Scrum Notes 2013-20

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Scrum Master or Agile Coach? ▶️

Image circa 1400, found on

I don't read scripture literally. I read it for the spirit. And still I identify as a Christian. I don't follow the Scrum Guide literally either. I follow it for the spirit. And still I am a Scrum practitioner. In the guide, the scrum master is described as:

"...responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules. The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren't. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team."

A good scrum master is all of that, but a true scrum master, a spirited scrum master is much more besides. Such a scrum master holds a mirror up to the organisation, allowing it to see exactly what it is. Mirrors don't change anything, they only reflect the truth.

A spirited scrum master is Feste, the court jester in Twelfth Night, speaking truth to power. She is an Old Testament prophet, leading the people back to their true path, and he is Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, sitting on the shoulder of the organisation, its whispering conscience.

Historically, there has been no role in an organisation quite like this one. And this goes some way to explain why so few can enact the scrum master role in this way. Those that do don't last long. But without those courageous few, brimming with faith for a more humane workplace nothing will ultimately change. And so the few keep trying, looking for cracks in the facade through which to enter, operating in stealth mode as necessary, creating change from the grass roots of an organisation, influencing through compassionate confrontation, leaving no stone unturned.

This is not what an Agile Coach does. An Agile Coach is, firstly, a much more acceptable job title, much better understood, easier to pigeon hole, and fits well into existing corporate culture. An Agile coach has one job: to coach. It's a different job entirely.

True, the term "coaching" is mentioned three times in the longer description of a scrum master,1 but a scrum master focused on organisational change should not take this on beyond the basics. Most are not trained for it, and to focus on this activity is to neglect the other, more important work. A true scrum master will identify the need for coaching, and should have a network of colleagues—real coaches—to recommend.

In our recent vlog, Jem D'jelal and I discuss why so many scrum masters eventually identify as Agile coaches. It can be summarised as money, status and career path. But the two roles are different, in many ways—and one very important one: the coach belongs in the system, the scrum master does not. Which is exactly why we need to be there.

Both roles are valuable, but let's stop conflating them. To do so loses the essence of what a true scrum master can be—and must be. The more we comply to the status quo the less we will affect it. The result, inevitably, will be a reinforcement of the way things are. The scrum master is uniquely positioned to confront the way things are, and to help write a new corporate culture story. Wise CEOs will make a place in their organisation for this role—and take time to seek out one of those few individuals who can truly live it to the full.

1 Update: the 2020 scrum guide mentions the word 'coach' only twice in the entire document. Clearly then coaching (somewhat conflated with mentoring) is a very small part of the scrum master's work.

London, 25/09/2017   comment