April’s theme at ProjectManagement.com where I write a monthly column was “Consulting” and in this article, I examine the world of Agile Consulting and coaching. I distinguish consulting as providing advice, solutions and information; whereas coaching is more asking (hopefully insightful) questions and leading clients to find their own answers and grow in capability.
Depending on where people are in their careers, their agile adoption and their corporate culture, some people want a consultant, others a coach and sometimes they want a blend. The goal is to add more value than you cost and help organizations be successful by avoiding common pitfalls and accelerating their success.
Personally, I was hesitant to get into agile consulting and coaching. Despite being involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994, the more I read and practised, the more I discovered every organization and every project is very different. It felt like I had much more to learn before declaring myself an expert for hire. As your knowledge increases, so too does your exposure to all the things currently just beyond your proficiency that you do not know yet and should learn next.
So, the more I learned, the more I discovered there was so much more to learn! However, there comes a point when you realize that you already know enough to be helping people that are less experienced—and that helps overcome your inertia.
The Work: Helping your Clients
Agile consulting involves instilling and applying a few lean thinking concepts such as:
- Prioritizing for value
- Limiting WIP
- Visualizing the work
- Minimizing waste
- Optimizing for throughput and flow, not resource utilization
Each are very simple concepts that only take 5 to 10 minutes to explain. The challenge comes in making them work in large, complex environments that have competing demands. That’s where the bigger set of skills around change management and emotional intelligence that take a lifetime to learn come into play.
Every industry has plenty of people who understand how things should be done in the ideal world. Consultants add value by finding ways to get there, step by step, unpicking knots in process, dismantling barriers to change. They often act as an independent third party to validate a change that groups know they want to make anyway, sometimes playing the role of devil’s advocate, questioning processes that internal staff should/could not ask; sometimes acting as the scapegoat when someone must explain why/who thought this experiment would be a good idea.
Consultants help clients by working with them to bring meaningful improvements. It usually involves working with people who are busy trying to get their jobs done using some process they were told to use rather than had a hand in designing. Growth involves changing how people work and interact. This can be slow going or painful, and usually both. It is almost always people focused, and why the skills of empathy and influence are critical.
Sharpening the Saw: Building Your Skills and Knowledge
In addition to organizational change management, consultants need ready access to credible research that supports their ideas—along with frameworks, training materials and exercises to perform that reinforces this work with a variety of stakeholders.
In the agile consulting domain, many consultants use lean terminology when discussing concepts with executives, terms friendly to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) like progressive elaboration and rolling-wave planning when working with PMOs, and XP and Scrum terminology when working with team members. This is not being duplicitous or manipulative, it is just understanding your stakeholders and using appropriate ideas and terms to explain the same things.
It does mean though that consultants should be familiar with as many layers of agile integration as possible. You could well be answering a CFO’s questions about EBITDA and capitalizing prototype work in one conversation, mapping story points completed to earned value in another with the PMO, and talking to developers about NUnit test code coverage in another. There is always lots to learn, and it keeps on evolving.
Then you change industries and start from square one, learning about a new business domain. As such, consulting is very rewarding for life-long learners. People are always developing innovative ways of describing agile techniques, and we can share the best with our clients. Industries, technologies and approaches are constantly changing, too.
Learning and keeping up to date with these skills takes time and introduces a dilemma: How much time do you send productively working, and how much do you spend actively learning? How to best balance production with building capability? Some people use gaps between engagements to gather and hone new skills; others schedule some of their own time each month for learning and professional development.
Personally, I am lucky to have no interest in Facebook or other social media sites that can consume a lot of time, but a passion in learning about leadership, teams, agility and innovation. I find reading books on these topics interesting and volunteer my spare time on standards and collaboration efforts—all of which I learn from. Others take training courses, and today we have access to great information online such as courses and blogs. There are lots of options; the important thing is to find a way of staying current and bringing valuable information, ideas and resources to your clients.
The End Game
What comes next after being a successful consultant? Does there have to be a “next thing”? Many people consult until they retire and, if you enjoy it, are adding value to your clients (and they appreciate it). What more can you ask for?
Others build consulting practices, hiring associates, admin and sales people. They may continue to consult themselves part-time, or move into account management and consultant management. This is fine, too; just understand the skills and motivation to succeed at building and managing a consulting practice will be different than those you first employed. Instead of fixing issues in large organizations, you will now be responsible for developing an organization, hopefully without its own inherent issues (similar idea but subtly different).
Then, of course, you could join one of the companies you consult with or start a new business entirely. One of the great aspects of consulting is that it exposes you to a wide variety of people and business models. Some might resonate or illustrate the need for something new that you get excited about.
Like most things in life, consulting is what you make of it. Approach it with humility, hunger and “people smarts,” and you can create a rewarding career. Approach it as a ticket to making money by replicating a formula, and you will likely be in for a rude awakening.
The concepts you aim to instill will likely be deceptively simple, and you might feel uneasy about making that first leap. However, do not underestimate the work required to change how people think and behave. Focus your effort here; after all, the concepts around healthy eating and exercise are also very simple. Just eat fewer calories than you use, move and exercise more…but we seem to need help with that more than ever.
Agile consultants and agile coaches seem an oxymoron—agile is simple, you should not need a coach to be agile. However, healthy eating coaches exist. Exercise coaches exist, not just at an elite level, but also at a domestic level. To some degree, this is where the real challenges are—making changes with modest budgets, pre-existing conditions, in unsupportive environments. It is not easy, but it does provide a great buzz from solving problems and helping people.
[I first wrote this article for ProjectMenagement.com here]