Consulting vs. Coaching vs. Contracting

March 5, 20134 min

My  response to a 2010 article by Scott Bellware got me thinking about why I really do not like the term “coach” to describe what I do with my clients and customers.  In my mind, consulting, coaching and contracting are very separate concepts and would like to examine them briefly.

The way I see it, the majority of my work is spent consulting with my clients.  To me, consulting is a type of mentoring and teaching in a business context.  My customers hire me because I have some skill, knowledge or experience – Scrum and Lean Thinking – they do not possess and they want my advice on how to solve some type of challenge confronting their business or organization.  They have a problem and I have an answer.

Sometimes, I give the client the answer because that is what they want and the most efficient.  Other times, we talk through the challenges my clients are facing and come up with a solution together.  It all depends – a very common phrases used by consultants to avoid being pinned down on one answer or solution – on what is needed for the client at the time.  Other times, the client will bring me in to solve one problem and I discover that other problems exists – usually people problems – and I ask the client if they want to fix that problem too.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

I like consulting because,

  1. I like working with my clients as an equal partner (50-50) to help them solve their challenges.
  2. I am opinionated and it is very hard for me not to share what I think the answer is.
  3. It is easier for clients to understand what they are buying.
  4. It suits my personality.

My initial impressions and ideas around consulting were shaped by Jerry Weinberg’s famous book, The Secrets of Consulting.  Another book I found very helpful with understanding the role of a consultant was Flawless Consulting by Peter Block.  In this book, Peter Block clearly explains the role of a consultant as an equal partner with the manager who brings him or her aboard.  The manager has their needs for the project, the consultant has their set of needs and the two negotiate an engagement that meets both their needs.  The key to recognize from Flawless Consulting is the consultant does not make decisions for the business  – that is the job of the manager – nor be an extra set of hands for the manager’s project.

IMO, coaching is quite different from consulting.  Coaching is a very specific skill with numerous of schools of thought – Executive Coaching, Leadership Coaching, Career Coach, Organizational Coach, Life Coaching, etc. – all backed up by standards established by the International Coach Federation.  AFAIK, there is nothing similar with consulting.  Another difference between consulting and coaching is that with consulting you are there to provide an “answer” within your area of speciality, but with coaching your role is to open the door to many answers for the client.  As a consultant, I have been brought on board to provide predetermined outcome or goal – do Scrum.  With coaching, that is not the case.  Where we end up is not determined by the initial conversations.

Finally, let’s bring this back to Scott’s article.  In the article, Scott proposed the solution to all this Agile “coaching” was for these people he calls Servant Leaders to become “temporary co-managers”.  First, let’s just identify up-front what Scott is calling “coaching” is not coaching – it is consulting.  All of these “coaches” he identifies are really there to mentor and teach an organization on how to do Agile (software development?) based on their skills and experience.  Again this is consulting, not coaching.  Yet, when you dive into what Scott is really asking these consultants to do is not even consulting, but in fact contracting.  Contracting is when you are hired by a manger to either be another an extra set of hands on the project or to act as a surrogate (or temporary?) manager.

If you want to do contracting, that is fine and you can make a good living off a contracting.  However, it should be no surprise that the outcomes that Scott describes in his article – “new behaviors learned by the team will be undone by the manager when the coach leaves” – are common.  A contractor has no responsibility to put in place structures that support change after they leave.  A contractor is there to do a specific job, or act as a surrogate manager, while the manager does other things.  Creating structures that support change is the role of a consultant, and perhaps even a coach, but outside the responsibilities of a contractor.

IME as a consultant, the types of changes that last the longest are not when the consultant gives the answer, but building the solution 50-50 with the manger.  In these situations, the manager can take ownership, maintain and grow change well after the consultant leaves the building.