Management | April 21, 2022

Scrum Master vs. Agile Coach – Who’s Best For Your Team?

If you’re on an agile transformation journey, at some point, you’re going to stop and ask yourself whether you need a Scrum Master or an Agile Coach. And with data showing that there’s so much crossover between the two roles, it’s hard to know which one is the best fit.

Agile Coach vs Scrum Master

But don’t worry, in this article, we’ll help you understand the actual difference between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach. After we’ve looked at what they both are and their key differences, we’ll help you decide which one is best to help you take your agile methodologies to the next level!

What is a Scrum Master? – The Scrum Master Role Explained

The Scrum Master is one of the central roles in the lightweight, agile framework, Scrum. Their primary role is to ensure the team lives the agile values, principles, and best practices in line with the Scrum framework.

Scrum Master typically operates within a single Scrum team, although experienced Scrum Master may look after a couple of teams if the organization is already working well with Scrum.

But, How Does a Scrum Master Instill Agile Values and Agile Principles?

Unlike traditional Project Management or Delivery Lead roles, Scrum Masters are servant leaders, facilitating and coaching the team rather than directing or managing them.

For many organizations, this is a significant culture shift during their agile adoption journey, and that’s what the Scrum Master is there to support.

For that reason, Scrum Masters need to be great facilitators and masters of communication and often come from software development backgrounds or are former project managers. This helps them work on the team level, supporting the agile transition and educating agile teams on the Scrum methodology.

Agile scaling frameworks - Scrum

How’s a Scrum Master different From a Product Owner?

The Agile Alliance defines a Product Owner as – ‘a role on a product development team responsible for managing the product backlog in order to achieve the desired outcome that a product development team seeks to accomplish.’

The easy way to view this is that the Product Owner directs the objectives of the Scrum team, choosing what work is to be completed to meet the overall strategic goal. Whereas the Scrum Master helps the team work in an agile way in line with the Scrum framework.

software development methodologies - product owner

Essentially, the Product Owner sets the direction, and the Scrum Master makes sure the team gets there as quickly and effectively as possible.

What is an Agile Coach? – The Agile Team Coach Explained

On the other hand, an Agile Coach works to a much broader remit. They will work with several teams, either directly or through the team’s Product Owner or Scrum Master, to provide more general agile coaching.

Crucially, this doesn’t have to be just the Scrum framework but could be any agile methodology, including Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), Lean Development, or Crystal.

Because of this broader remit, Agile Coaches won’t build deep bonds with a single scrum team as a Scrum Master will. Instead, they focus on an organization’s broader agile objectives, often undertaking a professional coaching role across the entire operation.

But Wait, Don’t Scrum Master Do Agile Coaching?

In a way, yes. But as we’ve explained, the role of an Agile Coach is much broader. Whereas a Scrum Master will work with an individual Scrum team, Agile Coaches work across the wider organization, spotting trends and identifying strategic improvements to enhance the overall business agility.

Crucially, Agile Coaches may not work directly with development teams either. They may spend their time with business leaders, external stakeholders, or even customers to help them improve their agile knowledge and show them how to begin embracing the agile values.

The Types of Agile Coach

You may come across a few different types of Agile Coaches. While, in general, they all do the same things, there are some slight differences:

  • Agile Coach – This is the standard Agile Coach role, overseeing several ongoing agile teams and helping them to optimize their agile processes and agile mindset. Agile Coaches at this level may help organizations implement an agile framework and make sure it’s day-to-day.
  • Programme Agile Coach – In these scenarios, Agile Coaches support the agile journey of a business, helping them go through an agile transformation. These Agile Coaches are often experts in implementing agile scaling frameworks. But, this type of Agile Coach will only be with the organization for the programme’s life, handing over to traditional Agile Coaches or even Scrum Masters when the programme’s objectives are complete.Scaled Agile Frameworks
  • Enterprise Agile Coach – Enterprise-level coaches focus their time on supporting the leadership of an organization in a professional coaching role. Enterprise Agile Coaches work to educate the leadership team and wider stakeholders on agile practices, the value of agile teams, and the benefits agile ways of working can deliver to their entire organization.

Agile Coaches often begin in the traditional role and transition into the Programme or Enterprise Agile Coach roles as their agile coaching experience grows.

Scrum Master vs. Agile Coach – The Key Differences

As we’ve seen, while there is a lot of crossover between the Scrum Master and Agile Coach roles, there are some key differences. Let’s put them together side-by-side to see how they shape up:

A Scrum Master:

  • Works as a central role in the Scrum framework.
  • Works with a single or multiple Scrum teams.
  • Their role is to ensure the team operates in line with the Scrum framework.
  • They are servant leaders to the Scrum team, using techniques such as facilitation, compromise, and communication to ensure the team achieves is as efficient as possible.

An Agile Coach:

  • Works a broad role across various Agile methodologies.
  • Work with a large number of teams, taking a helicopter view.
  • Their role is to help organizations, teams, and individuals adopt agile ways of working.
  • They are coaches who help educate team members, managers, and leaders on the value of agile working, utilizing agile coaching techniques to optimize agile delivery.

When to Hire a Scrum Master vs. When to Hire an Agile Coach

Now that you know the difference between Scrum Master and an Agile Coach, you’re probably wondering which one is for you. Let’s look at when you might want to hire a Scrum Master vs. an Agile Coach.

One crucial point to note is that a Scrum Master is a specific role within the Scrum framework. If you don’t use Scrum in your organization, an Agile Coach, with a broad agile toolkit, will be the best hire for you.

Why Hire a Scrum Master?

As we’ve seen, Scrum Masters are servant leaders whose role is to work at the team level and facilitate adherence to the Scrum framework.

Scrum Masters therefore are quite specific roles and are to be employed when an organisation is using Scrum to deliver software development improvements.

Because of this, you’ll want to hire a Scrum Master when:

  • You’re already working, or plan to implement agile Scrum in your organization.
  • You need to expand your Scrum capability and build out a new team.
  • You have an existing team of agile developers who need support in maximizing their effectiveness with Scrum.

The Scrum Master role is very tactical, often helping single or multiple agile teams with their Scrum and agile adoption. If you have a gap in your current Scrum/development teams, you may need to hire a Scrum Master.

Why Hire an Agile Coach?

An Agile Coach is a much more strategic role, helping organizations unlock the benefit of an agile methodology and ultimately supporting those implementing agile.

An Agile Coach must be an expert in professional coaching, working as an educator as well as a facilitator.

Because of this, you’ll want to hire an Agile Coach when:

  • You want to begin or accelerate your agile transformation journey.
  • You want a fresh opinion (and critical analysis) on your current agile process.
  • You feel your organization needs additional agile coaching to maximize the effectiveness of your agile teams.
  • You want to enhance the benefits of agile ways of working at the enterprise level.

The Agile Coach is far more strategic, helping organizations transform and optimize the way they deploy an enterprise-wide agile methodology.

Ask The Experts – Here’s What Real Scrum Masters say:

As a Scrum Master, I am responsible for the software development process and the interaction between the development team, the Product Owner and the stakeholders. The role of the Scrum Master is to teach the Scrum Team self-management, which makes it a continuous and challenging process. A good Scrum Master is close both to the team and the client – he tries to work on the weaknesses while strengtening and highlighting the advantages.

Agile Coach has practical and substantial experience in carrying out agile projects, he supports processes, leads Agile transformation, helps identify best practices and select frameworks. AC supports organizations, Scrum Masters and teams in maximizing the value of agile work through coaching and mentoring, he conducts workshops and provides training, supports recruiting processes and coordinates various initiatives in the company (e.g. building an agile community).

Summary

When it comes to picking between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach, it can be hard to come up with a clear answer. Unlike other professions, such as project management, the lines between the two roles are blurred, but there are some clear use cases for each role.

If you’re already running Scrum in your business, and want to expand or optimize your team’s capability, we’d recommend taking on a Scrum Master.

If, instead, you’re operating on agile more broadly, whether that’s starting your agile journey or operating frameworks outside of Scrum, an Agile Coach is the better hire for you.

Ultimately, whichever hire you make, you’ll be making great steps forward in becoming more agile and preparing yourself to unlock even more benefits for your customers through agile software development.

Frequently Asked Questions – Scrum Master vs. Agile Coach

How Did The Agile Coach Role Come About?

As agile software development has become more popular, the Scrum Master and Agile Coach roles evolved. With the Scrum Master seen more as the ‘team coach’, the Agile Coach started as the coach for the Scrum Masters – the coach for the coach if you like.

Over time, the Agile Coach role has evolved to a broader remit. Now Agile Coaches are seen as educators, working not just with Scrum Masters but wider business stakeholders to educate everyone on the benefits of agile ways of working.

What is an Agile Consultant?

An Agile Consultant offers expertise, analysis, and recommendations on an organization’s agile ways of working. They harness years of agile experience to offer expert advice and guidance to an organization facing a particular challenge.

Where an Agile Coach differs from an Agile Consultant is often the way organizations use them. An Agile Coach is often a long-term employee, whereas an Agile Consultant is used on a tactical, freelance basis to consult on a particular problem.

What’s Next After Agile Coach?

We’ve just answered it! Many experienced Agile Coaches go on to be Agile Consultants, helping organizations solve complex agile problems on an ad-hoc basis.

Is an Agile Coach a Full-Time Job?

Absolutely. Especially in large organizations with multiple agile teams, the Agile Coach has the responsibility to identify issues, streamline processes, and educate wider stakeholders. This is especially true for an organization going through an agile transformation where they’ll need to assist the project management teams in delivering strategic agile objectives to drive business value.

How to Become an Agile Coach?

If you’re reading this article wanting to become an Agile Coach, the good news is it’s not a difficult task, it just takes time. Many Agile Coaches rely on their experiences with agile, often undertaking multiple Scrum Master, Product Owner, or Delivery Lead roles in the agile space.

It also helps to get qualified, either through Scrum.org or the Scrum Alliance, to prove you have a broad agile knowledge and have a track record of solving agile problems.

Contact me on LinkedIn

Business Development Manager with ten years of sales experience on international markets. At JCommerce, she is responsible for the development of the company's services in the Benelux countries and in France. In her private life, she loves reading (Scandinavian crime novels and professional literature about sales and negotiations), travelling and cooking.

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