Scrum Masters ARE Agile Coaches

The ability to truly coach teams and organisations in agile behaviours is a crucial part of being Scrum Master, but you see a lot of job specs that call for an Agile Coach as an organisation doesn’t want to be limited to Scrum. They don’t want to be limited to an enabling framework? With this article I hope to educate both existing Scrum Masters and organisations who recruit them as to what the role of a Scrum Master really is.

Framework over methodology

The perspective described above shows the battle we’ve got on our hands. At the core of this is a lack of understanding of the differences between a framework and a methodology (and that’s understandable, a lot of organisations are used to working with methodologies, so they will see Scrum [or agile] as one).

Let’s start with the distinction between a methodology and framework (these are the Collins dictionary definitions);

A methodology is a system of methods and principles for doing something, for example for teaching or for carrying out research.

A framework is a particular set of rules, ideas, or beliefs which you use in order to deal with problems or to decide what to do.

Now that is understood the following from the Scrum Guide should make more sense:

Scrum is not a process, technique, or definitive method. Rather, it is a framework within which you can employ various processes and techniques. — SG

Taking that knowledge and thinking of it in the context of Scrum is important. Scrum gives you no indication on how you should satisfy any of it’s rules & constraints, just what boundaries you need to work within. This is crucial to understanding what Scrum is, and therefore what the role of the Scrum Master is within that framework.

Nothing in Scrum precludes you from utilising Kanban or XP practices, following Lean UX or User Centred design; yet a lot of organisations seem to believe they do. Given that Scrum furnishes you with no indication as to how you should manage your Product Backlog, how Backlog Items should be written, how work should be tracked/progress recorded, what development practices could be followed, how you budget, discern value from the work completed (etc etc etc) you need someone who can help you learn and develop in these areas.

Enter the Scrum Master.

Providing a service

As described in the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master has three areas of service. To the Development Team, the Product Owner and the Organisation.

Even before diving in to that further I believe you can already see some intent, but it really is worth digging deeper in to this. I am not going to pull out every single service the Scrum Master provides, instead focussing on the often forgotten aspects which illustrate just how much of a coaching role in the team the Scrum Master is expected to have.

Coaching the Development Team in self-organisation and cross-functionality — SG

The very first point here states that the Scrum Master has a coaching responsibility. To coach a team doesn’t mean you have to have a lot of domain knowledge, it means you try and draw the practices out of the team members. It certainly does help that you’re able to suggest concepts to people and explain them if they are drawing a blank; this knowledge can take years to accrue and know how and when to deploy it.

Helping the Development Team to create high-value products — SG

How do you measure value? Apart from this possibly being another topic in and of itself, as a Scrum Master you should be aware of multiple approaches to achieve this (because there’s very few “one-size-fits-all” approaches). But knowing these is one thing, being able to impart this knowledge is quite another.

Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed — SG

Oh look at that: “As requested”, so you’re not just a facilitator. And yet you find many job roles that put this as a very high priority. It is important though, but through coaching you should be trying to provide your team with knowledge and tools to allow them to run their own events with the confidence that they’ll achieve the desired outcomes.

Coaching the Development Team in organisational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood — SG

Coaching again. Funny how that has popped up explicitly two times just in this area of service isn’t it? And this is a big topic area as well; here you’ll be helping coach the team in understanding where areas of friction exist that might slow their progress (and possibly produce impediments), but you’ll also want to be coaching the team in a way where by they will work to improve their situation.

Ensuring that goals, scope, and product domain are understood by everyone on the Scrum Team as well as possible — SG

This is a huge area to be knowledgeable on. You can utilise Scrum to support your efforts but you may follow practices such as User Centred Design, Impact Mapping, Service Design…whatever you like, because (making this point again!!) Scrum doesn’t prevent you from doing any of this. In fact I’d say it actively requires this knowledge, but for some reason you usually only see one or two approaches taken where Scrum is being practiced.

I could muse about this forever and a day, but people going on two day Scrum Master courses, followed by some training by the likes of Mike Cohn and then stopping their education there? That is likely why you get indentikit practices to the point that people say “this is Scrum”. I feel this is a strong factor in why Scrum is seen to be a methodology.

Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management — SG

“Finding techniques”. Because Scrum doesn’t tell you how to do it. You (as a Scrum Master) need to know a few, and you need to work with your Product Owner to find what works well for you as a Scrum Team. You’ll often have to fight against “this is what I did in my last place”, with them thinking that is what Scrum is, not just what their experience of Scrum was in their previous job (or even department).

Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items — SG

User stories are not part of Scrum and are not mentioned in the Scrum Guide. They are a useful solution but it’s not prescribed. Maybe BDD would be a better approach for your team? There’s nothing stopping you.

Understanding product planning in an empirical environment — SG

Not only do you need to understand it, you need to share this understanding through mentoring and coaching. You’ll also need to know multiple approaches as there’s no one fit solution when providing this service. And again, Scrum doesn’t tell you how to do this, or limit you in what you can do.

Understanding and practicing agility — SG

Up to this point I’ve mentioned a lot about the coaching side of the Scrum Master role, but the Scrum Guide specifically calls out the act of practicing agility; there is zero scope for this to be the preserve of a role called “Agile Coach”. As an organisation and as a Scrum Master you need to be aware of this expectation. Organisations need to allow for it, but Scrum Masters need to make sure they are equipped to fulfil this service to the Product Owner.

It is my opinion that the service Scrum Masters provide to the organisation are the most frequently forgotten/ignored/not understood. These services are why Scrum Masters should only belong to one team, time is needed to fulfil this aspect of the role.

There seems to the perception in the industry that this is the remit of an Agile Coach. I believe this is because the role of the Scrum Master is so poorly understood, exacerbated by the qualifications available (I’ll tackle this in a later article).

So then, a Scrum Masters service to the organisation:

Leading and coaching the organisation in its Scrum adoption;

Planning Scrum implementations within the organisation— SG

Two things to note here. Not only is this described as coaching (again), but it is the sole instance of the word “leading” is mentioned in the Scrum Guide. So when you see a job description that not only emphasises running the Scrum events, but talks about “leading them” (and very little else) it tells me just how little is known about Scrum in that organisation.

The contentious one for me is the “planning Scrum implementations”; I’d like that to read “helping organisations to plan Scrum Implementations” as I feel like this makes out that if Scrum fails, it’s due to the Scrum Master (and solely down to them), which is perhaps why we’re in the situation that’s lead to me writing this article.

This is also the solve instance where the Scrum Master is expected to plan something as well. Just so you know.

Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development — SG

Generally to satisfy this aspect of the role you will need to run training, workshops, exercises etc. These are valuable skills and they all should belong to the Scrum Master. It’s clear that this is envisaged to be the case, but I rarely come across Scrum Masters that are aware that this is in their remit. My hypothesis is that this because — regardless of what course they go on — they don’t get to practice the role as envisaged in the organisation they get qualified in…and then they forget.

Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team — SG

It’s fair to say that one person cannot change an organisation. Which is why this is a coaching role in my opinion. As a coach, you aren’t making the change yourself. You help draw the desire to change, the ideas and the actions out of people who can affect it. You may advise, you may suggest, but ultimately there’s little likelihood that you, as a Scrum Master, will be overtly driving the change; you just help enable it to take place. All things that seem to be regarded as the responsibility of an Agile Coach according to the job specs.

You don’t need Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters to have effective coaching capability, it is part of the job of the Scrum Master. It’s the responsibility of the organisation to understand the roles they are hiring and how to utilise them.

You don’t have to use Scrum to be Agile

Everything I’ve said so far explains how to make sure the Scrum Master role is understood to be an Agile Coach, it’s not a more junior role (at the very least it is equal, but you could argue it’s more involved as you have to have mastered coaching the framework for it to be effective). But what if you want to do something other than Scrum?

As I’ve detailed above, a Scrum Master doesn’t limit you to Scrum alone(but let’s agree that Scrum does enable you to develop agile habits, please). There is, however, a potential problem with Scrum. It is revolutionary and requires you to adhere to all of the rules and practices in order to get the expected benefits.

Scrum’s roles, events, artifacts, and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum. Scrum exists only in its entirety and functions well as a container for other techniques, methodologies, and practices — SG

On the other hand there is Kanban, an evolutionary process whereby you start exactly where you are and gradually improve flow, one change at a time. Of course there are other approaches too, but humour me for a minute whilst I use these for the example.

If you’re practicing Kanban you may say you don’t want a Scrum Master, you want an Agile Coach (demonstrating a clear lack of understanding of Kanban,where one core principle is “ respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and title” ). Call it what you will but you still have someone coaching the team, and if this team were to (in their process of continuous improvement) find that Scrum could help improve their flow, would you then hire a Scrum Master to replace the Agile Coach? Probably not. Would you hire a Scrum Master to be positioned beneath the Agile Coach? You could, but I’d suggest you shouldn’t — your Coach should have all the skills that is required, and they shouldn’t care if the job title they hold changes because of the framework being used.

The Agile Coach role is generally seen as a dedicated job, not another hat that someone wears. Don’t treat one role differently from the other as they are the same thing, it’s just the name given to the role of coach in Scrum is Scrum Master.

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