customer satisfaction, while at the same time
Reducing operational costs, and often
Increasing solution quality
Previously, when faced with a significant business challenge, senior executives would use their professional networks to engage a big-name consultancy. The consultancy paratroops would be brought in and the desired result would be achieved. This pattern rarely works with enterprise agility, however. Why? It is because of the way named consultancies operate.
Most named consultancies use something known as a levered model, where senior managers leverage services provided by more junior staff, often recent master’s graduates. The junior staff are given a playbook and do the work, while the senior managers oversee customer expectations and stakeholders. That approach yields excellent results for clients in many situations, but not in the case of Agile transformations.
There are two consequences of consulting leverage in an Agile transformation:
The junior players have insufficient experience to affect the desired cultural changes. Cultural change is not like market analysis, modeling, or process outcomes, which are the bread and butter of consultancies. The people dimension of an Agile transformation requires a balance of experience, knowledge, presence, credibility, and persistence. If these elements are inappropriately applied, then resistance is encountered. Too much persistence without experience or credibility leads to resistance. Too little persistence results in a stalled transformation. The key factor is the personal experience of the consultant, and recent graduates lack experience.
The use of a playbook means that a standard pattern previously used by the consultancy is applied to the enterprise. I recently worked alongside the same consultancy in two separate insurance companies. These insurance companies had totally different products, go-to-market strategies, and customers. The only commonality was the market sector. Yet, the consultancy used the same playbook at both insurance companies, with identical strategic and implementation recommendations. Even the words on some of the slide materials were precisely the same! Luckily, the senior management team in the second insurance company saw through the consultancy gambit and chose a more relevant path. By using a playbook, a consultancy may inadvertently change a fundamental part of an organization. Thus, the use of any pattern by a consultant that suggests what to change rather than how to change should be treated with caution.
In traditional consultancy assignments, things are “done” to an organization. Though outcomes are realized, the enterprise hasn’t learned from the journey. Instead, the consultancy provides a sort of black box experience consisting of inputs and outputs from which an organization does not learn.
The purpose of an Agile transformation is to create an adaptive learning organization. This learning starts with the initial change to agile activities, as these are precisely the mechanisms the agile enterprise uses.
The Role of the Coach
The role of an Agile coach is not to do the organizational change, but to facilitate it. More explicitly, the coach’s role is to enable the organization to change itself. In contrast to the black box formulated approach from the consultancy, a coach works with people at all levels on the change journey. The coach starts the learning process by helping the organization get comfortable with the new ways of working, providing tools and techniques for others to use. In contrast to the consultancy black box, a coach provides the support with absolute transparency.
Furthermore, Agile coaches give contextual support — they tailor advice and changes in process to the situation. This is inevitable, because the coach is working across all levels in the organization to effect the change. Operating outside of that context, the coach would not be able to provide the evidence needed to convince people across the organization to adapt or transform.
According to Lyssa Adkins’s Agile Coaches Competency Framework, an Agile coach requires a profound knowledge of lean-agile practices. Their ability to teach, mentor, facilitate, and coach is combined with Technical Mastery, Business Mastery or Transformational Mastery to assist in planning, organizing, and enabling transformational change. As a result, the organization learns how to adapt and become confident with its evolutionary process. In this scenario, the enterprise uses a third party as a mentor along the path to agility, rather than using a third party to “do” organizational change.
Both the coach and the organizational leaders need to remember that the enterprise's DNA is its brand, which propels its market share and its ability to recruit. It is essential that the organization only change in ways that enhance the brand or improve performance. The positive elements of its DNA are naturally preserved when the coach supports the change team and facilitates the transformation, as the push for enterprise agility comes from within the organization.
The Coach as a Catalyst for Change
In Part III of this series, I outlined how transformations should use single-thread owners who have the transformation as their only responsibility. Typically, an Agile coach also has a single focus: enabling the transformational activity. The Agile coach works with the single-thread owners and volunteers to make change happen.
The chemical definition of a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change. In my mind, though acting as a catalyst by increasing the rate of change, the Agile coach does undergo a permanent change. This permanent change is in the area of personal learning. I have never undertaken a transformational activity without learning. Being a catalyst requires energy, enthusiasm, knowledge, and interpersonal skills. It also involves being an instigator and influencer of transformational change. To be an effective catalyst, the Agile coach needs to:
Envision the possible. The Agile coach must have the ability to candidly and carefully reject the status quo.
Be passionate about organizational renewal. The coach must be able to seek or see the enormous potential in the organizational workforce and then harness its collective intelligence, energy, and purpose.
Place the needs of the organization and teams of people before their own needs. A past colleague of mine had a sign on his desk that read, “You can achieve anything provided you do not care who takes the credit!” I think this displays an excellent coaching attitude and stance.
Build confidence in others. An Agile transformation involves altering behaviors, learning new skills, and forgetting old habits. The catalyst must have the ability to meet people where they are and give them confidence to take the next step.
Develop purposeful relationships. A transformation is a collaborative journey. A catalyst needs to develop relationships and make connections that remove impediments and create partnerships during the journey.
Constantly Collaborate. Keep in mind that the catalyst’s job is to enable others to change rather than to thrust change upon them, and collaboration is the key.
Enable momentum. Some say this is creating or maintaining the transformation heartbeat. Enabling a steady flow of successes and progress towards the end goal is essential. The more success is identified, the less resistance can build against the transformation.
Be obsessed with learning. Peter Senge once said, “Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human”. Through learning, the catalyst establishes, develops, and refines the complex skillset that makes him or her effective.
In this Advisor, I have outlined how an Agile coach is used in guiding transformational change, and summarized some of the pitfalls of using a traditional management consulting approach to create enterprise agility. I have also summarized some of the behavioral attributes needed by an enterprise coach to lead a transformation. In my next Advisor, I will consider why the Agile world seems obsessed with pointless certifications.