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What Really Is an Agile Coach?

11 September 2015

Geoff Watts
Inspect & Adapt

The term Agile coach has been around for a long time but is arguably as misunderstood as the terms ScrumMaster and product owner, perhaps even more so. It invariably means different things in every organization that I work with, including:
  • A senior ScrumMaster, akin to how a program manager might be viewed to a project manager.
  • Someone to oversee the ScrumMaster, akin to a supervisor.
  • Someone responsible for coaching the team while the ScrumMaster 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 ScrumMaster or team.
I've written a lot about a similar lack of clarity and understanding about the ScrumMaster 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 ScrumMaster, 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 certification of Certified Scrum Coach® (CSC). So why have a certification for a role that isn't specified?

According to Scrum Alliance:

Certified Scrum 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. CSCs 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 Scrum Coach different from the ScrumMaster role?

It doesn't necessarily have to be different. Indeed, the ScrumMaster 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 Scrum Coach, is a hugely valuable one for an organization to engage with.

But is the CSC 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 CSC, gives any organization looking to hire someone to help them make such a big organizational change.

However, a few practitioners and I got together last year at the London Scrum Coaching Retreat to discuss what organizations were really looking for in their Agile coaches, and we suggested something that the CSC 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 there are not that many people that I know 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 CSCs, 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 CSCs 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 recently 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.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.9 (29 ratings)


Lucas Smith, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 9/12/2015 10:48:03 AM
Thanks for sharing Geoff. I have personally been thrust into the role of Agile coach for my organization simply due to the fact that i have the most scrum experience and have been one of the few willing to challenge the status quo. However I have definitely struggled with "doing things myself" vs coaching and empowering others to be the change they are looking for, which of course is necessary for true culture transformation. Your description of the perspective and difference between a coach and consultant was very helpful to me in solidifying these thoughts and putting them into context. Thanks!
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,Educator,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 9/12/2015 1:31:33 PM
Thanks for reading and commenting Lucas. Scrum experience and willingness to challenge the status quo are two great attributes to an agile coach so you are definitely off to a great start. You are far from alone in finding it difficult to let go of doing things oneself and this is often encouraged within the organisational culture. Good luck!
Raghavendra Mithare, CSM, 9/15/2015 11:43:41 AM
Thanks for sharing.
Agree with you that there is still lot of confusion about the role of an Agile Coach, glad that you shared your thoughts.

Personally I feel that individual’s experience, knowledge and personality that makes him/her a good Scrum Master or a coach. A formal certification will help initially but over a period it is his/her ability to add value that matters.

Also thanks for sharing about your book. Congratulations for getting your book published!
Kapil Goel, CSP,CSM, 9/15/2015 12:44:47 PM
Excellent insight on Traditional Coaching Vs Agile consulting (Misunderstood as Agile coaching).

Geoff - Thanks for the excellent video shared on (Good to Great journey ;)
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,Educator,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 9/16/2015 4:31:49 PM
Thanks for your taking the time to comment Kapil and I'm glad you like the Front Row Agile video course.
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,Educator,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 9/16/2015 4:41:39 PM
Hi Raghavendra
Thanks for your comment. I agree that the personal qualities of the individual should, and often do, outweigh any certification. Some of the best agile coaches I have worked with have little or no formal credentials or qualifications but have sought to develop the skills and experience necessary to do their job well. Having said that, some of the best agile coaches I have worked with have also been highly qualified with formal credentials. I think this also proves your point that it is down to the individual. My main area of focus is around whether those people - formally credentialed or not - have experience in both the 'agile' and the 'coaching' side of the term agile coach.
Andrew Kidd, CSPO, 10/15/2015 5:13:13 PM
Hi Geoff ... Thanks for raising awareness regarding the use of the term 'Coach' in the Agile context... With many years experience, and qualifications, both in digital delivery and executive coaching (ICF AAC), I offer the following for consideration. When I'm working with Agile Coaches, a model that I ask them to have in mind is to take their domain expertise (Agile + contextual) and its expression through a Coaching way of being (in accordance with the ICF competences and ethical framework). This seems balance the tension between 'doing' and 'being', and whilst simplistic, is far from simple. I hope this helps.
Noel Harris, CSM, 6/5/2017 12:32:30 PM
Andrew, I completely agree with you between "doing" and "being."
Jason Covington, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/20/2017 10:14:26 PM
Geoff and Raghavendra, If we follow ICF as the authority on coaching, then they grade us down for even trying to "add value," according to their ICF Competencies Ratings. Which leads me to my question, "How did Scrum Alliance come to turn to a generic coaching org like ICF as an authority on all things coaching (even scrum)?" I don't mean this in a negative way, but sometimes what they teach seems somewhat a juxtaposition from what software management organizations expect from scrum teams and especially coaches. In other words, ICF grades coaches much differently than say corporations grade scrum coaches. Also, now with the CTC cert at Scrum Alliance, I see SA depends on ICF almost exclusively for "competencies" and guidelines on coaching but none of these are on the Scrum Alliance site. Any ideas why? Any understanding of the history of this? Is it a little weird to be in the same pack with Life Coaches? In some ways, to me, it is. Some of those folks are snake oil salespeople and give the rest of the coaches a bad name. What do you think?

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