Hello, great people of the world. Welcome back to the Scrum Master blog series with yours truly. As we enter the new year, we are seeing Scrum becoming the most commonly used framework to manage complex product delivery in the industry. As Scrum is becoming the de-facto standard for product delivery, the expectations from a Scrum Master from the industry is becoming higher. For example at iPrice, the company that I currently work with, we have set the bar high for the Scrum Master role. We have invested time and effort in finding Scrum Masters in the job market and for developing more Scrum Masters internally with great coaching skills. Because as a company we truly believe that a great coach will improve people’s lives and the company will reap the benefit out of it.
The Scrum Master is a coach at the organisation level. The coaching stance is one of the stances that the Scrum Master need to master besides the many other stances. "Coaching" is mentioned explicitly and implicitly several times in Scrum Guide. Even though the expectation from a Scrum Master is to have coaching skills, however from our experience searching for awesome Scrum Masters in the job market, not many candidates have coaching skills nor understand that coaching stance is one of the stances expected from a Scrum Master.
In this article, we would like to share a high-level overview of the role of a Scrum Master as a coach which will hopefully slightly close the gap of misunderstanding about this role in the market. Hopefully, this article will inspire many more Scrum Masters in the job market to develop themselves to have great coaching skills. Hopefully, this article can be a starting point for you to search for more resources on coaching that is available in the market.
Unlike Scrum that has a single definition as defined on Scrum Guide, there is no single definition on coaching. Many professional coaches have their own definition of coaching. Perhaps this is why coaching is often misunderstood and underestimated by many organizations.
The International Coach Federation (ICF), the leading organization dedicated to advancing the coaching profession defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. I personally define coaching as a structured process to enable human-being to self-discover options and to take action from the selected option that will result in an outcome. There are many structures you can use for coaching, one of the structure I commonly use is the GROW model.
Even though the definition of coaching may differ from one professional coach to the other, the general consensus on the responsibility of a coach is not to tell the solution to the coaching counterpart but instead to guide them to discover the solution themselves. This is done through thought-provoking questioning and active listening. From my personal experience, effective coaching starts with the right attitude, that is seeing our coaching counterpart as they are not as we are. To be able to do coaching effectively, the coach must have curiosity, mindfulness, self-awareness, genuineness, authenticity, and compassion. My coach once told me that coaching is about being ruthlessly compassionate towards the coaching counterpart.
Coaching is often misunderstood and underestimated by many organizations. I have met many managers who thought that coaching is too wishy-washy for their organization. This is one of the reasons many organizations do not see any value in having a full-time Scrum Master to be an organizational coach. I have even met a Scrum trainer who suggested the role of the Scrum Master to be rotated within the Development Team members. You will never see an awesome Scrum Master that will impact people's life in the organization when the role of the Scrum Master is rotated. No wonder why so many Scrum Masters in the job market are not more than the team's personal secretary.
Because coaching is uncommon in organization life and often misunderstood, often times I have found it easier to explain to people what coaching is by explaining what coaching is not. Here are some of the common misinterpretations about coaching that I keep seeing in the market.
What makes coaching different to counseling is in coaching we are focused on bringing the coaching counterpart progress forward to reach their goal. In coaching, we are not interested in the coaching counterpart history, we are more interested in their future. Counseling involves getting someone out of their past and may involve fixing one’s mental health. In some countries, the profession of a counselor is regulated by the government. My suggestion to any Scrum Master who face a coaching counterpart with mental health, he/she must escalate this issue to the management so that it can be handled by a professional counselor.
Counseling involves listening to make the client feel better about their own life. Coaching is not just about a conversation to make the coaching counterpart feel better, but also to make the coaching counterpart feel the tension and think differently and to commit to an actionable item that will result in an outcome. Unlike counseling, in coaching the relationship between the coach and the coaching counterpart is at the same level. In coaching, the coaching counterpart is a partner of the coach rather than a patient.
A coach does not need to be a subject matter expert in a certain area. Coaching does not involve the coach telling the answer to the coaching counterpart. Unlike consulting, coaching is not about a coach creating a definitive solution that the coaching counterpart needs to follow. A great coach does not need to know the answer but instead, he/she is more focused on the coaching process and has the capability to guide people to discover their own solution within that process. In consulting the center of attention is the consultant, in coaching the center of the attention is the coaching counterpart.
I have seen how many Scrum Masters want to be good friends with their coaching counterpart. They feel good if they can be a good mate with their coaching counterpart. The pitfall of becoming friends with the coaching counterpart is it becomes harder to be unbiased and to stay objective during the coaching session. The difference between a coach and a friend are:
A good friend will listen to you. A great coach not only will listen to you but knows when to put tension. One of my coaches once told me, “Josh it looks like the coaching process is not working out, do you still want to do this?” during a coaching session. That was a big slap in my head as I was actually enjoying the flow of the conversation but she is seeing that I am not coming to an actionable outcome after a long conversation.
A good friend does not put tension because they want to maintain a good relationship. That is why when the Scrum Master becomes a friend he/she will be reluctant to put tension as that may risk him/her being disliked by the coaching counterpart. A coach put tension not because he/she wants to push his/her own agenda but because he/she cares about the growth of the coaching counterpart.
A buddy talk may last for hours in a coffee shop. We may be having a great time talking about many things with our friends. We may even gossip about others. A great coach always brings outcome from every coaching session. A coaching session is not an endless talk that results in nothing. A coaching session should result in an actionable item to be owned by the coaching counterpart.
A buddy talk may involve gossiping. A good friend may put pepper on top of the content of the conversation to make it more glossy. A great coach is more focused on the coaching process than the conversation content. To stay objective, the coach is not focusing on the content. When the coach is more focused on the content, he/she may manipulate the coaching counterpart thought process.
At iPrice, we require the Scrum Master to have the coaching skills to coach at organisation level. However, what we have found at iPrice after interviewing hundreds of Scrum Master until today, many of them are:
This is not all their fault. A lot of times we found that they are also influenced by management misunderstanding about this role. In the industry, some people have watered-down the Scrum Master to coach at the team level only hence the needs for an Agile Coach who coach at organisation level. The Scrum Guide explicitly mentioned that one of the services of the Scrum Master to the organisation is to coach the organisation and organisation means anyone outside of the Scrum Team. Scrum Master need to coach people outside of the Scrum Team, for example people from People & Culture, Finance, Legal, Marketing and Procurement department or even the executives when required.
A great Scrum Master spend more time coaching at the system level to help the overall organisation improve its agility rather than only locally optimising the team performance. When the Scrum Master coach an individual, the outcome from coaching the individual should contribute to the overall organisation performance. Coaching an individual without thinking the overall system may result in sub-optimal performance at the overall organisation level. The Scrum Master should see the whole landscape surrounding the Scrum team and the individuals during the coaching session.
One of the most asked questions I get from many managers is, "why should we hire a fulltime coaching role like the Scrum Master? It seems too expensive to hire someone who is not actively delivering anything." In some culture where the command-controlling mentality is quite thick, they will find the cost to hire someone who never tells the team what to do and is not accountable for the product delivery hard to justify. One of the reason why these organisations are struggling to justify the cost is that they have not yet seen great coaches. But that should not be the reason to underestimate the importance of the role of Scrum Master as organisation coach.
Here are some reasons that we found in our company why coaching and having a full-time coaching role is highly valuable.
People are naturally motivated, resourceful and whole. The alternative to that perception is a belief that human-being is fragile, dependent and immature and hence top-down command-controlling management model. We do coaching rather than command-controlling because we believe that human-being has the capacity and the capability to discover, learn, choose, solve problems, recover from failures and take actions independently. We want people to discover and own their solution. Learning only happens when people are given the opportunity for self-discovery.
At iPrice, we have seen during Scrum Master job interview how candidates who do not have these beliefs tend to push their own agenda for their own personal gain. They are focused on their own greatness rather than the greatness of the coaching counterpart. This is not all their fault. We found this quite common especially when in their previous job as a Scrum Master they are also expected to be the Technical Leader, the Delivery Manager and or the Project Manager.
As a human being, we naturally like to see stability, certainty and normal. We naturally avoid surprises and anything that is out of the ordinary. A great coach is able to guide us to see multiple different horizons and from many different perspectives. By seeing multiple different horizon and perspectives people gain objectivity and are able to try out many different things. By trying out many different things, people will gain the courage to experiment and will acquire new skills that will expand their capacity. These capabilities to see from multiple different horizons and perspectives will prepare them for any unpredictabilities in the future. The benefit of coaching is not only the coaching counterpart will gain new capability but that new individual capability will also contribute to the whole organisation capability.
We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.
- Anaïs Nin
Naturally, as a human being, we judge people using our own lens, that is why we prefer telling people prescribed solutions that already known to work for us. Telling people prescribed solutions is like telling them to wear our jacket. Wearing other people’s jacket feel awkward and feel itchy. We do not have ownership with the jacket. We may even want to take it off immediately. With coaching, we are enabling people to grow at their own pace and take ownership with the options they have selected. With coaching, we are not telling people to become something they’re not. When we do coaching rather than telling, it will result in a change that is more sustainable.
In general, we do coaching because it is the right thing to do. An organisation who has the belief that coaching is too wishy-washy believe that human is just a resource or a cog in a machine. As a company, iPrice believe that coaching is very important because it is humane. At iPrice, not only we require the Scrum Master to have great coaching skills, but every top-level managers should have coaching skills too. Our top-level managers need to schedule a coaching session with their counterpart regularly every week.
Scrum.org, the organisation with the mission to improve the profession software delivery also believe in the importance of coaching as it will improve the life of the people working in software delivery.
In the past, I got the teaching that Scrum Master only coach the team at the beginning (during Sprint Planning) and the end (during Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospectives) of the Sprint. During the middle of the Sprint, the Scrum Master only focused on coaching individuals. As I gain a better understanding of both Scrum and coaching, my views have shifted.
A great coach does not compartmentalise timings for organisation coaching, team coaching, and individual coaching. A great coach makes him/herself available at any point in time for anyone. From my experience, a great coaching session happens at the least expected time. Coaching both the team and the individual at any point of time happens throughout the Sprint. Even in the middle of the Sprint, the Scrum Master is coaching the team to work effectively. For example, in the middle of the Sprint, the team may need to refine the Product Backlog or maybe doing mob-programming to solve complex problems. During these activities, the Scrum Master may pepper coaching aspects to improve the way teams collaborate.
Not only the Scrum Master needs to coach the team and individuals, throughout the Sprint the Scrum Master may need to coach other parts in the organisation. The Scrum Master may even coach the CEO if he/she is causing impediments in the product delivery. The Scrum Master must make themselves available for coaching at every point in time. When organisation has this kind of perception, there is great value in having a full-time coach.
There is no specific place where coaching needs to happen when the Scrum Master is coaching the team as a whole. But when coaching an individual, my general rule of thumb is to do the coaching session in a closed private area where nobody can hear the content of the coaching session. Coaching is about building trust with the coaching counterpart. It is important that the coaching counterpart see the Scrum Master as someone reliable. In fact, as part of coaching ethics, the Scrum Master must not take any notes about the coaching session and must not misuse the information shared. The Scrum Master is not interested in the content but more focused on the process, hence it is best to destroy any information recorded after the coaching session.
Ideally, the coaching session should be triggered and requested by the coaching counterpart. In organisational life, often times the management may see an individual need one-to-one coaching from the Scrum Master. In that case, the Scrum Master must not force the coaching session without any permission from the coaching counterpart. The coaching session will not be effective unless the coaching counterpart really wants to be there.
If you get up to this part of this article, you may start seeing what coaching is and how it can benefit your organisation. I hope after reading this article you are more energised to talk to the management about hiring a full-time Scrum Master with great coaching capability.
As I have said at the beginning of this article, there are many schools of coaching out there. Just like there isn’t one right approach to do Scrum, there isn’t any single way of doing coaching. Coaching style may differ from one coach to the other. What works for one coach may not work for another coach. As a Scrum Master, we need to inspect and adapt to improve our coaching skills. As a first step to improve your coaching skills as a Scrum Master, I suggest finding another professional coach close in your area. If you look at around you, a great coach is coached by another great coach.
As Scrum adoption in the industry is continuously growing and the expectation from a Scrum Master is becoming higher every year, at Scrum.org we will contribute more content and resources for Scrum Masters around coaching topics on this page. At Scrum.org, we would like to see more and more Scrum Masters in the industry with great coaching skills that will improve the lives of many people in the organisation that will result in improved organisation capability to deliver great products to their customers. Scrum On.
Would you like to learn more how to improve your coaching skills as a Scrum Master? Check out our Scrum.org Advanced Professional Scrum Master Course.