We occasionally see people confusing the terms “consultant” and “coach”. Some people tend to use those terms interchangeably while other people see them as distinct. I believe a consultant and coach normally serve two different purposes, however I also recognize the overlap in their abilities and responsibilities that may often lead to the confusion.
To me, a consultant is a referential expert who understands a particular domain or field. They are often brought in to observe and provide domain expertise and knowledge, and it is usually conducted ‘on site.’ A consultant typically provides specific directives, recommendations, suggestions, data or case studies to help their client (company or individual) make informed decisions and avoid pitfalls that might otherwise not be known. In an Agile consulting engagement, a consultant may act as a sounding board to a company’s expressed needs and offer specific guidance on how to achieve those outcomes. Typical reasons for bringing in a consultant include but are not limited to a need for a timely or quick resolution, or a need for a single-event decision (e.g. where the knowledge or decision will not likely be needed in the future).
A coach is also a referential expert who understands a particular domain or field. They also are most effective if they are ‘on site’, however their approach differs substantially from a consultant. A coach observes and typically provides guidance and suggestions, but they do not normally give answers. A coach is usually there to help a client realize the answers through exploration and discovery, and in doing so grow the client’s domain knowledge and problem solving skills. A coach will often use tools such as asking powerful questions and reflecting what they are observing back to the client. Anecdotes, examples, data, and parallels may be provided by the coach when they are helpful at providing context. An Agile coach often acts as an agent to help a company grow their own expertise on how to achieve their business needs and outcomes, as well as to continuously improve how they work together, and in doing so become systems thinkers and a learning organization.
Choosing a Consultant or a Coach
Organizations generally will hire either an Agile consultant or an Agile coach when they have goals and they need domain expertise to achieve those defined outcomes. These goals may be determined by various factors, such as a wish to grow the company, or a need to respond to disruptions in the business world that make change a necessity. Either way, this usually means the client has a need for more agility, and the Agile consultant or coach can help them achieve those outcomes.
The choice whether to engage an Agile consultant or coach is often a complex one. However, when needs are urgent in a company a consultant will often be brought in to expedite the solution by providing advice and expertise. Meanwhile, a coach will usually address longer-term goals to help a company grow and realize their own solutions. As such a coach typically is a longer-term investment, however they usually provide longer-term assistance to a business to grow on many fronts or at an enterprise level.
A key difficulty from a company’s perspective is knowing what problem needs to be solved or what the baselines should be for their defined goals. To help with this decision, reputable companies will provide proper guidance and pre-sales support. For example, BERTEIG has created the Real Agility Assessment, which is a tool designed specifically to identify the problem(s) that require addressing as well as what the baselines are. Based on the results from this assessment an organization may determine which type of support is required including whether an Agile consultant or a coach is more appropriate (or even required!)
Regardless of whether an Agile consultant or coach is required, an organization would be wise to ensure the expert they bring in will be compatible, empathetic, considerate, inclusive and respectful towards their existing culture and environment. Certainly the skills and domain knowledge of the expert are critical factors to success, but equally important is whether this external individual will know how to connect with the individuals and the organization so they may be effective. When you know they are aligned with your culture you can also ensure they will be accountable for helping you achieve your outcomes.
At BERTEIG we recognize how critical culture is to determining success so we ensure our consultants and coaches are compatible with an organization to help them achieve their desired outcomes; that can be done with Agile consulting support or more long-term coaching help.
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