scrum master and agile coach

What’s the Difference Between a Scrum Master and Agile Coach?

A Medium follower asked me a few questions recently:

What’s the difference between a Scrum Master and agile coach? How can they both be involved in Scrum? Why is it seen as a natural ‘progression’ to move from Scrum Master to agile coach?

These are popular questions, and I’ve run across many–maybe too many, in fact–who have answered them in varying ways.  Maybe I should add my answers to the pile.  After all, I often describe myself as “a confused soul who can’t decide whether he’s an agile coach or a Scrum Master.”  Before I begin, my philosophy today is a simple one:

The name of a thing is not the thing.  Forget titles.  Forget hierarchy.  Focus instead on those around us and the value we create for those we serve.

So What’s the Difference?

It depends on who you ask. For me, the better question is why the difference? Why is it necessary?  What value does the distinction add for those around us? The conclusions that I’ve arrived at are many. Here’s a few:

  • We humans crave validation. We want to know that the work we’re doing leads to some positive outcome for ourselves. Constructing hierarchy from Scrum Master to agile coach is one way of achieving this.
  • “Scrum Master” assumes all we know is Scrum.  However, any good Scrum Master borrows techniques from wherever s/he can find it: lean, XP, biology, systems thinking, Cynefin, scaled approaches to name a few. In this way, I suppose, rebranding ourselves as an agile coach makes it clear to others we know more than just Scrum.
  • Agile coach sounds more authoritative than Scrum Master.  For consultants, this could be especially important.  After all, we should be appropriately compensated for the value we provide our employer, right?  And somewhere along the way, organizations began putting greater intrinsic value in those with the title of agile coach.  Of course, that leads us to an interesting question, and one that I don’t have the answer to:

What confluence of events occurred that led to agile coach outranking Scrum Master?

I feel it couldn’t be as inane as how one title sounded next to the other.  Or was it?

How Can They Both Be Involved in Scrum?

Frankly, however makes sense. However works for the team.  Whatever benefits those involved. Again, the name of a thing is not the thing.  Just by claiming to be an agile coach doesn’t make it so, and it certainly doesn’t bestow us with some mystical talents by placing “agile coach” on our business cards.  So forget titles; all those are simply human constructs anyway. Learn about what works from those in our ever helpful community, try it, tweak it, and make it work for you.

But You Didn’t Answer the Question.

I guess you’re right.  So what’s the difference between Scrum Master and agile coach?  Let’s define Scrum Master since that’s straight forward.  From the Scrum Guide:

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.

It goes on to explain more, and I’ll leave it to you to read on.  I’ve also tried putting myself in the shoes of my 92 year old grandmother, explaining what a Scrum Master does.  You can find that here.

So how about agile coach?  How is that defined?  It varies.  There’s no widely accepted definition, and I believe some claim to be one long before I think they should.  Others–like myself–still feel uncomfortable calling themselves an agile coach. Here’s what I can say with confidence about credible agile coaches:

  • As Luca pointed out in the comments below, Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd did an excellent job describing the role in this great read.
  • Agile coaches borrow inspiration from wherever it can be found to include Scrum.
  • All agile coaches are continuous learners and would adhere to many of the north stars I discuss here and epitomize these qualities.
  • All good coaches must be adept, experienced, and skilled at coaching.  While that seems obvious, I’ve run into many self-proclaimed coaches who lack this skill.  Excellent coaches like the late Jerry Weinberg come to mind.  This short, tongue in cheek quote from Jerry contains so much insight:

When you’re not terribly smart, it helps to be a good listener.

If we put our definitions side by side, are the two really all that different?  I think any good Scrum Master is also an agile coach.  However, I wouldn’t make that same claim when I talk about mediocre or poor Scrum Masters.  Of course, that begs the question of what makes for a good Scrum Master.

Anyway, that’s it for today.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  And if you know how we came to believe that agile coach outranks Scrum Master, fill me in.  I’d love to learn.

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2 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Scrum Master and Agile Coach?”

  1. My feeling is that there is no difference.

    I like the framework for Developing Great Agile Coaches by the Agile Coaching Institute (link below).

    Both agile coaches and scrummasters will have a deep knowledge in a particular domain (transformation, technology, and business); competencies in teaching, mentoring, coaching, and facilitating; a growing ability to know which competency (stance) a situation is requiring (e.g. a transformational issue requiring some teaching).

    Similarly, engineers have a broad set of skills that apply no matter what part of the stack you find yourself working in. While some will have more experience and knowledge of particular languages and practices, and others will have an affinity for a certain part of the stack and want to stay there, you ultimately apply your talents to best serve what the team/org needs right now.

    1. I agree, Luca. I don’t really see a difference either, and I love Lyssa’s work. I wish I had thought to give it more attention in this blog post. I sometimes feel our community devotes too much time, attention, and emotional energy arguing about these roles when we could use that energy more effectively by helping those around us.

      Also, it’s not lost on me that I took the time and energy to draft this blog post just to say we should spend less time and energy on the topic of the blog post. 😉

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