Agile Coaching in Professional Scrum

At Scrum.org we believe Scrum Masters serve the people, teams, and organizations they work with. As the agile movement has continued to grow and the prevalence of agile coaching jobs has expanded, we realized it was important for us to become clear about how agile coaching fits in to Professional Scrum. Through this content, we attempt to make our perspective on agile coaching more transparent, share our concerns about how Scrum Masters are often marginalized and shine a light on how we are shaping content and resources that will aid all agile and Scrum practitioners in building more rich coaching skills and capabilities.

Agile coaching is a collection of skills and techniques used to serve people, teams, and organizations for the purpose of enabling agility. The practice of agile coaching encompasses many things. It has been made popular through the Agile Coaching Competency Framework and in early books such as Agile Coaching by Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley and Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins. Many people continue to publish resources and offer courses that explore all that agile coaching includes. 

We support the widely accepted definition of agile coaching that includes:

  • People practicing agile coaching have a strong foundation in Lean, Agile, Scrum and other associated practices, frameworks and agile methods.
  • The practice of agile coaching integrates skills and competencies from multiple disciplines. Those practicing agile coaching navigate multiple stances including, but not limited to coaching, teaching, facilitation, and mentoring.
  • Agile coaching is not only about people, it’s about processes, practices, and expertise as well.

Our Professional Scrum Competencies reference many elements of agile coaching. You will find focus areas for coaching and mentoring, teaching, and facilitation within the competency of Developing People and Teams. Other competencies include additional focus areas frequently associated with agile coaching as well.

Scrum Masters provide agile coaching. There's an unfortunate line of thinking in the Agile industry assuming that Scrum Masters are masters of Scrum only, focused on working with Scrum Teams and performing purely administrative tasks. The truth is that Scrum Masters have an accountability to serve the teams as well as the organizations where they work. We believe the best Scrum Masters have all the competencies of Agile Coaches. They use agile coaching skills to help individuals, teams and organizations to move toward their goals. 

At Scrum.org we assert two things, which, on the surface, might be contradictory, but in fact they are not. First, great Scrum Masters have proficiency in agile coaching skills. They provide service to all levels of the organization. The chief objection to this approach is that a Scrum Master is not well-equipped to provide such services to the organization after taking a 2-day class, without enough experience, or without branching out into other knowledge areas. And we concur, a 2-day class does not make someone a great Scrum Master. This leads to the second point - Scrum Masters are life-long learners. They learn tools, techniques, processes, and practices which allow them to deal with complex human dynamics beyond the Scrum framework while developing the mindset of innate curiosity and continuous experimentation.

The best Scrum Masters nurture and grow their agile coaching skills and expertise over time, focusing on various areas they feel will help them to be more efficient and effective. While training, consulting, mentoring, coaching, and facilitating techniques are the core tools of the Scrum Master, knowing when and how to use a specific tool, technique or approach is essential for a Scrum Master’s ability to serve their constituents. 

Many agile practitioners identify as Agile Coaches. We support these people. They work to help people and teams solve complex problems by finding new and creative ways to develop their skills, capabilities and competencies beyond the Scrum framework, which is designed to be just that - a framework. We believe great Agile Coaches create an environment where Professional Scrum can thrive and are able to partner with organizations in ways that allow them to realize the full benefit Scrum offers for teams and organizations.

As of February 2022, the popular United States job search site Indeed.com showed over 21,000 open vacancies for Agile Coaches. Interestingly, there were just fewer than 3,000 postings for Scrum Masters. This is curious by itself, since Scrum remains the most prevalent framework in today’s agile enterprise. We also fear it further diminishes the positioning of Scrum Masters as people who have accountability for serving people, teams and organizations. 

The prevalence of Agile Coaches and the industry’s seeming preference for Agile Coaches instead of Scrum Masters can lead to challenging dynamics for practitioners and leaders who aspire to create agile enterprises. There is no shortage of stories where the presence of Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters reinforces artificial hierarchy that diminishes organization agility as well as marginalizes the value highly skilled Scrum Masters have to offer. Our desire is to focus on helping practitioners excel with Professional Scrum and avoid debate on the job titles and role names people choose to use within organizations.

We recognize the gap between Scrum Master and Agile Coach stays quite murky for many in the agile industry. Lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of skills and experience of a great Scrum Master is partially to be blamed for the lackadaisical and oftentimes shallow agile adoptions where Scrum is a prevalent framework. At Scrum.org, we strive to position Scrum Masters best to serve teams and organizations. We also want to help them overcome the disparities introduced by the industry dichotomy of Scrum Master vs. Agile Coach. We recognize our own responsibility for educating the industry and organizations about the agile coaching skills and expertise Scrum Masters possess.

There is nothing in agile coaching that is so magical that it is only available to those with the title Agile Coach and out of reach for those who are Scrum Masters. These methods, approaches, processes, tools, and techniques, are actually not beyond the reach of any agile practitioner - be they a team member or an agile leader. We assert that every leader can be a better mentor or a better coach by learning, practicing and honing their corresponding skills without taking on the formal title of an Agile Coach.

A core component of agile coaching is the coaching stance. The word coaching is at the core of the phrase agile coaching. As a result, the coaching stance is important to becoming skillful at the work. It is essential to remember that coaching is only one of the areas where practitioners develop capabilities. As stated, mentoring, facilitation and teaching are foundational to agile coaching as well. 
 

Uplifting the use of Coaching

We are embarking on a journey of learning, exploration, and clarification of the role coaching plays in the modern workplace and how it supports the advancement of Professional Scrum around the world. We invite you to learn more about our perspectives on The Coaching Stance, join us in the conversation and follow future developments of this work.

Learn More about the Coaching Stance.