Lemon Sorbet

This is a response to Bob Marshall’s recent post How to Spot a Lemon Consultant. I recommend you read that first, but the title alone gives an indication of the tone of the piece: there are many ineffective consultants, who—under the guise of Agile—are selling snake oil to gullible companies. No disagreement there.

Being a consultant myself (I avoid the oft-abused term, coach) and peddling what has become in the Agile community the most despised form of snake oil, i.e. Scrum, I find myself potentially branded as a lemon, and thus feel the need for a little introspection.

Engagement

It takes two to tango. Bad consultants tend to be hired by careless clients (see also Bob’s recent article on Better Customers). I often find myself in a pre-engagement dialog, almost always with executives, where I’m being asked to deliver things I believe have no value, e.g. get the developers “on board” (coach to compliance), speed up the pipeline, help us use story points more effectively to make predictions, help us role out Scrum across the organization, figure out how to do Scrum with off-shore teams, and so it goes on.

I never agree to these outcomes. I usually agree to assess the problem with them—and with those who do the actual work—and offer to explore possible solutions. They don’t always hear me. There are times when I think executives should take the cotton wool out of their ears and put it in their mouths. Sometimes I offer workshops early on, to help everyone become aligned around some good work principles (ref: The Soul of Scrum). This is not “training”. Training is for circus animals, pet dogs and HR folk. A workshop is an exploratory process, a way of shifting the thought process, not complying to a process.

Workshops

Shifting the mindset. Yes. This is not done through lecture, powerpoint slides or “break out groups”. It is also not done by playing games that have pre-determined outcomes. I don’t follow Tasty Cup Cakes, and I never carry lego! It is done through physical engagement, and interactive games that are process-focused, not outcome focussed. This often requires people to be on their feet, and it requires me (as facilitator) to take risks, and sometimes to fail. Learning is a discovery process, and in the corporate culture field a hundred times so. The context is new for every organization, and for every group inside an organization. It is foolish to assume the same learning applies everywhere. I prefer games that push people’s edges, games where I don’t quite know what will happen, but can flag the learning moments as they occur. There are always a few, sometimes many, and they differ from culture to culture.

Learning on your feet, moving, more than standing still, helps keep the brain awake, and the whole body engaged. This is well researched, and known. Ideas that become embodied are ideas that will linger, and morph. Ideas that enter through the head only are quickly pushed aside in favor of “real work we have to do”. My colleague, and sometimes co-facilitator Alan Cyment often says at the end of a workshop, “if all has gone well you will have learned things you don’t even know yet”.

So I’m a consultant who plays games. Am I selling snake oil? I don’t think so, as I have no intention of selling anything. I try to embody the principles I believe in, and engage people in dialog, figuring out what the real problems are that need to be solved, which is almost never the presenting problem. When a root problem is well understood, the solution will emerge from the people engaged in the problem. It will not be solved by management, executives or seasoned experts—and certainly not by the consultant. Give it up.

Consulting

Actually, even though I use the term consultant (mainly because I eschew the term coach), it isn’t what I actually do. I don’t consult, as that assumes coming in with expertise and answers. I come in with ignorance. I engage. I explore. I facilitate different ways of thinking—and behaving. And I rarely deliver what I’ve been brought in to deliver. But like all good responders, I try to offer something that meets a need (even though the need may not be known).

I don’t know how to measure success though. I have been doing this for almost seven years, and I make a living. I don’t market my services, but I get invited in, and I get invited back. And sometimes, actually rather too many times, I get fired. Oddly, it is sometimes the firing incidents—or the getting the hell out by choice—which tells me of my success, or at least tells me I stick to my principles, and don’t compromise or comply. To me, that is success. Maybe not to the client though. The customer often doesn’t know what he wants. When he sees what he is getting, he sometimes likes it and sometimes hates it. I rarely commit to more than a month at a time. Reflection is vital to ensure a healthy reassessment of need, and avoid misalignment which always b breeds antagonism, frustration and resentment. If I’m going to fail, I’d like to do it in 30 days or less (paraphrasing Ken Schwaber).

I may well be a lemon consultant—some clients would certainly say so. But even that is a form of success, perhaps. The client knows better what he wants next time round. I like to think I’m a lemon sorbet, cool, sharp and palette-cleansing 😉 Once I’m gone you get to start the next course of real food, refreshed. Occasionally, someone might say, months later, “hey, remember that sorbet we had that time? That was good!

In Summary

The world of Agile consulting, coaching and training is ballooning at an alarming rate. It is a band wagon, jumped on by (it sometimes seems) every project manager or second-rate coder who has done a CSM course. There are quick, and big bucks to be made here. This is a gold rush. Personally, I don’t care who does this or what they call themselves. The world of business is a self-organizing system. It will sort itself out, and veer towards a solution that will include some of these people and exclude others. It may exclude me, in which case I’ll seek a new profession—once again. I’ve always fancied being a writer. No, wait, I’ll be a writing consultant!

Note: this blog is all over the place, and you may have detected I am adopting Bob Marshall’s technique, to release a blog post early, and refine it later (or not, as the need determines). Sounds like a good idea I’ve heard somewhere before…

Footnote

Mike Sutton wrote to me: Process focused vs Outcome focused — I’ve not seen you coach/consult or whatever, but I have seen you teach and undoubtedly you take risks.  This is something I deeply appreciate you for. That said, I disagree that you work in a process focused way.  Having observed you, I can say right now that you are probably too close to your style that you are missing what you are about. And its not process. I observe you facilitate learning through doing, sure, but you are not teaching the mechanics of the games you play. To me, you are teaching the attitudes (meta learning). You are teaching courage, risk, failure and how to learn from it.  Those are essential for any process, but are the cornerstone of reaching outcomes. Outcomes are what folk are paying for, even if they don’t realise it.

Hi Mike. Thanks for the note, and the appreciation. We may be using the term process slightly differently. It is the activity itself, not what will come out of it that I feel is important. If I go into an activity with an expected outcome, that will inform the pathway (the process) in the same way that an upfront detailed plan will do for software developers. These games/activities/exercises need to be emergent. It is the unexpected tangents they sometimes take that is where the learning takes place. There is always an outcome 🙂 It just may not (perhaps ought not) be what I’d like it to be. This is sometimes hard, as like most of the rest of the world, I want to maintain some form of control, and feel safe. Releasing into the emergent (not mechanical) process—focusing away from outcomes— takes away that safety. This is how we live on the edge of chaos, where true learning and creativity take place. I hope this note adds something! —Tobias

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