“Pickling” is a concept I was introduced to a year ago while working with other coaches on an agile transformation effort for a large client.

We often had conversations and debates, trying to learn from one another and finding ways to overcome roadblocks. During one of those conversations one of the coaches, who was at that client for several months at that time, was arguing strategy until a more senior coach, who was visiting us, said:

You’re pickling. I’m not hearing you, I’m hearing your client. Their excuses have become your excuses. You are an agent of change, but you are adopting their mindset. You have been marinating in their juices for too long.

At the moment it made me smile, but it also made me think. Was I pickling? Of course I wasn’t (I was) and I was certainly aware enough to realize if I’d ever start to pickle (I wasn’t). I felt full of certainties that were not based on any experimentation. To me, that is a clear indicator that something was amiss. So, true to my values, I had no choice but to conduct some experiments.

I start paying attention to the words used by coaches around me and by myself. Two words stood out: “context” and “reality”. “Reality” is a red flag: when someone does not want to change, variations of that word get tossed around a lot — “let’s get real”, “in real life”, “in our reality”, etc.. While “context” usually describes something external (like the market), “reality” ends up describing internal organizational impediments or culture. I noticed that coaches who were just beginning working with the client used that term far less often than those who were there the longest.

This lets me to observe the differences between newer coaches and those who had been with the company for a long time. I started bringing some specific conversation topics to elicit “pickled” responses. I was comparing what I thought was the right course of action and what other agile thinkers were saying. Over the next few months, I observed the slow pickling of every coach. I had trouble evaluating my own pickling, but that was to be expected. It just meant that my experiments were not over yet.

After I ended my contract a few months later, I tried to throw myself in a context that was the complete opposite of what I had experienced during the previous nine months. I would love to pretend that I deliberately took more numerous but smaller commitments or devoured as many books as I could to expose myself to new ideas, but the facts are that I was thrown into the maelstrom of life in a startup company and I was spinning in all those smaller commitments and new ideas in a very chaotic fashion.

The ridiculous amount of new experiences in a short time de-pickled me very rapidly and made me aware of just how much I had pickled. It also made me realize exactly what being pickled meant and what I could do about it.

WHY WE HIRE CONSULTANTS

External consultant of any type, including agile coaches, bring two things with them: EXPERTISE and PERSPECTIVE.

We are usually hired based on our expertise. We have knowledge and experience and our role is to either transfer that expertise to our client, use it to his benefit, or both. Expertise grows over time, as we learn new things and put them to practice.

We also bring perspective with us and sometimes are hired especially for that. Perspective is the state of our understanding based on the number and diversity of our experiences. Perspective is dynamic and volatile: perspective absorbs new experiences easily and reframes itself constantly.

A good consultant needs a balance of both expertise and perspective. Expertise without enough perspective sets us on an unchanging path because WE KNOW. Perspective without enough expertise forces us into a very chaotic trial and error pattern. A balance helps us learn through controlled experiments.

We pickle when we are exposed to a limited number of contexts, limiting the diversity of our experiences. Our perspective adapts to this new reality and starts losing its flexibility. This is akin to tunnel vision when we are so focused on one thing that we lose sight of everything else.

THE EFFECTS PICKLING

Pickling can be desirable. You want new employees to adopt your company’s culture, processes, and dynamics, and that is done by pickling. The new employee needs to soak in your company for a while before he becomes truly “one of us”.

For an external consultant, that is dangerous. Since perspective is half of what we can offer, losing it to pickling greatly reduce our value. The worst is that we pickle without realizing it.

Many clients argue with me that they want a consultant that really understands their context and their realities, so he can assist them better. I do not agree with that. Without enough perspective, we end up really bringing only a small subset of our total expertise that fits with the client’s current reality.

An external consultant should not be a yes man. It is our duty to challenge what the client is doing, not necessarily to change it but to make sure he understand why he is doing things this way. That understanding will expose him to new perspectives now, and allow him to sense when a situation is evolving in the future. If we lack perspective, we are not able to do that.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

The prevalent business model in agile coaching is to send one or more coaches to a client, as full-time as possible, for extended periods of time. It provides a steady income for the coach and makes the client feel safer by having an expert on-site. This is also the perfect scenario for rapid pickling.

When we realized those dangers, we, at Quantum Monkeys, started to re-evaluate our approach. At what speed is someone pickling? What’s the progressive loss of value for a client? How much effort does it take to unpickle a coach after an assignment? How can we prevent pickling in the first place?

We found part of the solution by observing executives and life coaches: their business model revolves around a much smaller involvement and relies less on their own expertise than in developing their client by exposing him to new expertise and perspectives. It inspired us to remodel our coaching approach to a much lighter one, devoted to making our client ready to handle change and transition by himself. It also allows the coach to continue to be exposed to a large variety of contexts at once, reinforcing his perspective and providing a better value.

This approach to our services is not enough in all clients, so we developed other services as well. In our overall approach, the more time-intensive the service, the shorter its total duration will be. That way we make sure we do not stay long enough to pickle or if we maintain a long-term relationship, each coach will maintain several such relationships with several clients, keeping his perspective fresh.

Even internally we opted to make exposition to new ideas, debates, sharing experiences and placing people out of their comfort zone part of our culture.

WHAT ABOUT INTERNAL COACHES?

There is a trend lately of either hiring permanent agile coaches or bringing scrum masters to coach positions. This has some benefits, but also raises the dangers of pickling. Internal coaches will pickle quickly and lose perspective. They lose perspective but still retain all their expertise. Since they are paid far less than external consultants and they stay with you to spread their expertise over time, they can be a very good trade-off.

Internal coaches can be moved around within the company with the hope of avoiding pickling, but since they still marinate in the company’s culture this strategy has limited success. I suggest that internal coaches could benefit greatly from having a coaching relationship with an external coach. A relationship that follows a model closer to executive coaching rather than the typical agile coaching. The cost is very limited, and the external coach will be able to challenge the assumptions of the internal coach and expose him to different points of views, thus limiting the impact of pickling.

THE TL;DR VERSION

External consultants bring both expertise and perspective. Limiting their amount of new experiences by leaving them at a client for too long “pickles” them into the client’s culture and process, making them lose perspective. This can be fixed by shorter and more diverse assignments.


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