From ScrumMaster to Team Coach – Revisited

Over the last few years, we have seen a transition happening across Agile delivery teams. Where coaching used to be something you exclusively get from the outside of the organization, it is now crucial for organizations to develop an internal capacity to support, grow and sustain greater agility. And yet there are still many organizations still struggling with the idea of needing team coaches. Why is this? This only scratches the surface: I’ve heard other really good questions that make the need for strong coaching at nearly every enterprise client of mine, including:

  • How is it that there are so many ScrumMasters out there who are unprepared for their role on a team?
  • What does a coach look like if you are leveraging Kanban?
  • If ScrumMasters also have coaching the team as a responsibility, why would you even need a team coach?

In this article I want to demonstrate the need for both ScrumMasters and Agile team coaches and also how SMs can start on the path to becoming outstanding coaches.

Entry Point into Agile – ScrumMastery

It is a sad fact that most ScrumMasters have done little more than take a certification class to earn their role. Indeed, Scrum Alliance’s Certified ScrumMaster course is the basic entry point for all new agilists, because it introduces how Scrum (and Agile to a lesser extent) works, what the role of the ScrumMaster is, and how to facilitate the Scrum ceremonies and use the Scrum artifacts. This course – certified or not – is a great primer for what Scrum is and how that releases trapped value of delivery teams. It also reveals some of the Agile mindset to people who typically don’t know much about Agile. While these are all important and great, three points are worth mentioning here:

  1. Agile is more than just Scrum. Scrum is only one of frameworks for breaking complex work into easy-to-consume tasks. Kanban and Scrumban (a Scrum-Kanban hybrid) are other options.
  2. As I mentioned above, simply getting your CSM certification isn’t enough to be an effective ScrumMaster. What this introductory course doesn’t do—and cannot do in just two days—is reveal 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.
  3. While coaching the team is a responsibility of the ScrumMaster, the extent of this tends to be limited just to their team(s). Agile team coaches can have deeper and broader impact on several teams, because their primary focus is making great teams out of good ones, facilitating the Scrum ceremonies and removing impediments.

The ScrumMaster role has become misunderstood over time, changing many times into an Agile project manager role, or essentially a meeting creator/facilitator role that anybody on the team can do. This is very different from the servant leadership role that Ken Schwaber intended. This misconception causes ScrumMasters to feel that their role is undervalued and not appreciated. Many ScrumMasters I come in contact with over the years feel they have very little respect from their teams or from people outside their teams. They feel the teams understand Scrum and are going through the ceremonies, but they aren’t getting better. These ScrumMasters don’t feel like they have the authority to address most impediments or challenges beyond the team.

I have collaborated with other coaches to discuss with ScrumMasters about their current role and what they want to make of it. We coaches point out 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 explain how an empowered, fully trained ScrumMaster truly can be a model and change agent for transforming the larger organization. We also point out that it takes a lot more to be an Agile team coach than to be a ScrumMaster.

Evolving to Agile Team Coach

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 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, primarily 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, like Scrum or Kanban.

But then I noticed something: many ScrumMasters were adding “Agile Coach” to their titles. While some of them had every right to do so, my experience was that it was merely a résumé change without any personal development. As more people started to add the job title of Agile coach in their organization, I started to worry. Is a person whose role is to facilitate team meetings really coaching the team? Do these new “Agile coaches” really know how to coach, let alone how to coach well? What skills have they learned and developed beyond basic training?

The role of the Agile coach is an important one requiring integrity and hard work. I am personally excited that Accenture | SolutionsIQ is the sole provider of Agile Coaching Institute (ACI) coaching training, Coaching Agile Teams and The Agile Facilitator (which we also offer together as the Agile Coach Bootcamp). When you consider the depth and breadth of the material offered in these classes, you start to get a more complete picture of the skills you need to be an effective Agile Coach. The ACI’s competency model divides up the Agile Coach role into several competencies beyond the basic experience of a Lean-Agile practitioner, namely: Facilitation, Mentoring, Professional Coaching and Training. There are also specializations to explore: Technical Mastery, Business Mastery and Transformation Mastery. Accenture | SolutionsIQ is so committed to this coaching training that it is part of our core requirements for all of our Agile coaches – none of this adding “Agile Coach” to your résumé without putting in the actual work.

Agile Coaching Competency Model (Source: ACI)

Conclusion

You may think it’s time to stop using the title of ScrumMaster, and perhaps just call them team coaches. In fact, if you aren’t using Scrum, having a ScrumMaster on your staff won’t make sense. But if your organization is or is striving to be Agile, then Agile coaching invariably has value.

Changing the name of the ScrumMaster role to team coach does little to move the needle in terms of your Agile teams’ high performance. Any winning team has a successful coach behind them. And any great coach knows that success comes from continually learning, developing skills, and getting help from mentors. Perhaps reframing to a coach role will get us to the promise of Agile getting to high-performing teams. Either way, the goal is not to simply have roles like ScrumMaster and Agile coach; the goal is to achieve high performance. Agile coaching is the most effective way to unlock high performance in Agile teams.

Or so the coaches of the some of the best Agile teams tell me.


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