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Internal versus external agile coaches, which to use and when

Can a fish change the water it swims in?

This article is for agile coaches or those that hire agile coaches; it is written from my experience and perspective, I hope you find it useful; let's start with a story...

The day I quit my internal agile coaching job

I remember the day when I decided to resign from my internal agile coaching role within a large corporate. I was a senior coach supporting the development of other coaches as part of a transformation program of work. My realisation in that moment I was

“I’m playing politics more than I’m delivering coaching”

Additionally, I realised the level of safety had dropped to an unacceptable level where I felt disruptive voices were no longer valued.

I think this example illustrates some of the differences between how and when to use an internal agile coach (one that is hired as a permanent employee) versus an external agile coach (one contracted in to provide an external point of view).

If you are an agile coach looking for your next role or someone hiring agile coaches I’d like to give you some of my thoughts on this topic of employing an internal coach or contracting an external. The rest of this post will outline four points of difference I have observed between internal or external agile coaches and their ability to have impact and enable change.

Disruptor or influencer

Despite agile coaches having a natural tendency to provoke and enable new perspectives my observations indicate that external coaches are more disruptive and internal coaches work more by indirectly influencing. Being sensitive to the stakeholder environment means an internal coach is cautious to not “poke the bears” whereas an external coach is initially be perceived as ‘clumsy’ due to their lack of sensitivity to 'difficult' stakeholders. This results in new people being disruptive; they just don’t know who is who yet and hence tend to crash into the organisation and its culture. This is neither good or bad it is just a consequence of the ‘new-ness’ of the external coach. They try hard to do and say the 'right' thing but inevitably mis-step and cause some commotion that an internal coach would not normally provoke.

Internal agile coaches pay more heed to structure, processes and ways that are part of the the organisational culture; they influence from within the current system. They are wary of their social capital and ensure they do not expend it thoughtlessly. Their is always a thought in the back of the internal coach's mind that says "What will be the impact on my status in this organisation if I talk/act right now?"

Fresh eyes versus a fish in water

There is a phrase in consulting when a consultant stays on the client site too long “you become pickled”. This refers to the process of preserving a vegetable in vinegar during the pickling process. Staying in a culture for an extended period of time will result in the agile coach conforming to the culture they are attempting to change. A book editor comes to the text with what they call “fresh eyes” or a beginner’s mind on the document they are editing. Often, I describe this by pointing out that a fish will not know what water is; they’re in it all day.

Power sponsorship and safety

An agile coach (and agile change initiative) is only as successful as the level of sponsorship it has. If the CEO cares about agility then this will provide the “runway” for the change to be enabled. Organisational power is a legitimate change management tool that cannot be discounted. Executing your agile coaching work as a disruptor without sponsorship is usually an unsafe endeavour; no one has your back when you meet resistance.

My experience shows that when budget is allocated for external coaching support then there’s a heightened expectation that it will have impact. My experience also shows me that internal coaches who sit inside a cost centre can “keep their head down” and avoid the cost reduction radar. The risk is they avoid facing into the power structures and learn to become impotent.

Best alternative to the negotiated agreement

Agile coaches are constantly negotiating their explicit or implied contract to work for an organisation. It is important for the coach and the employer to understand what the agreement is and what the coach can and cannot do as part of their role.

The challenge arises when you lose you license to do your job as an agile coach; you become disempowered. As an internal employee it is then harder to move to another role as you have signed up for a part of your career with your employer. This creates a power imbalance and reduces your ability to negotiate the best agreement for you and your career.

In negotiation theory there is an acronym BATNA; best alternative to the negotiated agreement. In other words what is your backup plan if you find yourself in an internal permanent agile coaching role that is limiting you and reducing your career prospects. Here is some additional info on BATNA from the Negotiation Academy

Since BATNA is the alternative to what a negotiated agreement would be otherwise, it permits far greater flexibility and allows much more room for innovation than a pre-determined bottom line. When a negotiator has a strong BATNA, they also have more power because they possess an attractive alternative that the