What is an Enterprise-level Agile Coach? When people use the term “Agile Coach” it is often not exactly clear what they mean. Most often, what they’re talking about is what I would call a team-level Agile Coach. That is someone who works at a tactical level with individual members of an Agile team to help them become more proficient in executing an Agile development process such as Scrum. There is very little standardization or certification for what it takes to become an “Agile Coach” at that level and almost anyone could claim to be an “Agile Coach”.
Beyond that; however, there is a different kind of Agile coaching role at an enterprise-level that needs to be better-defined and differentiated from a normal team-level “Agile Coach” role. The enterprise-level role is someone who works at a more strategic level to integrate an Agile development process with a company’s business. That role is not well-defined at all and the difference between the team-level role and the enterprise-level role is also not clearly differentiated. It is assumed that someone who has “Agile Coach” on his/her resume can do all of that and I don’t believe that is necessarily correct.
What often happens in applying Agile at an enterprise level is that an “Agile Coach” attempts to plan and organize an enterprise-level agile transformation. However, that person is probably only trained in Agile from a team-level development process perspective and makes the assumption that whatever is good for the development process must be good for the business as a whole. They also may assume that it is a binary and mutually-exclusive decision to be either “Agile” or “Waterfall” and attempt to force-fit the entire company into an Agile model when the right solution is to fit the approach to the company’s business. I don’t believe that either of those assumptions is necessarily correct.
The problem is this – Agile works very well in companies that are in the primary business of developing products (particularly software products – Intuit is an example that develops TurboTax, Quicken, and QuickBooks). In those companies, there is a strong and natural alignment between an Agile development process and the overall business goals of the company and it is very easy to apply an Agile development process in that environment. It is much more difficult to apply an Agile development process in a company who is not in the primary business of developing products and is in some other kind of business where the relationship of an Agile development process to the company’s overall business strategy is much more indirect.
In companies that are not in the primary business of developing products, you can’t just force the company to be “Agile” in order to make the company more amenable to an Agile development process. The company’s overall culture and business strategy needs to be optimized around whatever the critical success factors are for the business that they are in. For example, if a company is in a business that requires operational excellence, it needs to focus its overall culture and business strategy primarily on efficiency of operations and reducing costs and that doesn’t necessarily align with just becoming more “Agile”. In that kind of environment, you have to develop a strategy that considers both the company’s business strategy and the requirements of an Agile development process to develop a well-integrated approach. The implementation of that strategy often requires fitting the approach to the company’s business environment rather than trying to force-fit the company to some kind of overall Agile approach.
The approach that you might wind up with in that kind of environment also could be a blend of Agile and traditional plan-driven management principles and practices blended together in the right proportions to fit the situation. That is a lot more difficult thing to do and requires a lot more skill than a typical team-level Agile coach would normally have. It requires an understanding of:
- Agile principles and practices as well as
- Traditional project management principles and practices
and a deeper understanding of the principles behind both of them (not just the mechanics) to know how to blend them together as necessary to fit a given situation. Beyond that; however, it also requires the ability to look at a very complex, broad-based, enterprise-level business from both a more strategic high-level business management perspective as well as a more tactical product development process perspective to develop a strategy for integrating the two.
What often seems to happen is someone who is trained in “Agile” from a development process perspective attempts to steer the company in the right direction and that person typically doesn’t have the breadth of business management experience and agile development process experience to know how to successfully integrate the two. Is it any wonder why some of these “Agile transformations” are not successful?
I’ve developed some on-line training that should be helpful to people who want to understand this better:
- Mastering Agile Project Management for Project Management – addresses this from a project management perspective to help project managers see Agile and traditional project management principles and practices as complementary rather than competitive and to learn how to blend the two together to fit any given situation.
- Making Agile Work for Your Business for Executives – addresses this from a business management perspective and provides some essential principles and guidelines of how to successfully develop a well-integrated enterprise-level approach for any business.