Qualities of Great Agile Coaches

Great scrum masters and great agile coaches are a rare and special breed.  They often do their best work behind the scenes, and they seldom want credit for a job well done.  Instead, they’re most satisfied when they see their teams grow and succeed.  In many ways, it’s like watching our kids grow up.  They started as a collection of individuals and mature to a self-organized, effective, and efficient team.  So what qualities set apart the good agile coaches and scrum masters from the great ones?  I thought I’d try to answer that question today by way of several biases.

  • Bias toward learning.  They have a thirst for knowledge, and enjoy stretching themselves.  With every good book or blog post they read, they find a way to incorporate its lessons into their lives and for their teams.  They are excited every time an aha moment occurs, and they love to share this knowledge with others when the opportunity presents itself.
  • Bias toward action.  Why discuss something in theory when you can try it out in practice?  That’s not to say they have a “ready, fire, aim” attitude.  It simply means that once an idea has enough form, great agile coaches will give things a go and refine the finer points as issues arises.
  • Bias toward innocence.  They never assume the worst.  If a team member is late, it’s not because they want to be.  Maybe they had to take an important call. If someone has a short fuse, it’s not because they’re a jerk.  Maybe something is going on in his/her personal life.  That certainly doesn’t mean they’re a push over.  Quite the opposite.
  • Bias toward honesty.  The best of us confront difficult situations without delay but with respect and honesty. Great agile coaches explain the circumstance and how it impacted them, they encourage team members to express themselves similarly, and they enjoy it when others are willing to be straight with them.
  • Bias toward silence.  They know when and how to speak their thoughts, but more importantly, they know when to shut up and listen.  They’re not listening to reply but listening to understand and to help.  Doing so allows them ask inspiring and thought provoking questions.  They’re also not afraid of awkward silences if it serves the team.  After all, creating a void is a great way to foster self-organization.
  • Bias toward the team.  It’s team, then team members, then organization, then self.  Don’t get me wrong.  All of these are important, but just as a backlog is forced rank, force ranking priorities can help when time is short or when sacrifices are necessary.

I wish I could say I embody all of these to the fullest.  I don’t.  Just as the agile mindset is a journey and never a destination, so are these biases.  No matter how long we’ve been an agile coach or scrum master, we all still have room to grow, and it’s through our teams, our learnings, and our failures that we do so.

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15 thoughts on “Qualities of Great Agile Coaches”

  1. Rachelle Rowland

    Love your blog. Keep up the great insights. I will share with my peeps if you are ever in the Sacramento area you should swing by and I can give you a tour!

    I try to embody all of the above in life and work. It is a journey!!☺

    1. Thank you, Rachelle. That’s nice to hear. 🙂 I try to post something new at least once every other week. In this case, it was a quiet weekend, and I was inspired to write one right after the other.

      Our newest scrum master moved to the bay from Sac. It’s a great place to be. Where do you work?

      1. Rachelle Rowland

        I work for K-LOVE Radio in Rocklin. http://www.klove.com
        We have a super cool radio studio/recording studio — oh yeah… and 3 scrum teams with newly designed scrum work spaces. It’s super fun and inspiring. Come by sometime!

        1. Rachelle Rowland

          Yes, we use scrum to build our websites and our internal business applications. We have a dozen or so apps we have built including applications for engineering, pastoral care, listener services, HR and programming. We are fairly new to the agile process (18 months) but we are ALL IN!

  2. syed ghulam dastagir

    Thanks. With being innocent enough should he be realistic too so that he could grab the genuine issues causing damage to the project?

    1. There’s a balance here. I suppose it goes back to the adage “innocent before proven guilty.” However, if a team member is behaving to the detriment of the team, that’s when a solid dose of honesty is in order. Ideally, this honesty comes from fellow team members. With younger teams, it may originate from the scrum master.

  3. This is amazing blog. I really appreciate the way it highlights the true qualities of such roles. Perhaps, the bias towards practical thoughts is one of the keen areas of an Agile coach.

    Thank you!

    1. Great thought. I might describe that as a bias toward simplicity. If something can’t be easily understood, it will be difficult to gain buy in and ultimately execute.

  4. Being a long time ScrumMaster the Agile Coach role really gives me grief in the consultant world. I like to coach at higher levels but keep an ear to the ground and have a team to be a Scrum Master for. The Agile Coach role never existed before 5 or so years ago and it seemed ScrumMasters would bond together to coach the organization and most organizations now don’t want SMs messing with the org or the business side of the house, it’s always can’t you just focus on the team:)

    So I actually try to find niche roles where I am still doing both but if your title is ScrumMaster in larger organizations theses days we are being severely devalued nowadays.

    1. Hi, Mark. Thanks for the feedback. Myself, I see scrum master and agile coach as one and the same. The difference is that a scrum master is specific to scrum while agile coach is a better title for shops that utilize multiple flavors of agile.

      1. That’s true and how I would see it unfortunately I just don’t think organizations view it that way at least on the east coast. Agile Coaches tend to get higher salaries/rates than Scrum Masters overall but I guess that is why I also call myself an Agile Coach but it’s still a pet peeve:)

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