What Really Is an Agile Coach?

What Really Is an Agile Coach

The term agile coach has been around for a long time but is arguably as misunderstood as the terms scrum master and product owner, perhaps even more so. It invariably means different things in every organization that I work with, including:

  • A senior scrum master, akin to how a program manager might be viewed to a project manager.

  • Someone to oversee the scrum master, akin to a supervisor.

  • Someone responsible for coaching the team while the scrum master ensures that the team is staying on track.

  • Someone responsible for the strategic application of agile methods within the organization.

  • A more experienced agile practitioner serving as a mentor to a new, inexperienced scrum master or team.

I've written a lot about a similar lack of clarity and understanding about the scrum master role. I see a good deal of confusion, from those attempting to take on this role and from those around them, including the teams they are meant to coach. There's confusion about responsibilities, expectations, authority, and relationships.

Where does scrum stand on this?

The Scrum Guide doesn't have the role of agile coach within its definition of scrum, implying that it is simply enough for the three roles of scrum master, product owner, and development team to get things done. And in many cases, this may be true. Yet Scrum Alliance® has, for a number of years, had the guide-level Certified Agile Coach® certifications (CTC and CEC). So why have a certification for a role that isn't specified?

According to Scrum Alliance:

Certified Agile Coaches are experts in scrum – in both theory and practice. They have in-depth understanding of the practices and principles of scrum and real-world experience in actual scrum organizations. CACs successfully guide organizations through the challenges of scrum adoption. [...] You will need to serve as an advisor to leaders and organizations, facilitate diverse stakeholder discussions, lead by example, and challenge the status quo.


How is the Certified Agile Coach different from the scrum master role?

It doesn't necessarily have to be different. Indeed, the scrum master role is meant to be an advisor to leaders and organizations, a change agent for mindsets and process, leading by example and challenging the status quo. Yet, for many organizations that I have worked with, this is often a lot to ask of one role. It's a tall order to expect someone to help get a team set up and functioning proficiently in a new way of working while simultaneously plotting and supporting the transition of the organization and its leadership.

Often, when I was starting out with scrum, I didn't have the experience to be able to advise leaders on what they could expect, nor to guide them through the transition process from functioning as a traditional organization to an agile one. Therefore, the role of an agile coach, or Certified Agile Coach, is a hugely valuable one for an organization to engage with.

Is the Certified Agile Coach enough?

In a world in which every man and his dog claims to be an agile coach, I am very aware of the security and assurance that an accreditation such as Certified Team Coach (CTC) and Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) gives any organization looking to hire someone to help them make such a big organizational change.

However, a few practitioners and I got together at the London Scrum Coaching Retreat to discuss what organizations were really looking for in their agile coaches, and we suggested something that the CTC/CED and the other agile coaching accreditations don't seem to require.

The Pathfinders working party set out to define Iteration One of an Agile Coaching Pathway and started off with the statement, "We believe that an agile coach should be qualified in both agile and coaching."

Because being highly experienced in agile methods, such as scrum, is an absolute necessity, we also believed that agile coaches should practice what they preach in terms of coaching. Agile coaches should be well versed and experienced in the art (and it is an art) of professional coaching. As well as that statement, the Pathfinders team also came up with what they hoped would be the first iteration of a 2x2 matrix of resources to "become a balanced and accomplished agile coach." 

Why is certification important?

Almost daily, I get requests from organizations looking for agile coaches. But I don't know whether they know what they are asking for. And I don’t know many people who are qualified in both agile and coaching that I can recommend. In my opinion, the lack of experience and knowledge is significantly slowing down and reducing the quality of agile transformations.

Aside from a handful of people whom I know personally, I generally point people to the list of Certified Agile Coaches, as I am confident that these people are as experienced a group as you are likely to find. And I've been really happy to hear that more and more of the CACs who are fantastically experienced in scrum and other agile methods are adding professional coaching qualifications to their tool set.

What is professional coaching?

Coaching, at the more generic level as opposed to domain-specific agile coaching, is defined by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) as:

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today's uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful, and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach's responsibility is to:

  • Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve

  • Encourage client self-discovery

  • Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies

  • Hold the client responsible and accountable

This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.

The ICF goes on to distinguish coaching from other services that can also be helpful. For example, the ICF distinguishes coaching from consulting, as follows:

While consulting approaches vary widely, the assumption is the consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and, sometimes, implement solutions. With coaching, the assumption is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.

The final statement is key. Often one of the most difficult yet powerful aspects of being an agile coach is that it is all too easy to slip into being a consultant. Having professional coach training and experience is by far the most effective way to avoid this trap. Training to be a coach is expensive and is one of the barriers to agile coaches trying to up-skill in this area. Yet I believe it is highly important. I wrote a book with a fellow professional coach about our experiences in this field. We share our stories of attempting to help people with various challenges – both personal and professional – not with the aim of solving their problems but providing discovery-based approaches and frameworks to enable them to solve their own problems. The book is called The Coach's Casebook: Mastering the Twelve Traits That Trap Us.

Although the book doesn't mention agile or scrum once, surely anyone who has experience with agile values and principles will notice the similarity to what we try to encourage in that domain: helping people become more autonomous, self-managing, and resourceful. If we are to truly change the culture of these organizations that we profess to help, it is imperative to practice what we preach and help the leaders of the organization do the same.


Discover more about agile coaching here.


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