Scrum Master is the master of coaching

Scrum Master is the Master of Coaching


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 in the industry. As Scrum is becoming the de-facto standard, 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 and invested time and effort both finding Scrum Masters with great coaching skills and developing one internally. Because we believe 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 an 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 definition 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 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 available in the market.


What is coaching?

Unlike Scrum that has a single definition that is defined on Scrum Guide, there is no single definition on coaching, which is why coaching is often misunderstood and underestimated. Many professional coaches have their own definition of coaching. The International Coach Federation (ICF), the leading organisation 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 is the GROW model.

Even though the definition of coaching may differ from one professional coach to the other, the general consensus is that the responsibility of a coach is not to tell the solution to the coaching counterpart but rather to guide them to discover the solution themselves. This is done through thought-provoking questions and active listening. From my personal experience, effective coaching starts with the right attitude, 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.


What coaching is not

Coaching is often misunderstood and underestimated by many organisations. I have met many managers who thought that coaching is too wishy-washy. This is one of the reasons many organisation does not see any value of having a full-time Scrum Master as an organisational 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 when this role is rotated. And often times, this is the beginning of a perception that the Scrum Master is only the team personal secretary.

Often times I found it easier to explain to people what coaching is by explaining what coaching is not. Here are some of the common misinterpretation about a coach in the market.


Coaching is not counseling

What makes coaching different to counseling is in coaching we are focused on bringing the coaching counterpart move forward to reach their goal. 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. The coaching counterpart is a partner of the coach rather than a patient.


Coaching is not consulting

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.


Coaching is not a buddy talk

I have seen how many Scrum Masters want to be good friends with their coaching counterpart. The pitfall of becoming friends with the coaching counterpart, it becomes harder to be unbiased and stay objective during the coaching session. The difference between a coach and a friend are:


A great coach knows when to put tension

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 great coach brings outcome from the coaching session

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 items to be done by the coaching counterpart.


A great coach is focused on the coaching process than the content

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.


Who does the Scrum Master coach?

What we have found at iPrice after interviewing hundreds of Scrum Master until today, many of them are:

  • focused on team level coaching and or;
  • do not have the capability to coach at the organisation level.

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 the only coach at the team level hence the needs for an Agile Coach who works 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 in its Scrum adoption. This may involve coaching people outside of product development, for example from People & Culture, Finance and Procurement department or even the executives when required. A great Scrum Master focused at the system level to help the overall organisation improve its agility rather than only optimising the team performance.

When Scrum Master coach an individual, the outcome from the coaching 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.


Why do organisation need coaching?

One of the most asked questions I get from many managers is, "why should we hire a fulltime coaching role like the Scrum Master?" In some culture where the command-controlling mentality is quite thick, the cost to hire someone who never tells the team what to do and is not accountable for the product delivery is hard to justify. The reason why these organisations come to this conclusion is that they have not yet seen great coaches. But that should not be the reason to underestimate the importance of this role.


Because human-being has the capacity and the capability

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 command-controlling model to manage people. 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. 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 Delivery Manager and or the Project Manager.


Because human-being want to see from multiple different horizons and perspectives

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, they will gather in courage to experiment and they will acquire new skills that will expand their capacity. These capabilities 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.


Because it is humane

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. We want them to own their own solution they are comfortable with. 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 resources or a cog in a machine. As an organisation, iPrice believe that coaching is very important because it is humane and it is the right thing to do. 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., 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.



When does Scrum Master do coaching?

In the past, I got the teaching that Scrum Master only coach the team at the beginning (during Sprint Planning) and the end of the Sprint (during Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospectives). 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 has shifted.

A great coach does not compartmentalised timings for organisation coaching, team coaching, and individual coaching. A great coach makes him/herself available at any point in time for anyone. 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 have this kind of perception, there is great value in having a full-time coach.



Where does coaching happen?

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 It is quite common. 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 needs coaching from the Scrum Master. In that case, the Scrum Master must not force the coaching session without permission from the coaching counterpart. The coaching session will not be effective unless the coaching counterpart really wants to be there.


How to do coaching?

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 coach close in your area. Coaching is more about practice than knowing the theory. 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 we will add more content and resources for Scrum Masters around coaching topics on this page. At, 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.

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