Agile Coaches and the kiss of death

AleXandre Magno
May 28, 2018 · 3 min read


Great agile teams (or squads, groups, gangs or bands) should deliver valuable product increment continuously. Most Agile methods propose a cross-functional and self-organised team structure to meet that goal.

In Scrum, the strategy for forming a great agile team is based on a structure called the Scrum Team, which comprises a Product Owner, a Development Team and a ScrumMaster. They, the whole team, are responsible for guaranteeing the success of the product.

The ScrumMaster, a very particular role, is responsible for strengthening the team by adding some necessary skills we suppose they don’t have, for instance: process building, facilitation, Agile coaching, system thinking and team building. But she is still part of the team and also in charge of delivering the results. The ScrumMaster has “skin in the game”, or at least she should.

The Agile Coach

Because Scrum is just one of the Agile frameworks available out there, companies using other methods — or evolving from Scrum — started to introduce the Agile Coach role as a substitute for the ScrumMaster. As there is no official definition for this role, each company — and consultant — built its own definition, but in general, the responsibilities of this role are quite similar to those of the ScrumMaster.

But …

Some people propose that there’s an important difference between these two roles: ScrumMasters work at the team level, while Agile Coaches are more focused on the organisational or enterprise level … and here is where the problem begins.

Kissing death

If you say to me you’re a ScrumMaster, I know you’re — right now — working to deliver a product increment together with a Development Team and a Product Owner. You’re part of the team who delivers product increment. You’re in charge.

But, if you say to me you’re an Agile Coach … Well, maybe you’re working to deliver a product increment as well. If that’s the case, great! But the chances are good that you’re working outside the team by focusing on things like people or process development across the organisation, or helping other areas of your company to “change their mindset”, or you’re busy “building a new culture”, or maybe you’re even responsible for leading the “Agile Transformation” program in your organisation. If that’s the case, you’re not part of the product development anymore because you’re not in charge of that. You don’t deliver product increment. You’re now an outsider. You’re a chicken. You’re in the deep hole that exists between builders and decision-makers. This is your kiss of death.

Being useful again

Based on what I have experienced during a long time of practicing, shadowing, watching, teaching, and advising ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches, my current understanding is that honest and valuable Agile Coaches apply these behaviours:

  • Be honest with the business. And, for someone practicing Agile coaching, the only way to do that is to be part of the delivery team or flow. Be in charge of the delivery — there's no escape.
  • Be honest with the team or people you’re supporting. First, ask them if they recognise in you the Agile coaching skills you say you have. Ask that people (not the sponsor) if they really need you — continuously. Ask them (not the sponsor) if they feel your cost is worth it for them. Empower them by sharing your Agile coaching skills. Leave this role as soon as possible.
  • Be honest with yourself. Agile Coach is NOT a career. It’s just a transitory role that you’re playing. Maybe it’s really important for some companies who are transitioning from a very traditional model to a more Agile one. But it’s temporary. Don’t overrate the role, please.

Agile Coaching at Songfaces

At Songfaces, our Lisbon-based music tech startup, we’re not going to hire any Agile Coaches, but we will invest a lot in Agile coaching. We understand that by keeping the focus on the disciplines themselves and not on more roles, we will help everyone in the company develop their competencies in this and let it grow among us.

If you want to follow our journey while we build this beautiful company and our first amazing product, just follow our publication on Medium.

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