Scrum Master vs. Agile Coach: Why Both Are Required for Successful Transformations

Agile transformations are a difficult undertaking and require a considerable shift in the way individuals think, react, and act. Unfortunately, many companies underestimate the difficulty of these changes and consequently fail to prepare or allocate the necessary resources, which can cause the transition to be unsuccessful.

Engaging an experienced Agile coach is a wise move for organisations undergoing an Agile transformation. The role of an Agile coach is multifaceted, requiring vast knowledge of Agile processes and experience in leading and supporting teams and individuals through the transformation. An Agile coach is responsible for helping to outline and refine Agile processes in the organisation, as well as providing guidance and support when obstacles present themselves. In this way, the coach can help ensure a successful and streamlined transition to organisational agility.

Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a hiring manager at a major insurance company. The topic of conversation was the assumption that agile coaches are responsible for team performance in addition to being tasked with operational agility. In response to the question of whether a failing team is a sign of poor coaching, I offered the opinion that maybe it is, but mostly not. I argued that the Scrum Master should be held accountable for team success, rather than placing the sole responsibility on the coach. Doing so would allow teams to avoid taking accountability for their results, while also ignoring the coach’s role in developing organisational effectiveness.

High-performing Agile coaches, I believe, produce high-performing Scrum masters, who in turn produce high-performing Agile teams.

Adoption of Scrum takes time and practice

Scrum is a widely-utilised Agile methodology, renowned for being both easy to comprehend and challenging to master. The comprehensive principles and practices that make up the Scrum framework are laid out in the 14-page Scrum Guide, providing a simple guide to understanding. However, reading the Scrum Guide does not make one a proficient Scrum practitioner. Developing the skills to be able to rapidly adapt to complex, rapidly changing scenarios necessitates time, experience, and a willingness to unlearn any ingrained behaviours that may be counter-productive.

Organisations often attempt to achieve expert-level results with minimal preparation when transitioning to Agile, forming teams, providing basic training, and expecting them to bring agility to life. This is akin to expecting a novice tennis player to beat Roger Federer after just one day of training with a pro. Achieving such results without proper guidance and assistance is highly risky and may give the impression that Agile is a passing fad. It is important to note that Scrum requires people to think and behave in novel ways, which is practically impossible without dedicated help. Teaching the Scrum Guide and expecting professional-level performance is a mistake, which is why the relationship between an Agile coach and a Scrum master is so important. The two work together to help teams adopt Agile successfully, paving the way for high performance.

Responsibilities and Roles

Agile Coach

Although the Scrum Guide has yet to formally recognise the role of an Agile Coach, the function was developed by industry professionals with the aim of better preparing teams for success. Despite this, many organisations do not view a coach as an essential part of an Agile transformation, or even consider it to be interchangeable with the Scrum Master role. While there are similarities in the skill sets required for each role, the expertise and scope of an Agile Coach is far greater than that of a Scrum Master. In effect, an Agile Coach is a highly trained Scrum Master, who works to improve overall agility, with a company-wide view of progress, and is able to provide support to multiple teams, as well as work with leadership.

An effective Agile coach is a source of practice discipline and a promoter of continuous learning. This coach leads by example, demonstrating servitude and understanding the differences between mentoring, training and facilitation, as well as recognising the best time to use each. Significantly, the coach will guide the team to efficacious and imaginative solutions without having to provide detailed instructions or create a reliance on the coach. This process requires a great amount of time, effort, wisdom and patience, however, the rewards are substantial.

An Agile coach’s daily responsibilities include the following:

  • Instilling best practices and communicating the Agile methodology
  • Educating teams on how to use Agile tools and strategies
  • Assisting with initial retrospectives and stand-ups
  • Monitoring organisational progress and overcoming any obstacles
  • Increasing leadership and stakeholder support
  • Creating and sustaining standards
  • Providing guidance to company leaders as they transition to an Agile mindset

Scrum Master

The role of the Scrum Master is comparable to that of an Agile Coach, and it is possible that if organisations had a sufficient number of Scrum Masters who were knowledgeable and experienced in the Scrum methodology, there would be a reduced need for an Agile Coach. Unfortunately, many Scrum Masters are former Project Managers who may not have a proficient understanding of the Scrum framework, and as such, require additional coaching from an Agile Coach.

The scope of a Scrum Master is more limited than that of an Agile Coach, and their attention is usually dedicated to a single team. It is vital for Scrum Masters to be familiar with the team’s strengths and weaknesses, potential issues, and development prospects, as they are deeply integrated within the team. An effective Scrum Master should use this expertise to enhance team performance through the application of tactics and processes that are customised to the team. The Scrum Master should be passionate and dedicated to leading the team to its continual development. If the Scrum Master does not adequately focus on the team’s demands, then the team and its members may miss out on growth opportunities.

A Scrum master’s day-to-day responsibilities include:

  • Scrum theory and practices are taught.
  • assisting individuals in expanding their Agile knowledge and skills
  • Organising and leading positive, productive meetings and Agile ceremonies
  • Facilitating effective team communication
  • Assisting with sprint planning and backlog management for the team
  • Monitoring and improving team performance
  • Providing the team with the ability to produce high-value increments while meeting commitments

Scrum Master/Agile Coach Relationship

I strongly suggest leveraging the power of Agile coaches to develop and strengthen the capabilities of Scrum masters. This approach is in line with Scrum values and Agile principles, and I have often argued that coaches should act as consultants, not employees. Ideally, a successful Agile coach will eventually become unnecessary as the Scrum masters gain the necessary knowledge and skills. After enough time passes and the momentum of the project has been established, a Community of Practice comprised of experienced Scrum masters can take over the coaching. If the situation requires the assistance of a coach, then one can be hired on an as-needed basis.

Here are some tips for implementing this approach, optimising both roles, and assisting teams in reaching peak performance:

  • Agile coaches should supplement training, provide guidance, and promote professional development for Scrum masters.
  • As Scrum Masters, it is important to ensure that we have the necessary access and the authority to fulfill tasks that are assigned to our teams. We must focus on creating growth strategies that are tailored to the specific needs of our teams in order to maximise their performance.
  • Scrum masters should be expected to mature and develop Agile coaching skills and expertise.

The Coach Must Encourage Organisational and Team Maturity

Leaders who expect Agile coaches to take the reins and drive teams forward may be inadvertently doing a disservice to their organisations. It is more beneficial to foster empowered teams that are capable of reaching their goals without the need for intensive Agile coaching. Should team members become reliant on the coach and fear what may happen if the coach were to leave, this could be a sign of a larger issue. It is possible that the coaching has allowed teams to become over-dependent or that the teams have placed more trust in the coach than in their Scrum masters. It is important to ensure that teams are self-sufficient and can operate independently of their coaches.

Many organisations erroneously assume that the roles of an Agile coach and Scrum master can be fulfilled by a single individual during an Agile transformation. However, it is important to recognise the distinct responsibilities associated with each role and having different people fill them, as this can help strengthen an organisation through the transition period and provide a solid foundation for sustainable agility.

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