The Role of the Agile Coach


same ideas and techniques as a retrospective but is used to kick-off a new project or Agile transition.

When working with managers there is more to coaching than simply knowledge transfer. It is much more about helping people rethink their inbuilt assumptions and mental models. Many managers have experienced career success with other development modes so may perceive Agile as a threat. Here coaching gives way to the third type.

The third type of Coach may work across everyone in the team but mostly finds himself working with managers and analysts. In this mode the Coach drops the expert persona and focuses instead on helping individuals and teams solve their own problems. To do this the Coach takes on a non-directive approach.

When working as an expert authority the Coach is providing direct advice and recommendations. This is known as directive coaching. In the non-directive mode the Coach may – or may not – be an expert in the field but they assume the coachee is the expert and the Coach helps facilitate their learning.

While directive coaching is often found in sports teams the non-directive approach is used by coaches who help business leaders. This approach is set out in books such as Coaching for Performance and Effective Coaching and anyone thinking about embarking on this approach is well advised to read at least one.

The diversity of coaching roles makes it difficult for one person to fill all. A technical expert will find it difficult to switch to a non-directive mode and team members may be confused when an expert starts throwing questions back at them. Even if one individual can cover all bases on all but the smallest projects there is unlikely to be enough time to do each role justice.

Longevity of coaching
However a Coach works, and whatever approach they take they the Coach needs to avoid creating a learned dependency. This happens when the team comes to depend on the Coach, without the Coach the team fall back to their old ways. Coaches need to be able to withdraw when the time is right and let the team continue.

While many companies will have their own coaches on staff and some will work with teams day-in, day-out for months or even years, there is a lot to be said for using external coaches and limiting the period of coaching.

While internal coaches will start with the advantage of knowing the team and domain, external coaches benefit from bringing a fresh mind and new perspective. This allows them to challenge assumptions more easily and suggest alternative approaches.

Some coaching activities – such as running retrospectives – can become stale and formulaic over time. Changing the facilitator can inject energy and new ideas.

Scrum Master or Coach?
As an Agile Coach, I am frequently asked “What is the difference between a Coach and a Scrum Master?” Indeed, there may be very little difference if a Scrum Master decides to play the role from a coaching perspective. However this is not always the case, some organizations see Scrum Masters as thinly disguised Project Managers. In such cases the difference between Coach and Scrum Master is wide.

There are perhaps two main differences between the Scrum Master and Agile Coach role. In Scrum the Master is tasked with ensuring the team follows the Scrum process and rules. An Agile coaches remit is somewhat wider with a greater emphasis on the change agenda.

As such, the second difference is one of duration. All Scrum teams should have a Scrum Master who works with the team in every sprint and


About the author

Allan Kelly's picture Allan Kelly

Allan Kelly has held just about every job in the software world, from system admin to development manager by way of programmer and product manager.  Today he works helping teams adopt and deepen Agile practices, and writing far too much.  He specialises in working with software product companies and aligning products and processes with company strategy.

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