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Myth: The Scrum Master is a Junior Agile Coach

a simple, yet sufficient framework for complex product delivery. Scrum is not a one-size-fits-all solution, a silver bullet or a complete methodology. Instead, Scrum provides the minimal boundaries within which teams can self-organize to solve a complex problem using an empirical approach. This simplicity is its greatest strength, but also the source of many misinterpretations and myths surrounding Scrum. In this series of posts we — your ‘mythbusters’ Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem — will address the most common myths and misunderstandings. PS: The great visuals are by Thea Schukken. Check out the previous episodes here (1234 , 56 and 7).

Myth: The Scrum Master is a Junior Agile Coach

Are you a Scrum Master and ready for the next step as Agile Coach? Do you need an Agile Coach to help facilitate organizational change while Scrum Masters focus on the Scrum Teams? Do you have experience as a Scrum Master and want to become Agile Coach with a 3-day course? Ever considered changing your job title to ‘Agile Coach’ because it nets you a higher salary?

These statements exemplify the myth that we intend to bust today; the idea that the Scrum Master is a Junior Agile Coach. Or more simply; that the Agile Coach tends to larger organizational issues while Scrum Masters focus on Scrum Teams. In a way, busting this myth has been our mission over the past years. And one that we’ll continue to pursue, considering just how tenacious it is. We’ve written several articles, spoken at seminars, provided trainings and facilitated workshops; all related to explaining the purpose of the Scrum Master. In this blog post, we’ll share our view on this topic, and why this is a myth that requires very much to be busted.

This myth concerns us for a number of reasons:

  • It is based on a very poor and incomplete understanding of what it is that a Scrum Master actually does and should do according to the Scrum Framework;
  • It positions the Agile Coach as being higher in a traditional hierarchical structure. Especially within organizations that are used to ‘vertical growth paths’. The Scrum Master as the junior, Agile Coach as the medior and the Enterprise Coach as the senior;
  • Consultancy firms and training agencies encourage this way of thinking because it’s easy to match with their increasing hourly rates and expensive training programs. Notice the contradiction with the services these organizations provide: advising clients to think in ‘horizontal structures’ that promote the self-organizing capabilities of the teams, yet promote a ‘vertical structure’ because it works well from a commercial- and marketing-perspective;

This myth leads to artificial boundaries between what Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches do. The Scrum Master is only “allowed” to act on the level of the team. Therefore creating the necessary Scrum-friendly culture is far more difficult, causing the change for a successful Scrum adoption decrease. The Agile Coach is expected to “implement” the necessary organizational changes, but fails because of limited experiences “from the trenches” and not knowing how to deal with “outside in” change management.

Busting the Myth

Busting today’s myth is actually remarkably easy, and requires only a simple reading of the Scrum Guide. As has been the case with every myth we’ve addressed so far. The Scrum Guide offers a clear description of the services that a Scrum Master provides to the Development Team, the Product Owner and the _entire _organization. This includes coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality, helping the Product Owner find techniques for effective Product Backlog management and supporting the organization in delivering high-value products through the empirical process established through Scrum. To make this happen, the Scrum Master works with other Scrum Masters, Product Owners and people within the organization.

The 8 Stances of the Scrum Master

Another useful perspective on the role of the Scrum Master is offered in the white paper “The 8 stances of a Scrum Master”. It captures the various responsibilities of the Scrum Master in eight stances that are closely linked to the Scrum Guide. The Scrum Master is ….

  • An Impediment Remover that helps resolve issues that are blocking the team’s progress, taking into account the self-organizing capabilities of the Development Team;
  • Facilitator that sets the stage and provides clear boundaries in which the team can collaborate. This includes facilitation of the Scrum events to ensure they’ll achieve the desired outcome and — most importantly — that the empirical process is optimized;
  • Coach that helps individuals and groups to continuously improve in how they deliver valuable outcomes as a team or as an organization;
  • Teacher that ensures that Scrum and relevant techniques are well-understood and enacted;
  • Servant Leader that creates environments where teams can work effectively with stakeholders to create valuable outcomes;
  • Manager that is responsible for managing (true) impediments, eliminating waste, managing the process, managing the team’s health, managing the boundaries of self-organization, and managing the culture;
  • Change Agent that helps to enable a culture in which Scrum Teams can flourish — on every level of the organization;
  • Mentor that transfers agile knowledge and experience to the team.

Scrum Masters should be aware of these stances and its diversity, knowing when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. All with the purpose of helping people understand the spirit of Scrum.

Dealing with “senior” challenges

“A good Scrum Master helps a Scrum Team survive in an organization’s culture. A great Scrum Master helps change the culture so Scrum Teams can thrive.” — Geoff Watts

Both the Scrum Guide and the ‘8 Stances of the Scrum Master’ inform us about the challenges of a Scrum Master:

  • How to help people transition from plan-based approaches towards an empirical process that does more justice to the complexity of the work they do?
  • How to facilitate transparency, inspection, and adaptation in a traditional ‘closed’ organization?
  • How to coach organizations in truly collaborating with their Scrum Teams?
  • How to manage the boundaries of self-organization in control-driven organizations?
  • How to offer a “safe to fail & learn” environment where experimentation?
  • How to promote a culture where Scrum Teams can thrive?

Being a Scrum Master means dealing with these difficult challenges and influence the organization’s culture in such a way that…

  • Team success is valued over individual success;
  • Continuous improvement and experimentation are promoted;
  • “Agile contracts” are encouraged;
  • Stable team composition is supported;
  • Behaviour is rewarded, not individual achievements;

It’s up to the Scrum Master to help create this Scrum-friendly culture. Thankfully, the Scrum Master is in a perfect position to do this, because (s)he can enable change from the inside out.

“The Scrum Master enables change from the inside out.”

_Being part of a Scrum Team, the Scrum Master knows exactly what needs to be changed and why this change is necessary. They help teams uncover the impediments that are holding them back and the other ways by which the organization can deliver (even) more value with Scrum. This puts them in an excellent position to work with _HR-departments to find practices that are better aligned with Scrum. Or to help a Sales-departments move from ‘fixed-price / fixed-scope’-contracts to contracts that are more Agile-friendly. Or to increase collaboration between Scrum Teams and stakeholders. Working with the other Scrum Masters, they ignite the necessary organizational changes by influencing the system from the inside out. From the perspective of the Scrum Team, the Scrum Master truly is a ‘Change Facilitator’.

“The chances of successful Scrum adoption will increase drastically when you consider your Scrum Master as the true “inside out” change facilitators!”

When organizations choose to implement an empirical process primarily through Scrum, there should be almost no need for Agile Coaches. Instead, Scrum Masters should be enabled and supported to promote the empirical process on all levels of the organization. If they can, and if they do, no other roles are necessary to help organizations generate valuable outcomes with Scrum.

“When organizations choose to work with the Scrum, there should be almost no need for Agile Coaches.”

Should we fire all Agile Coaches?

No, you shouldn’t. By busting the myth that Scrum Masters are Junior Agile Coaches, we do not mean to say that Agile Coaches are of no value. We do mean to say that the need for Agile Coaches diminishes greatly when Scrum Masters are allowed to perform their intended role. We also mean to say that the hierarchical differences that we often see between Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters is based on a (very) poor understanding of Scrum.

Where Scrum Masters use an “inside-out” approach, Agile Coaches use an “outside in” approach. Obviously, we prefer the “inside-out” approach to drive organizational change. But both can add value to the organization from an organizational change point of view. They only have a different perspective on how to create a Scrum-friendly environment (if that’s the goal of the Agile Coach).

Using an “outside in” approach can definitely work, but it’s incredibly difficult. It’s our experience that many (external) Agile Coaches offer little value in this regard. They are powerless to affect change and have a very superficial understanding of what goes on inside the Scrum Teams (where the value is being generated). They are not part of the team, lack the necessary support from management and don’t have the kind of extensive experience that is needed to drive change from “the outside in”. Furthermore, many Agile Coaches barely even have experience with Scrum or as a Scrum Master. Yet coaching Scrum Masters is frequently a part of their daily work.

“The reality is that most Agile Coaches are junior Scrum Masters.”

So our advice for organizations is:

  • Focus on enabling Scrum Masters to facilitate change from “the inside out”. Support the Scrum Masters in creating great teams that build awesome products. Help them build the experience and the toolkit to do this, together.
  • Get rid of ‘Seagull Coaches’ that fly in, make a lot of noise, crap all over the place and fly on to a next customer, leaving a big mess behind;
  • If you really want to hire an Agile Coach in addition to the Scrum Masters already present within the organization, make sure that they have real, proven experience in affecting change “outside-in”. Make sure they focus their efforts on helping the teams and the Scrum Masters drive change themselves. Don’t create the artificial distinction between “change on the management level” (by Agile Coaches) and “change on the team level” (by Scrum Masters);

What if we use Kanban/XP/DevOps?

Scrum is just one framework to improve organizational agility and to create engaging workplaces where people work with stakeholders to build awesome products. As Geoff Watts describes: “Scrum aims to harness the power of self-organizing, autonomous, engaged teams who take responsibility for delivery and collaborate directly with their customers.”

Scrum is not a goal in itself. No matter what kind of framework or methodology you choose, it will involve organizational change to some degree. The people that are in the best position to effect this change are part of the teams that are doing the work. They may have titles like Scrum Master, Kanban God, XP Dude, DevOps Guru or no title at all: we don’t really care.

“Organisational change should be driven from the inside-out by people that are truly part of the teams.”

Closing

In this blog post, we’ve busted the myth that “The Scrum Master is a junior Agile Coach”. Effective change is driven from “the inside-out”. The Scrum Master — being part of the Scrum Team — is in a better position to facilitate this change than an (external) Agile Coach. This is also how the Scrum Guide intended the role of the Scrum Master.

When organizations choose to implement an empirical process primarily through Scrum, there should be almost no need for Agile Coaches. Instead, Scrum Masters should be enabled and supported to promote the empirical process on all levels of the organization. If they can, and if they do, no other roles are necessary to help organizations generate valuable outcomes through Scrum.

What do you think about this myth? Do you agree? What are your lessons learned?

Want to separate Scrum from the myths? Join our Professional Scrum Master orScrum Master Advanced courses (in Dutch or English). We guarantee a unique, eye-opening experience that is 100% free of PowerPoint, highly interactive and serious-but-fun. Check out our public courses (Dutch) or contact us for in-house or English courses. Check out previous episodes in this series here (123456 and 7).

Myth: The Scrum Master is a Junior Agile Coach
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