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Is a Scrum Master a Coach or Facilitator?

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I have had the good fortune to be part of some stimulating conversations in the last year. One discussion between Scrum Masters, Enterprise Agile Coaches and other folks was about the role of a Scrum Master. “In one word, how would you define a Scrum Master? Coach? Facilitator? Parent?”

Of course, a wide range of responses was to be expected, even from Scrum Masters, based on experiences working with different teams. I could not discount any of their responses, as they came from their personal experiences and hence accurate for them. My take on it was that a Scrum Master must take any and all roles as needed – he cannot typecast himself! Why? Let me explain.


Some years ago, I helped a group of 9th grade students in their academics. They were intelligent and most of the time knew what to do and how, but sometimes they needed a nudge in the right direction. Framing questions in such a way that they progressively figured out how to solve an issue usually was enough.

I tried the same approach with my daughter, who is much younger, but the approach did not work well. Why? My daughter was sometimes able to understand the process of solving problems, but most of the time I had to take a more direct approach in telling her what mathematical operations to use or what the real question was in her English writing work.

Image credit - "I'll never grow up" Creative Commons


However, I already see less need for such direct intervention when compared to previous grades. What has changed? Her ability to look at various options, select and apply the right one to the problem at hand has improved!

Scrum teams are also the same – they not only go through the team formation phases, but also go through a “maturing” process. During this process, the team needs the Scrum Master to don different hats at different times.

Facilitator: A facilitator guides the team in discovering the right problem to solve and helping them to solve it themselves. For a self-organizing, high-performing team, this kind of Scrum Master would be appropriate most of the time.

Coach: All too often, I see the SM being defined as a “Coach.” I think its not apt, especially if team members have been on Sports teams before. Coaches are more “directive” in nature, often spotting problems during play and taking corrective actions, evaluating opposing teams’ strengths and devising strategies for overcoming them, deciding who plays what position etc. A Scrum Master can do some of these things, but only when the team is not very mature with respect to the spirit of “agile.”

Some teams (including execs) will ask the SM why he/she thinks the team is not delivering value as expected or ask questions like “Based on your experience, are we doing well” etc. In these cases, the SM needs to balance the innate tendency to “take charge and solve problems” with the opposing view of “letting people flounder so that they learn to swim”! A good way to respond would be to use facilitation techniques to identify multiple areas of improvement, use 5 Whys to discover causes and work with the team to develop action plans. At no point, however, should the SM direct/manage the team or provide negative feedback on the conduct of individuals.

As Patrick Cohn says about coaching young athletes,

They think that what you say about their performance as athletes reflects on them as people.

Parent: What happens when one or more members in the team do not play by the rules? Maybe they don’t take pull work enough or act in the best interests of delivering value or even not respect others in the team. Sometimes, you may have to show tough love, after giving the team enough chances to correct the offenders themselves. If that doesn’t work, talking to the person directly, mentoring/coaching them is the next step. If the situation doesn’t improve, you may have to speak to the concerned manager for further action. You are not being a snitch and you are not using discipline as the hammer for every nail, but decide based on the situation

Share your stories with us, if you have are a Scrum Master or have worked with one.

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Written by Sridhar J

December 17th, 2013 at 2:38 pm

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