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Hiring an Agile coach: 10 types of coaches you should avoid

So you have decided to hire an Agile coach - for a one-off training, to guide you through Agile transformation or to join your company and help you build your Agile capabilities. It is usually rather clear what are the skills and qualities to look for (Agile expertise, coaching skills, knowledge of industry to name a few). But did you realize that there are quite a few coaches out there who would cause you more problems than they solve?
How to spot a bad Agile coach and prevent your Agile efforts from going south? Here are some red flags you need to look out for if you don’t want to compromise your success.

#1 The Agile Purist

How to spot:
If you hear a candidate say things like, "Estimation MUST be done in story points," or "at the end of the sprint, each team must deliver a working increment of the product meeting the Definition of Done," you're probably dealing with an Agile Purist. These individuals live by the Agile Manifesto and are always ready to engage in a heated debate about user story definitions. When they join your organization, they're likely to introduce "Agile by the book" – the one and only right way to make your organization truly Agile.
Why you should avoid them:
The issue with Agile Purists is that they often pursue Agile for its own sake, prioritizing adherence to principles over the success of your organization. While many Agile principles, concepts, and approaches are undoubtedly valuable, context matters the most. Shocking as it may be, sometimes user stories aren't necessary, at least not during the initial phases of a transformation. Agile Purists struggle with "imperfect Agile" and will waste everyone's energy in their pursuit of perfection.

#2 The Uninterested Coach

How to spot:
This type is relatively easy to identify early on – simply present them with a few Agile challenges to tackle (e.g., describe a struggling team in your organization or ask for advice on converting to OKRs). If the coach doesn't ask follow-up questions to better understand the situation and instead provides generic responses, you'll likely face issues working with them.
Why you should avoid them:
Uninterested coaches won't take the time to deeply understand the details and specifics of your organization. Much like the Purists, they'll offer textbook answers, but these solutions often fall short. To be an effective coach, one must apply Agile principles within a specific context. If a coach disregards context, the team will quickly sense the disconnect and avoid engaging with them. Consequently, you probably won't gain much value from having this type of coach on board.

#3 The Extreme Coach

How to spot:
An Extreme coach will likely tell you straight away that everything you're doing is wrong, insisting that you must fire all your middle management and hire a Scrum Master for each team (including HR, Finance, and Legal) to have any chance of success. Unlike Purists, Extreme coaches may not be concerned with overall Agile principles but become fixated on specific elements and operate in an all-or-nothing mindset.
Why you should avoid them:
In most cases, the ideas Extreme coaches bring to an organization can't be implemented fully as-is (even if the ideas have merit). This prompts the "nothing" side of their "all-or-nothing" mentality – they tend to become demotivated, disengaged, and blame everything on you for not providing enough support for their ideas. Additionally, Extreme coaches are often extremely passionate about certain aspects while neglecting others. For example, they might ensure everyone has well-organized backlogs but drop the ball when it comes to setting organizational goals.

#4 IT-centric Coach

How to spot:
They've exclusively worked in the IT industry, with IT teams, and firmly believe that the second value of the Agile Manifesto should always be "Working software over comprehensive documentation." To test their perspective, ask them how to make your Sales team more Agile and see their response. Regrettably, many Agile coaches have little to no exposure to Agile outside the IT sector, so you might encounter this type quite often.
Why you should avoid them:
If you aim to benefit from Agile across your entire organization (and your company isn't solely composed of software engineers), you need to seek a coach who knows which Agile principles, values, and behaviors can be applied beyond IT and how to implement them. Although it might be hard to believe if you haven't seen it in action, it is indeed possible to make customer support, sales, finance, legal, and other "traditional" departments more Agile – but this isn't the job for an IT-centric coach.

#5 Certification Collector

How to spot:
Check their LinkedIn title or the list of certifications on their resume. If there are numerous titles (CSPO, CSM, PSM, PSPO, APM SAFe, etc.), inquire about their reasons for obtaining these certifications. While some employers may require their employees to take these courses, if you feel the candidate pursued them solely to enhance their resume, be sure to ask practical and unconventional questions. For instance, if you ask, "How do I use Scrum in a customer support team?" (which doesn't have a single correct answer), the candidate should ideally ask follow-up questions to understand your intentions and your organization's customer support function. If they appear confused or overly confident about the necessary steps, it's best not to engage with this coach.
Why you should avoid them:
From my personal experience (which may be subjective), coaches with numerous certifications often struggle with the practical application of their knowledge. They also tend to be confined by the framework(s) in which they are trained, leading some to become Purists. Conversely, coaches who don't focus on certifications are usually more open-minded and adaptable, particularly when faced with unique problems. While certifications are not inherently problematic, practical knowledge, experience, and continuous learning are arguably more valuable.

#6 Guru

How to spot:
Gurus claim to know everything about Agile, adopt a condescending tone, and dismiss your attempts to explain your organization's workings. They have achieved enlightenment and are confident in their understanding of your needs. While Gurus may also be Purists, they typically don't care much whether you follow their advice. Their purpose is to share wisdom, and it's up to you whether you listen or not.
Why you should avoid them:
First and foremost, Gurus usually don't engage in much hands-on work. They believe that their mere presence and willingness to answer questions are sufficient. However, training, coaching, and driving organizational agility require hands-on involvement that goes beyond what Gurus are willing to do. Additionally, Gurus show little interest in learning about your organizational structure, product, or culture, leading to generic and often inapplicable recommendations for your company.

#7 Framework Promoter

How to spot:
A Framework Promoter is someone who believes that a single framework (Scrum, SAFe, XP) is the silver bullet to solve all problems. They encourage everyone in the organization to get certified and apply the framework in question as is. Moreover, they would rather adjust the team's processes to fit the framework, even if it doesn't make sense, than change anything in the framework itself.
Why you should avoid them:
The issue with Framework Promoters is that frameworks can rarely be applied out of the box. A key competency of an Agile coach should be understanding the specifics of the company, product, and team in order to find solutions that make sense and help them deliver business outcomes while achieving continuous improvement. A good Agile coach needs to know how to mix and match frameworks and create custom ones tailored to the unique needs of the organization. By focusing on a single framework, a Framework Promoter may overlook better solutions that could lead to more effective results.

#8 Scrum Master Graduate

How to spot:
There's nothing wrong with Scrum and Scrum Masters. Many Agile coaches have a Scrum Master background, and this is perfectly fine. However, some Scrum Master graduates may be stuck in the Scrum Master mentality, staying with the team 24/7, facilitating their ceremonies, coaching them, and removing impediments. They may only be able to work with 1-2 teams at a time.
Why you should avoid them:
An Agile coach needs to think beyond just one team. They must focus on organizational agility, leadership coaching, and developing best practices, among other aspects. While working with teams, an Agile coach should be able to help them become self-organizing in a short period of time. By sticking to the Scrum Master mentality, these coaches may not be able to effectively address the broader needs of the organization and may limit the scope of the Agile transformation.

#9 Gamification Enthusiast

How to spot:
A Gamification Enthusiast loves games and turns any training into "Agile games." They are convinced that only by playing games like "paper planes" or "pass the marbles" will people be able to embrace Agile concepts.
Why you should avoid them:
While introducing games once in a while can be helpful to break the ice or assist people in experiencing certain aspects of Agile, it's essential to maintain a balance. Not everyone responds well to games; some individuals prefer a more serious approach and may become irritated by too much play. Additionally, games tend to consume significant time and focus on just one aspect of Agile at a time (e.g., work in progress limits, definition of done, etc.), causing training sessions to drag on. A more balanced approach to teaching Agile concepts is likely to be more effective for diverse audiences.

#10 Perpetual Coach

How to spot:
A Perpetual Coach always has their coaching hat on, looking for opportunities to train, coach, or mentor. They never miss a chance to tell you what and how you could do better and tend to bombard the team with improvement suggestions.
Why you should avoid them:
While coaching is a critical part of an Agile coach's role, it's equally important to know when to listen, ask questions, and understand what's going on within the team and why certain approaches are used. It's impossible to change everything at once; improvements need to be prioritized and the team must be given time to adjust before introducing new ideas. Working with a Perpetual Coach can lead to frustration within the team, as they may feel that nothing they do is ever good enough, and eventually, they may stop listening to the coach. Finding a coach who knows when to guide and when to listen is crucial for a successful Agile transformation.
In conclusion, it's important to remember that all coaches are different and have their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. It's likely that you'll spot a few of the traits described in this post in most coaches, but as long as they're not extreme, there's no need to worry. Keep in mind that there may be other red flags unrelated to coaching, such as rudeness, arrogance, or disorganization, that you should also take into account when evaluating a potential Agile coach.
At the end of the day, the most crucial question to ask yourself before hiring an Agile coach is, "Will this person help drive our organization to success?" Take the time to consider the whole complexity of factors that contribute to a successful Agile transformation and choose a coach who not only has the right skills and knowledge but also aligns with your organization's culture and values.
Leadership Agile coaching Agile transformation