Can our Scrum Master be our Agile Coach?

By Dipanjan Munshi on February, 19 2019

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Dipanjan Munshi

Last fall I had the chance to share some thoughts about the value of Agile Coaches in a post I entitled 4 Ways an Agile Coach Can Boost Your Agile Adoption.  In that post I recommended that the Scrum Master should not act at the Agile Coach – this recommendation prompted several fellow Agile practitioners to reach out to me for clarification around WHY I was asserting this recommendation.  Many of them reminded me that the Scrum Guide™ mentions that coaching is one of the foremost responsibilities of a Scrum Manager and others reasoned that an experienced Scrum Master should be able to carry out most of the responsibilities that I have outlined for an Agile coach in my blog.

Two very valid perspectives and I appreciated the thoughtful questions and discussion.

I agree.  There is nothing that prevents a Scrum Master from carrying out the responsibilities of an Agile coach. I, myself, have played this dual role multiple times.


That said, my experience using Agile tells me that the role of Scrum Master and Agile Coach are inherently different and may actually have conflicting perspectives. And so, I don’t recommend a single person execute both roles simultaneously, especially in medium and large-scale organizations. Let me share a few additional thoughts around the conflicting perspectives that I believe exists (or may be perceived) between these two roles.


Conflicting Perspective #1

The priority of a Scrum Master is always their own project, but the priority of a coach is the organization as a whole.


A Scrum Master’s primary focus is always to coach and help their own development team deliver value. It is not really in their job description to be responsible for every other team or development unit. Therefore, a Scrum Master is seldom perceived as a neutral agent. In fact, that is the very reason why Scrum Masters in larger organizations often find it challenging to deal with interdependencies between multiple projects. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a Scrum Master of a project to convince another project to move one of their low-value stories up in the backlog, just so that their team can use that functionality to deliver one of their high-value features.

Agile coaches on the other hand, typically operate at a higher level and have access to multiple different stakeholders who may or may not be involved with the development organization. They bring in an enterprise perspective and will recommend what is best at the organization’s level, rather than individual project levels. They are, therefore, perceived as more neutral personas, typically like a management representative and are generally more successful in resolving dependencies and release conflicts between multiple projects.

A Scrum Master who is also playing a coach role typically loses this neutrality advantage, and their recommendations may be perceived to be oriented to their own team rather than that of the organization in general.


Conflicting Perspective #2

Scrum Masters have active duties whereas coaches are more consultative.


Most organizations treat the role of an Agile coach as a consultative one, (i.e. they are supposed to provide advice and recommendations for enabling organizational Agile adoption, but they are not responsible for taking an implementation decision.) Agile coaches can help project teams  implement a certain Agile practice, but the decision to adopt the practice is never their prerogative.

A Scrum Master, on the other hand has a particularly active role with some amount of authority around the cadence of their own Agile team. Although much of the decision is taken by the team itself, the Scrum Master has significant influence on several important parameters such as the sprint duration, team size, running planning and estimation meetings, retrospectives, etc. They also decide the metrics and measurements that they want to use to gauge the team performance.

The dynamics of being an active team member is very different from that of a consultant. Therefore, a Scrum Master working as a coach may find it difficult to balance between their active and consultative responsibilities.

Conflicting Perspective #3

Most Scrum Master’s focus on the Scrum framework while Agile Coaches believe in optimizing all the delivery levers.


Most Scrum Masters are that – “masters of Scrum”. They have deep knowledge about Scrum and would like to view Scrum as the ultimate answer to all Agile development set-ups. You need a Scrum Master if you are following the Scrum framework, or at least a part of it. However, Scrum is a light-weight framework, and intentionally so. For defining an optimal delivery framework, most organizations require more than what Scrum recommends. For example, user experience considerations, test driven development, limiting work in progress, exploratory iterations, etc. are some practices that does not come from Scrum.

Agile coaches do not base their recommendations on a specific Agile framework. Due to their all-round experience with multiple frameworks and their implementation in other companies, they strive to create an Agile environment using a hybrid of practices that is just-right for the organization. Sometimes, it may mean that the organization does not adopt Scrum at all, which implies that there will be no requirement for a Scrum Master. Coaches also work at smoothing the wrinkles around an organization’s operating model, resourcing processes, vendor management and other extraneous aspects that have a profound impact on delivery.


Conflicting Perspective #4

A Scrum Master already has too many things on their plate and may not be able to do justice to a coaching role.


The responsibilities of a Scrum Master go way beyond coaching their team and facilitating the Agile meetings. They must also wear the project management hat, which requires their compliance with the project management policies of the organization such as risk management, stakeholder management, providing reports to different stakeholders, tracking budget against value, analyzing team effectiveness as well as billing and resourcing activities. Organizations that are more stringent with their project management gates require Scrum Masters to often spend a large amount of their time working on complex data and reports.

Therefore, it is quite challenging for a Scrum Master to be able to focus at anything else other than their own team. That is why you need a different role with a macro level perspective to enable your organization to become Agile.

An Agile coach has a dedicated focus of improving Agility at an organizational level and is never expected to work on day to day operational tasks. In fact, they often have an additional project manager tagged to them to manage whatever little project management practices they must follow, leaving them with ample time to do the job that they have been hired to do.


Conflicting Perspective #5

Scrum Masters enable Agile execution while Agile coaches enable business agility.


Although this is almost a corollary from the above four points, I feel that this is too important not to be called out separately. While Scrum Masters are the beacons of successful Agile projects, Coaches are messengers of Enterprise Agility.  Some of the core levers that a coach works with are innovation, adaptability, business value, flexibility and market response. Agile frameworks like Scrum or XP may form an important lever, but they are not the be all and end all for their job. In many organizations, Agile framework adoption has much lower in priority compared to market adaptability.

Again, as I mentioned before, there is nothing stopping a Scrum Master from working at the level of a coach or vice versa, but it will be challenging for someone to handle both the roles simultaneously both from the perspective of workload as well as organizational reach. An organization may have a large set of Scrum Masters for coaching multiple projects, but it is recommended that if they want to create a true Agile organization, they need an Agile coach. 

My company is proud to offer Agile coaching, training, and advisory services to a multitude of businesses on this valuable practice. In fact I have been working with most facets of Agile for over 15 years. It would be my pleasure to share with you some of my knowledge on this diverse topic, I look forward to hearing from you via our Agile information page today! 

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