Agile Delivery: From ScrumMaster to Team Coach

Several weeks ago, one of my colleagues at BigVisible brought up an interesting concern around agile delivery and the ScrumMaster. How is, he asked, that there are so many ScrumMasters out there who are unprepared for their role on a team?

Agile Delivery Team Coach ScrumMaster

As I thought about it, I realized that the two-day CSM course basically introduces new ScrumMasters, team members, and other interested parties to how Scrum works and how to move teams through the ceremonies and artifacts associated with Scrum. What it doesn’t do—and likely cannot do in just two days—is also focus on all of the things ScrumMasters have to do to foster truly high-performing teams. The ScrumMaster role, done right, is much more than just scheduling meetings and updating a burndown chart. That leads me to conclude that the name ScrumMaster should (or will) die and be replaced with one that reflects the truly comprehensive nature of the role: team coach. Here’s why:

  • With team’s exploring/adapting Scrum and looking at delivery mechanisms like Kanban or a hybrid solution, Scrum as a framework isn’t the entire focus for many teams.
  • The ScrumMaster role has become misunderstood over time, translating many times into an agile project manager role, a meeting creator/facilitator role that could be done by anybody on the team. This is very different from the servant leadership role that Ken Schwaber intended. This misconception causes ScrumMasters to feel that they role is undervalued and not appreciated.
  • Many ScrumMasters are adding or replacing their title with team coach as a way to address these factors.

When I started as an agile coach in 2007, there were fewer people who claimed to be agile coaches. In those days, an agile coach (whether external like I was or internal to the organization) was usually focused on helping an organization adopt or scale agile practices across and beyond teams. These agile coaches were to become the initial change agents/champions to bring about organizational change by helping create other change agents. As I grew into the role, I started working with larger organizations, helping them through any dysfunction and creating/modeling an environment where response to change and creating value were easier and faster. I began to focus my agile coaching on the mindset of overall organizational agility rather than any specific agile framework or tool.

As more people started to add the job title of agile coach in their organization, I became worried that it was in name only—that there weren’t additional responsibilities to go along with the role. Is a person who believes his role is to facilitate the team in meetings really coaching the team? Do many who have that title really know how to coach well?

As we came into our bi-annual company event called BVCon, several of the coaches got together and talked about what capabilities/tools a true team coach, or “advanced ScrumMaster” would need to have to help the team become high-performing. We quickly came up with the following list, which only scratches the surface of everything a team coach, or true servant-leader ScrumMaster, would need to foster agile delivery and high-performance teams:

  • Facilitation and meeting management
  • Decision making
  • Team Chartering
  • Systems Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Team Motivation

Back at the client site, my fellow coach and I talked about what we had learned and the challenges we were seeing with the ScrumMasters. Most ScrumMasters we know feel they have very little respect from their teams or from people outside teams. They feel they understand Scrum and are going through the ceremonies but the teams weren’t getting better. These ScrumMasters didn’t feel comfortable or have the authority to address most impediments or challenges outside the team. Together, we talked with these ScrumMasters about their current role and what they wanted it to become. We discussed how the role of ScrumMaster shouldn’t be about walking the team through a series of ceremonies but of helping the team get to a high-performing state, where the team can truly learn how to self-organize and adapt. We explained how an empowered, fully trained ScrumMaster truly can be a model and change agent for transforming the larger organization.

During these conversations, we came to the conclusion that we would stop using the term ScrumMaster. Instead, we will call them team coaches, to reflect the fact that their role is much broader in nature than they and others had previously imagined. We stopped short of calling them agile coaches, because their focus is more on agile delivery than on overall organizational agility.

I believe this goes beyond my current client. The traditional ScrumMaster role will eventually die, replaced with a team coach that will help create environments for teams to be successful no matter what practices they decide to take on.


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