Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How to Select an Agile Consultant

How to pick an agile consultant to help your company? I've learned a bit after helping a number a dozen or so companies and working alongside another couple dozen agile coaches. I started this post to describe the types of people I see out there, but what seems more helpful would be to provide guidance for those looking at bringing someone in to help them. Here's a cheat sheet of questions.

  1. Have they been a ScrumMaster on a team?
  2. Have they been the ScrumMaster on a project in Scrum from inception to completion?
  3. Have they worked in 1, 2 and 4 week iterations?
  4. Have they been the ScrumMaster on a  project with distributed team members or with a vendor?
  5. Have they introduced Scrum or agile to an organization where it was new? Specifically:
  6. Did they train team members on Scrum? 
  7. Were the teams fully-dedicated, cross-functional teams?
  8. Did they work with department managers on team composition, managing team members and other changes?
  9. Was there a PMO in the organization? Did they work with them on the agile roll-out?
  10. Did they initiate and facilitate release planning?
  11. Have they lead a multi-team roll-out? 
  12. Have they coached other ScrumMasters?
  13. Have they facilitated multi-team release planning?
  14. Have they collaborated with company leadership on crafting an agile adoption plan?
  15. Have they worked on an implementation of a new product?

Transitioning a small company (< 50) to agile is generally much easier than large companies. I've found more people who are there for career security and corporate ladder climbing in large companies than small. And these people see the fear, uncertainty and doubt in agile more than the gain (for the company, but more importantly, themselves). I've also fond more people in large companies who can get away with lower performance, and the visibility of agile can be scary. The approach, therefore, for large companies needs to be much more than the principles and techniques of agile. It needs to be strategic in determining who is influential, understanding how they feel and what are wins for them personally, as well as doing your best to make sure there are clear, early wins for agile in the company so that everyone can relax a little and get behind this thing. In some ways, this is no different from any change to an organization, and it's a bit like sales.

If you work at a large company, you'll need help. Going to the Certified ScrumMaster class is only the beginning, not the end, of finding out the how and why. There are now a lot of people out there who will sell you something that looks like help. In order of visibility...

  • Agile Networkers. Connected with a lot of agile coaches, trainers, thought leaders and businesses. As far as what you need, they may not be, but they might know people who are. Networkers may not have the agile experience to vet their connections on a professional level, or the depth and length of a personal relationship to vet the character, so the people that they recommend to you should still be evaluated independently. Keep in mind that often the main goal of the agile networker is looking to get connected with people and activities (training classes, conferences) that can help themselves, and hopefully help others. 
  • Agile Consulting Companies. They might have polished materials and perhaps a list of training classes, webinars or speaking events, but look at the questions above to evaluate the substance behind the materials.
  • Agile Trainers. Due to the popularity of Scrum, there are a lot of Certified ScrumMaster classes, but only a few who can do the training. Besides the CSM, there are a lot of other trainings out there, most of which I think are valuable. You might love the class, but someone being a great trainer and great coach involve very different skills and abilities, and I don't know that all the people can (or even want to) be both.
  • Agile Coaches. There are several different kinds of coaches, and you likely need some aspect of all. Most coaches can get a team going with agile and work through the people and team issues that arise. There are times when the business needs a level, though, that works with getting the executive team on board, working through strategic planning and political issues. This is much more about listening, building rapport and trust, patience, staying persistent and positive and selling by influence. Another key aspect of coaching is technical or software craftsmanship - being able to guide programmers and other team members, with hands on the keyboard, into the new world of test-driven development, continuous integration, pair programming and other agile practices (and hopefully you know how critical these areas are to the success).
In the end, nothing beats experience, and preferably a team of experienced people.

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