February 2, 2011

Scrum Master? Or coach?

I've seen many more open positions for Scrum Masters than I have agile coaches. I've been asked to be a Scrum Master more than I've been asked to be a coach. Is it just marketing? Scrum has market share; it's widely known and understood. Does the market distinguish between a Scrum Master and a coach?

I often find that companies looking for a Scrum Master want someone to run their standups, planning and retrospectives. They want an agile project manager to manage the projects, to report status, to track budget.

They seem to not want the change agent and process improvement aspects of the Scrum Master role. Or, they want a little change agent and process improvement to happen as long as it's directed towards the team and not management. And anything directed toward the team mustn't involve facilities or pair programming. Or HR. Or empowerment.

But isn't that what a Scrum Master is supposed to be, a coach?

I dislike this dichotomy.

There was a recent discussion on the Agile Alliance discussion group on LinkedIn about the career growth path of a Scrum Master. The question was, is there a growth path? I liked Irene Michlin's response:

Have they all brought their teams to "performing" stage? Process is perfect, as in "nothing left to improve" a constant motive in retrospectives?

They are either all very brilliant and need to go and become trainers and coaches, or they don't get what it means to be a Scrum Master.

If there is something left to improve, then your job as a Scrum Master is not done -- you haven't mastered Scrum Mastering. Or, at least you aren't done coaching. But there is that distinction again.

I dislike this distinction between Scrum Master and coach. Unfortunately, I find it useful. It's a tell, as in poker. It helps evaluate an opportunity. It's how the conversation goes. "No, I won't be your Scrum Master, but I'll gladly train your team to handle this role. I'll be your coach. Are you ready for a change agent?" Sigh. I find it useful, therefore I tend to perpetuate the distinction.

What should we do? Not use the term coach and elevate the term Scrum Master? Should we live with it because it is what it is? Once the dichotomy is there it's not possible to kill it. Is there a useful distinction between the two?


  1. I wish I had an answer. Intuitively it seems to me that Scrum Master is more suitable for organisations that already "get" Scrum. Then you can come and be a scrum master for one of the many agile teams, work with product owner who also "gets" Scrum etc.
    But if the organisation is new to Agile, or worse, doing "scrum but" and is very close to disappointment with the whole thing, then you need to be more than that. That's where you need to become change agent on organisational level, and this role I tend to see as coaching.

  2. Yeah... I cannot express how profoundly I disagree with the idea that a ScrumMaster role is the same as a coach. Maybe I'll write a post explaining why... for now, I just wanted to register my disagreement ;-)

  3. A ScrumMaster isn't a coach. He/she can be a coach in due time, but ScrumMastering isn't a coaching role.
    The role of a ScrumMaster is to keep impediments from the team. Hold the team accountable to the commitments, etc etc. Coaching is more of that change agent role.

  4. Irene, Mike, and Peter (Agile Scout), thanks for your comments.

    Peter and Irene -- why shouldn't a scrummaster be a change agent?

    Mike, I look forward to your blog post!

  5. There could be multiple reason's to leave a team more on their own.
    The fact that there are still things to improve is NOT a reason to stay. Actually leaving a team on their own, can help them to become performing. And on the opposite side, when your team is performing with me as a scrum master, the fact that I leave put's them back at forming (any big change does)

    I agree with Mike that both jobs are different.

    I like doing both jobs. I think that every agile coach should every x time go back to work as a scrum master (or similar).


  6. After some thought and a few attempts to better explain my position to others, I've decided that I don't believe what I wrote in this post. Here's how I arrived at my new found position.

    First, CSM is meaningless. Well, it means you took a class. But otherwise, it's meaningless. But when I was talking about Scrum Masters in this post, I wasn't talking about the certification. That was irrelevant to my point.

    My original thinking process was something like this: The most basic thing you could do and still be called a Scrum Master... doesn't add much value. Therefore, I was arguing that that's not a good standard. That's not sufficient. The bare minimum to use the label Scrum Master isn't good enough.

    I was arguing that what companies need is what many people call a 'coach'. Call it coach, call it potato, call it Scrum Master, call it whatever. Whatever you call it, what they need is a good coach.

    I was hung up on using the popular / branded term Scrum Master in place of coach and then trying to get people to realize that the Scrum Master should be a coach, not what is typically called a Scrum Master. The more I tried to verbalize that the more futile it sounded. I recant my post.

    There is a place for a Scrum Master, and Scrum Masters should strive to the best of their abilities to do more than the bare minimum. But there's a whole lot of ground between there and where the best coaches are. So, the distinction is worthwhile. I embrace it.

    Many thanks to Mike Cottmeyer for helping me sound this out today.

  7. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

    Scrum Process