Agile Coaching in British Telecom


Over the last two years BT Exact, British Telecom#39;s IT organization, has been going through a radical organizational transformation. A central plank of this transformation has been BT Exact adoption of an Agile approach for systems delivery. When BT began to look at how you transform an organization of approximately 14,000 people to become an Agile organization, the size and complexity of BT seemed to be an issue. One challenge faced was how to support this size of a transformation from a coaching perspective. That is, how do you leverage a relatively small finite coaching resource so that it can be effective? This article will chart ongoing journey to address the need for Agile coaches and how "jam" proved to be inspiration along the way!

The Challenge
In May 2004, Al-Noor Ramji was appointed as BT#39;s CIO and CEO of its IT organization, BT Exact. His mandate was to make BT Exact, a previously fragmented organization with bad reputation for late deliveries, cost overruns, and quality deficiencies, a significant partner in BT's transformation. Mr Ramji's decision was to make radical changes which would touch all parts of the organization, affecting a total of some 14,000 IT professionals - 8,000 BT employees and 6,000 contractors and off-shore people based in the UK, Asia, continental Europe, North America, and other countries. A 90-day delivery cycle was imposed, requiring every project to deliver clear benefits every 90 days, and new resource management policies were brought in, designed to provide a flexible, trained workforce that could respond quickly to meet the demands of the company and its customers.

The Issue
Unsurprisingly, these radical changes were quickly followed by a lot of questions. People were not used to that style of decisive leadership, nor to the idea that IT projects could produce results in just three months. The answers from the top amounted to "just do it." {sidebar id=1} Agile was not specifically one of the mandates, so the obvious way forward for many was to speed up existing processes to allow the waterfall development cycle to be completed in 90 days: 30 days for requirements definition and design, 30 days for development, and 30 days for testing. While this could provide some benefits, it quickly became obvious that this wasn' a sustainable answer.

A search was started for an approach that would deliver reliable results at the end of each 90-day development cycle and could be adapted to work in a large and distributed organization. Agile delivery looked to be the answer, but big questions remained that went to the heart of the method's fundamental tenets. For example, could the idealized "co-located, self-governing team of optimum size, with active customer involvement" so eloquently described in a number of the Agile reference books be translated into an industrial scale to address projects staffed by hundreds of people spread around the globe and often involving third parties?

Introducing Agile Delivery
The decision was that an Agile approach could work in a large organization but it was clear that people would need a quick and easy way of finding out about Agile delivery and how it was to be applied in BT. The BT Agile Cookbook, an online guide to Agile delivery as applied to BT, was developed to meet this need and the five core practices recognized to fit customer's requirements were outlined as:

  • Customer Involvement
  • User Stories
  • Iterative Development
  • Automated Testing
  • Continuous Integration

However, it was recognized that it would be some time before BT's teams felt comfortable in moving away from what, based on their prior experience, would be regarded as a "rule book."; Something else was needed to get Agile delivery under the skin of the organization: the "Jam Laws!"

The Law of Raspberry Jam
It was at this stage that it became clear that the quot;Law of Raspberry Jamquot; was taking effect. This law simply states:
"The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets."

The analogy here is that the wider you spread the core message, the thinner and less effective it becomes. BT's quot;jam,quot; a team of just two coaches experienced in Agile delivery, was very thinly spread, especially given the scale of BT Exact's workforce.

The Law of Strawberry Jam
This is where the second of the jam laws came into play. The quot;Law of Strawberry Jamquot; states that:
"As long as it has lumps, you can never spread it too thin."

While raspberry jam becomes thinner the more you spread it, no matter how much you spread a good strawberry jam, its lumps–the strawberries–will remain. In BT's move to Agile delivery, the lumps are the people delivering the message so, as long as the delivery of the message included real flesh-and-blood people, it could only be diluted so far. Clearly, more quot;lumpsquot; were required in BT' "jam." It had too few coaches with significant experience, and little time to train more. BT therefore decided to look for outside help.

The Law of Grape Jelly
While carrying our the search for experienced Agile coaches, BT was mindful of the last jam law. Grape jelly is a bland, consistent mass-produced product that can be found in any American restaurant. Its primary features are that is always tastes the same, never surprises you, and is cheap to manufacture. Putting these properties together, we get the "Law of Grape Jelly." As it evaluated outside consultants, BT was keen to avoid purveyors of "Grape Jelly!"

Still Not Enough Jam
After some evaluation, BT identified a consultancy that understood and most closely shared its aspirations. Early in 2005, a partnership was created to "agilify" BT Exact. With more"lumps" available in its coaching team, BT could focus on two key objectives:

  • Promoting the Agile delivery message through face-to-face communication.
  • Starting a number of learning projects.

BT started three broad initiatives:

  1. The Agile Road Show, half-day events to promote awareness, held at BT Exact's principal UK offices.
  2. Agile Program Days, one-day quot;deep divequot; events to provide more in-depth education on Agile delivery and to collaboratively explore how these approaches could be applied to the project and program in question.
  3. Agile Learning Projects, a series of project-level engagements were created to provide learning opportunities and success stories.

Ironically, the success of these initiatives meant that BT again found itself with a shortage of "lumps" in its "jam." Even with an extended team of six, including two mentors from Exoftware, it could not meet the needs of its 14,000-strong workforce. Fortunately, experience obtained along the way to this point suggested a way forward: pair coaching as a means of creating more quot;lumps.quot;

Pair Coaching
The road shows and program days were, by their nature, focused on education, and therefore allowed significant time for Qamp;A. Two types of question were commonly asked. The first highlighted the need for coaches to have a detailed understanding of BT's business. For example, coaches needed a deep knowledge of a specific area or about the levels of investment being made in specific projects. The second required the coach to have both deep knowledge of implementing Agile delivery and practical experience of addressing situations similar to that of BT.

To ensure such questions could be competently answered, a practice of quot;pair coachingquot; was introduced wherever possible, in which a BT coach and an Exoftware coach would work together to deliver an engagement. This accelerated the learning for both partners and specifically addressed BT#39;s need to build up internal capability. The success of this approach hinted at the solutions for our quot;lumpy jamquot; shortage.

A drive was started to identify and recruit new coaches from within BT's software development teams. The priority was to find people who were passionate and enthusiastic about Agile delivery, had experience of applying it, and had coaching abilities. The coaching team grew quickly from six to 12 coaches and the range of backgrounds and experience across the team also increased. During a road trip to Dublin designed to help the team gel, a program of workshops focused on key issues the team would have to address such as the role of coaches, celebrating successes already achieved, and focusing on the understanding of the underlying values and principles of Agile delivery and how these might be applied in different situations.

Apprentice Coaching
Previously pair coaching had involved people with equal, but different, experience working together. To help develop new coaches, experienced coaches would now be paired with apprentice coaches. This approach allowed BT's new coaches to get involved immediately, taking on a greater level of responsibility over time as their experience grew. A number of other practices were used to support the now growing group. These included daily stand-ups, regular release planning, knowledge share events and facilitation skills courses.

Overall, apprentice coaching has proved very successful in creating new coaches and delivering new value to coaching engagements. At an individual level the feedback on the experience from the apprentice coaches has been very positive. Some common feedback points included:

"Coming from a 'non-coaching' background, I took a great deal of learning from pairing with a hugely experienced coach by not only confirming some of the practices I had been using previously and polishing some of the theory, but also some new techniques and skills which I hadn't even thought of before. I was basically a sponge for six weeks which is exactly what I needed."
- Apprentice Coach, British Telecom

"Even as an experienced coach I found that working with new coaches offered a fresh perspective that was invaluable... it especially helped me avoid becoming "pickled' by the environment to the extent I sometimes no longer questioned assumptions."
-Senior Coach, Exoftware

Manufacturing Lumpy Jam
Each step of the journey has been matched by success and subsequently increased demand for our services. Even with 12 coaches, demand still far outstrips supply. An quot;Agile Boot Campquot; has therefore been set up to create the quantities of coaches we need to meet BT' needs. People nominated to be coaches by BT's development programs attend an intense four-day experiential training session focused on two key objectives:

  • Developing a deep understanding of Agile delivery, from values and principles all the way through to practices.
  • Develop the attendees coaching skills so that we were able to effectively apply there new Agile delivery skills into their own programs.

Although still in its early stages, initial feedback on the quot;boot campquot; initiative has been very encouraging.

Summary and Conclusions
The first line of the "Agile Manifestoquot; states that from an Agile perspective quot;people and interactions are valued over processes and tools."; This is a core value statement that is reflected throughout the practice of Agile. The same statement holds true when applied to quot;Agile Coachingquot;. Ultimately, the most effective means of helping enable an organization, project, or person to be more agile is to directly interact with the people involved. However, when engaging with an organization the size of BT Exact with a limited coaching capability, the challenge is how to be successful without spreading the effort so thin that is no longer effective.

BT drew inspiration from the quot;Law of Strawberry Jamquot; and intentionally set out to build internal Agile coaching capability with its Agile coaching partner, Exoftware. Based on previous positive experience with "Pair Coaching,quot; an quot;Apprentice Coaching" model was chosen as an effective approach for building this internal coaching capability. This provided a rich and experience-based learning environment while also allowing the group to be effective as it engaged with the BT Exact organization. This initiative proved successful. The significant aspect of this success was how quickly the Apprentice coaches became effective in their new roles.

Based on this success, quot;Agile Boot Campsquot; have been used as a means of scaling up this approach. This is a new initiative and time will tell whether this approach proves to be equally successful. Initial feedback from BT coaches has been very positive. 


About the Authors
Linsley Meadows, Agile Methods Team Leader, BT Linsley Meadows currently manages the team overseeing the introduction of agile methods into BT. He has previously been involved in project management consultancy inside and outside BT on several major transformation projects.

Sean Hanly, CTO Exoftware.
As head of Exoftware' Agile Services, Sean has trained hundreds of developers and managers in software development practices, and has advised many global, Agile-minded companies in their transitions to an Agile Organization. A disciplined technologist, Sean is a prolific speaker and writer on Agile topics. He brings diverse views on companies, software development and Agility into his talks through his experience working with Exoftware clients. Through his vision, Exoftware is a centre for excellence in Europe on Agility. Sean has been instrumental in the development of the Irish and UK Agile Seminars, and the Agile Alliance Europe Group. He worked with the DSDM Consortium on bringing XP and Agile together, and is spearheading writing an open source automated acceptance testing framework for the software community.

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