Companies that work Agile will often appoint one or more Agile experts to coach teams and help them continuously improve the way they work. Together, these people form a group led by a manager, better known as a center of expertise. Bringing all specialists together in one team promotes knowledge sharing and makes it easier to guide the transformation and monitor consistency and quality. However, if you are a coach or manager in such a center, you'll know it's not always a walk in the park, and a group of experts doesn't automatically equal a high-performing team.
This article describes the four most significant challenges Agile centers of expertise encounter and possible ways to overcome them.
What is an Agile center of expertise?
An Agile center of expertise is a group of experts responsible for (a part of) the company's Agile transformation. The center can fall directly under management or HR or be made part of PMO, for example. The center is independent but will work closely with other teams when necessary.
It is important not to mistake the Agile center we are talking about for an Enterprise Transition Community (ETC) or a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE, used in SAFe). While their role in a transformation may overlap, the key difference is that this center is often non-temporary. It consists of the company's employees fulfilling the Agile coach role, often supported by third-party experts.
Another difference is that, in practice, the center cannot take full responsibility for the transformation. After all, key stakeholders, like chiefs and leads, are not part of it. As opposed to a LACE, which can take full responsibility for the transformation.
Challenge 1: He who pays the piper calls the tune? Well, not in this case!
Especially in larger organizations, Agile centers will fall under staff divisions and not directly in the hierarchical budget lines of the departments they help. That means they are not paid by the teams they coach. Instead, they are funded from a central budget.
Since the teams don't pay for the coaches, there are few financial incentives to use their services. If something doesn't happen in time, the coach can take a little longer, right? And if they don't have anything to do for a while, that's no problem!
Due to the lack of financial responsibility, little priority and urgency are given to the organization's plans, especially when it concerns the more painful changes. Not only does this delay transformation, it can also negatively affect the coach. Since there is no direct budgetary consequence for not using a coach, people may forget about it, which deprives the coach of the opportunity to add value. For instance, you might be under a lot of pressure. This is where a coach can be of excellent help. But only if they know about it.
Finally, if management does not yet see the value of Agile, they will focus on running the business and dealing with day-to-day stress rather than on change. Teams will then follow. They will prioritize operational work and limit their change efforts to the bare minimum. Unless there is a strong intrinsic motivation to change, they will do just enough to stay out of trouble. This presents a challenging situation for the coach and the Agile expertise center.
How to overcome this challenge?
The answer is twofold.
On the one hand, it is vital to bring the center of expertise closer to its budget line and involve the budget owner by organizing regular evaluation sessions. The objective is to include the budget owner when making decisions about value. Are we adding the most value? And are we focusing on the things that matter?
On the other hand, Agile and its continuous improvement should not be something one does on the side. Agility needs ongoing attention and is never "finished," just like Operational Performance (which should be positively impacted by working agile).
You should see Agile and Operational Performance as the intertwined opposites of yin and yang. Companies must set proportionate goals, results, and KPIs on Agility to align with all other KPIs. In other words: Agile coaching should be embedded in the value chains and not offered as an external service.
The Agile center of expertise may then still exist, but it will be a place where Agile skills can be learned, shared, or further developed.
Challenge 2: We are a team, but we're also not.
For an Agile coach, a center of expertise is a wonderful (and comfortable) place filled with like-minded peers. A close-knit team that supports each other. Or is it?
In reality, coaches are often scattered across departments that all need support. This is a deliberate choice because companies want to avoid the Agile team being too disruptive in one place. Consequently, each coach formulates their unique assignment, which leads to non-shared goals within the expertise group.
In practice, this means two things.
The first is that coaches can get caught up in conflict: what takes priority? The meeting requested by the team? Or the meeting with your fellow coaches to focus on your growth together?
Secondly, if assignments differ too much, the coaches will have less in common, and group cohesion will be lower.
Again, there are a few ways to overcome this challenge.
When coaches are scattered throughout the organization, the center could benefit from focusing on knowledge sharing, linking this, where possible, to real-life situations, and making peer review a routine activity.
Another option is to create products that all coaches can use, such as training courses, assessments, workshops, information slides or wikis, principles, and guidelines.
Even better is preventing these issues by not spreading coaches across an organization!
Alternatively, you might consider setting a limited set of change goals to achieve together on a limited scale. Achieve this first and then move on to the next goal or department. This prevents the group from drifting apart.
It also enables coaches to learn, so the same mistakes aren't made twice. Finally, this approach ensures work activities are not disturbed too much, and coaching isn't perceived as too disruptive.
Challenge 3: Balancing stability and change
As an Agile coach in a center of expertise, you often embody the formal role of coach in an organization that is constantly changing (and thus needs to be coached). In practice, however, this is unrealistic and sometimes even undesirable. After all, 'coaching' is not always just coaching. Especially at the start of transformations, the Agile coach will also fulfill the role of facilitator.
When coaching, it's important to ensure your client is capable and willing to ask follow-up questions and, in doing so, shape their process.
At first, people in the new Agile roles are often not yet competent, and the coach has to guide them. Eventually, the person will master a role; they have explored and can express what they feel is their next step. And that's when things become tricky for a coach. What else is there to teach? What growth rate can the person handle? And will I continue to have enough work as a coach? This is especially relevant if the coach is only working for one department. After all, all places are already occupied. In such a case, the coach might be tempted to outline the following steps - just to create a new path.
What to do?
To overcome this challenge, coaches must be (more) conscious of different intensity levels. Some requests demand a higher coaching intensity and a longer lead time, for instance, implementing portfolio management or DevOps or learning to work with new tools. But once this is done and going smoothly, the focus turns to providing assurance and implementing small changes (less intensive).
During these periods it is important that the expertise center fulfills its ‘mirror function’ challenging the implementation of the new practices towards the organization, whilst at the same time updating its own tooling in order to enable the organization for introspection given the new situation.
In addition, you can combine big new changes with gradual improvements to reduce the contrast between them. As discussed earlier (challenge 2), you can introduce something new on a smaller scale to make the change feel much smaller.
Keep in mind that the expertise center should always be both innovating and improving to bring more continuity to the value it adds.
Challenge 4: Not enough flexibility
This challenge also stems from a coach's attachment to a specific department.
As a coach, you build relationships with the people you work closely with first. Then, you further develop these relationships into a trusting relationship so that more complex or sensitive issues can be discussed. While this is positive, it also has a downside. For example, imagine the coach is desperately needed in another department. How willing would they be to give up these relationships? And, how happy are coaches to share their experiences with their department with other coaches? Could less flexibility lead to less knowledge sharing?
In our opinion, both situations are detrimental and create additional complexity, making it more difficult for the center of expertise to add value.
How to become more flexible?
You can boost flexibility by changing the rules around coaching and availability. For example, by offering help on a pull rather than a push basis.
In addition, you can assign a point of contact per department. Depending on the request, this person can offer the help themselves or ask a colleague to do so. After all, when it comes to new tooling, a trusting relationship is not that important. But it's nice to talk to someone you know when you want to discuss more personal matters.
An extra benefit of working this way is that coaches can more easily pick up jobs for others. By removing the focus from having your assignment on your unit, the success of organizational change is now a team effort.
There may be other ways to overcome the challenges mentioned above. And maybe there are clever ways to organize coaching so that you don't even have to experience them in the first place.
However, the most important takeaway is that you should keep talking to each other. Be open about how things are going and what you can improve. How do you focus on value together? Do you need to be a team? When is good, good enough? And what happens when you (coaches) are no longer needed?
To reap the benefits of the experts' Agile knowledge and offer them continuity and career opportunities, you'll have to overcome these challenges. And in the end, how you do so doesn't matter. What matters is that you are willing to work on them!
If, after reading, you want to know more about Agile expertise centers or would like some help setting up one within your organization, please get in touch with us.
At Xebia, we are experts in this field and are happy to share our experience and knowledge.