January 20, 2022

How to Fail as an Agile Coach in Scrum

Scrum defines three specific accountabilities within the Scrum Team: the Developers, the Product Owner, and the Scrum Master. — Scrum Guide 2020

When it comes to the Scrum framework, these three roles with their accountabilities are the minimum required to deliver a potentially “done” Increment. The fact that Scrum doesn’t define other roles/positions/functions (how you want to call them) doesn’t rule out the fact that their accountabilities aren’t valuable. A Scrum project still needs to be managed; work still needs to be analysed; teams, people and organisations still need to be coached etc. It’s just managed differently in Scrum.

For this blog, I’ll be focussing on the latter, which is coaching people, teams and organisation as a dedicated Agile Coach — a rather popular phenomenon but at the same time a confusing, perhaps even a contradicting one. For the sake of argument, in this blog, I won’t be talking about the value of a dedicated Agile Coach or whether there should be Agile Coaches in Scrum? I’ll leave this discussion in the middle. The reality is that there are Agile Coaches among us in today’s world, so instead, I’ll be focusing on the four oversights that I often see Agile Coaches make when entering an organisation where Scrum is being adopted.

Keep in mind that this is my personal view when it comes to helping organisations in their Agile journey sustainably while respecting the three Scrum accountabilities. Surely there are more misunderstandings, missteps and oversights out there. Perhaps for the next blog.

#1. Focussing too much on the Scrum team

Wait what? Isn’t this is a good thing? As mentioned earlier, Scrum defines three specific accountabilities, and an Agile Coach should understand and more importantly respect them.

When it comes to establishing Scrum and helping everyone understand the Scrum theory and practices within the Scrum Team and the organisation, an Agile Coach should respect the Scrum Master’s accountabilities in this matter.

The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organisation. — Scrum Guide 2020

The first oversight is where an Agile Coach actively participates in all the Scrum team’s events and coaches the entire Scrum Team on the spot when things don’t go “according to Scrum”.

This all sounds pretty good. What’s the issue here?

Two things:

  1. This behaviour doesn’t encourage self-managing through ownership: In psychology, ownership is the feeling that something is yours. This sense of ownership becomes stronger when you’ve experienced/discovered it yourself rather than being told.
  2. It undermines the Scrum Master role: It creates confusion when the accountabilities of a Scrum Master is being undermined. Not only for the team members but also for the organisation.

You know you’re doing a lousy job as an Agile Coach when the Scrum Team relies on you to do Scrum.

How can an Agile Coach help the Scrum Team without jeopardising their self-managing ability?

As an Agile Coach, acknowledge that a Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team, Product Owner, and organisation. A more sustainable and respectful approach to help the Scrum Team indirectly would be coaching the Scrum Master directly. This way, the Agile Coach gives the Scrum Master and the team room to inspect and adapt. Encouraging the path to self-discovery and letting the Scrum Team take ownership of their way of working.

#2. Not fully understanding Scrum as a framework.

The Scrum framework is purposefully incomplete, only defining the parts required to implement Scrum theory. Scrum is built upon by the collective intelligence of the people using it. Rather than provide people with detailed instructions, the rules of Scrum guide their relationships and interactions. — Scrum Guide 2020

A second oversight is coaching Scrum Teams to work with ‘an implementation of Scrum that you’re familiar with’. The Scrum framework is purposefully incomplete by design. As an Agile Coach, it’s crucial to understand the difference between Scrum and “an implementation of Scrum”. Two teams can do Scrum and have two different implementations of Scrum. What works for one team doesn’t automatically mean that it will work for another. That is why the first value of the Agile Manifesto is about People & Interaction over Processes and Tools.

I’ve written a blog about Scrum vs ‘an implementation of Scrum’.

#3. Not understanding Empiricism

As mentioned above, there is no one implementation of Scrum. More often than not, we find ourselves in a complex environment where more is unknown than known and because of this, empiricism is your ally.

Scrum is founded on empiricism. Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed — Scrum Guide 2020

The three pillars of Scrum aka Transparency, Inspection & Adaptation — Designed by Jenny Yung

The third oversight is about focusing too much on “first-time-right”.
For example, we have a population of inexperienced Scrum Masters, so we hired an experienced Agile Coach to show the team how Scrum works. A potential danger is that the Agile Coach limits the Scrum team with one person’s intelligence. Also, this is a weak approach in a complex environment. Why? First of all, ownership, and secondly, you set the team on the path focused on “inspect and accept” instead of “inspect and adapt”.,

#4. Agile Coach, The One Man Army, The Super Hero Change Agent.

Agile Coaches are often hired to operate on the organisational level. A couple of examples are:

  • Initiating an Agile movement within the company.
  • Assisting in turning Strategic Themes into Portfolio Vision and how to include corporate KPI’s and OKR’s.
  • Help to identify Operational and Development Value Streams.
  • Implementing a new organisational structure to deal with, for example, scaling or portfolio and program planning, etc.

Often Agile Coaches joins an organisation with a backpack filled with experience. This is great! They start having conversions with Users, C-level Executives, IT Managers, Enterprise Architects, etc. The goal here is to get an idea of the organisation’s current state and identify key stakeholders.

The fourth oversight is about not including others. The “thinking and conversation part” is done by the Agile Coaches, and in a very top-down approach, the teams do the execution part. Encapsulating all the knowledge and limiting the organisation with one person’s intelligence. Although this may feel effective and efficient, it’s not a sustainable way to help an organisation become Agile in the long run.

Conclusion

  • A Scrum Master is an Agile Coach, and an Agile Coach is what a Scrum Master should be. As an Agile Coach, help your Scrum Master become one.
  • Ultimately leading, training, and coaching the organisation in its Scrum adoption is a Scrum Master’s job. As an Agile Coach, how can you help and support a Scrum Master here?
  • Scrum and Agile are not the same but don’t exclude them from each other. A Scrum Master should also be familiar with ‘Scrum transcending’ complementary practices to improve agility and help the organisation deliver value.
  • As an Agile Coach, don’t limit the Scrum team or organisation with one person’s intelligence. Include others!
  • Nowadays, everyone claims to be an Agile Coach. Being an actual Coach is not something you can simply be tho. It requires intensive study combined with the required “flight hours” to apply practices and models in real life.
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