From Scrum Master to Agile Coach: a never-ending journey 1/2

Hi there, it’s been a while! I hope you enjoyed the end-of-year festivities and had time to rest 🥳😴 I took my time to find the motivation and write my first article of 2020 but now that I’m doing it I must say I’m enjoying it, I missed you guys (I know, I might be talking only to myself but hey, it doesn’t matter)!

A lot has been said and written on the Scrum Master to Agile Coach topic, I’ve read several articles and seen a few conferences too and I always learn something new. Each experience is different, each person has her own tips and process and well, I wanted to give you my own. I’ll split it in 2 short articles so it’s easier to read 😉

To be Scrum Master or not to be…

Let’s get this one out of the way right away. By definition, a Scrum Master is here to help a team work more efficiently by using Scrum. The Scrum Guide is actually pretty clear on that:

The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.

The Scrum Guide

So here is the question:

If you are not using Scrum, are you still a Scrum Master?

There are different opinions on the subject and my goal is not to spend much time on this particular debate but I strongly believe that vocabulary is important. Tribal Leadership actually proposes to use vocabulary to help people switch from one tribal stage to the next. Having that in mind my answer is no, if you’re not doing Scrum you are not a Scrum Master. There, I said it!

Now you could call yourself a lot of different things and there is one that I see quite often (and to be honest I have used it a few times too): Agilist. That’s fine but this could be used for any person convinced by agility or maybe even working in an agile environment, it doesn’t give you much information on the role of the person.

I like the term Agile Coach. It’s being criticized a lot right now for several reasons, the main one being that of all the Agile Coaches out there very few have been trained as a Coach (just so you know, I’m one of those) and it’s a fair point too but still: the goal, skills and general attitude are quite similar. Personally I spend a lot of time educating myself and trying to get better and yes, I’m sure a real course would be very useful but I do consider myself as an Agile Coach and experience is helping me improve constantly.

Keep the mindset

Ok, this one seems kind of obvious, I know, but it is important. Whatever the title you have or the job you’re doing the most important thing is the mindset.

To build the right product try, learn and improve. It’s no news, pretty much everybody understands it now, there’s no way you can know upfront everything that should be done. Without getting into the roadmap discussion you should always keep that in mind and teach to the team to do the same. Challenge what you think you know, make sure you are using the right metrics and find the right moment to persist or pivot your product vision.

Grow unified teams with transparency, respect and candor. Great teams members will support each other and face problems and adversities together. Help them grow by giving them trust, confidence and honest feedback. Tell a person she did something good is important and easy. Telling her when something is wrong is just as important but it’s another story. Learn how to communicate with each individual and don’t shy away from your own emotions, if you want to get trusted you need to be true.

Now you might be thinking “OK that’s fair but I don’t see the difference with a Scrum Master for now…”. Well as I said just before, a Scrum Master’s job is to make sure you understand Scrum and help you use it to be more efficient. The thing is maybe Scrum is not what you need, actually maybe none of the known framework and methodologies are what you need! The #NoFramework approach is starting to make some noise, the blind application of Agile Frameworks is seldom completely successful and we finally understood that the reason is simple: every company is unique, with it’s own people, culture, constraints and so on. Trying to do the same thing everywhere seemed like a nice idea but the promises of agile (happy employees and better products of high quality delivered faster to the client) are not always here, you need to adapt the way you work to your environment. Took us some time but that’s ok, we learned our lesson.

As an Agile Coach, my feeling is that I’m working more on the system to make it safe and adaptive than on the team itself. I use my agile expertise and experience to analyze what’s going on and try new approaches, accepting that each change or initiative might not work (or just temporarily) and that we will have to change again at some point. Creating a company culture where change is not a stressful journey is hard, we all need some stability, but if you can make it painless or at least motivating then you’ve done a great job.

Different roles for different situations

In your work, as in any other, you will have to assume different roles to answer specific needs:

  • Facilitator: help including every participant in a meeting, manage conflicts, create group dynamics…the facilitator is the key to efficient interactions
  • Mentor: work on a one-to-one basis with someone to help them grow, learn and get confidence. Sometime it’s just about listening when people need to talk, sometimes it’s also about counseling
  • Teacher: when some basic knowledge or behavior is lacking from the team you will put the teacher hat on, may it be with a classroom-like session or group activity
  • Expert: sometimes you will have to tell people what to do so that they can learn by experience and/or observation. This is particularly true with people who are new to agility or the way you do things in your company
  • Coach: the best way to make a team efficient is to teach people how to solve things by themselves. In the coach role you assume that the team has the knowledge and ability to find a solution. Your job here is to ask the right questions to help them find it and make sure they act accordingly

Yes, different roles for different situations. And yes, once again as a Scrum Master you will have to do all those things. What has change for me is the time and energy I spend on those activities. I take much more often the role of coach, mentor and teacher than before. I still act as a facilitator or expert sometimes but less than I used to. And I do think this was part of my evolution from Scrum Master to Agile Coach, I have a more global vision and don’t really care if they do this or that as long as it is efficient…

That’s all for today

I still have a few things to share with you but I’ll keep it for next time 🤓 So stay tuned and until then let me know what you think of this first part!


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