One of the questions I get asked the most when it comes agile is about the difference between an Agile Coach and Scrum Master.
Is Agile Coach and Scrum Master more or less the same role?
Both the Agile Coach and the Scrum Master are servant leaders who help organizations, teams, and individuals to adopt the agile mindset and ways of working. The Agile Coach works on a higher level and with a broader set of stakeholders, whereas the Scrum Master works as a member of a single Scrum Team (or at most 2-3 Scrum Teams).
Simply said, the difference between the Agile Coach and Scrum Master roles is their scope. The Agile Coach is there to remove organizational impediments to a company’s agile journey. The Scrum Master removes team impediments for the Scrum Teams that they are a member of.
In general, Agile Coaches are more senior than Scrum Masters. According to PayScale, an Agile Coach in the U.S. makes on average $125k/year, whereas the average U.S. salary of a Scrum Master is $89k/year (the numbers do not include bonus payments and profit sharing agreements).
The most common career progression for a Scrum Master is to become an Agile Coach. Agile Coaches, on the other hand, typically progress to the role of Chief Information Officer (CIO), or roles of similar seniority within the IT function.
In the rest of this post, we’re going to look at the Scrum Master and Agile Coach role in more specifics. Since both of these roles intersect at the skill of agile coaching, I’ll share some my two cents and point you to some of the best books that you can read on the topic.
What the Scrum Master Does
The Scrum Master is responsible to establish Scrum as described in the most recent edition of the official Scrum Guide (scrumguides.org).
The Scrum Master works as a member of the Scrum Team, helping their teammates and the team’s stakeholders to understand Scrum theory and practice.
The most common responsibilities for the Scrum Master role are:
- Coach the Scrum Team’s members in self-management and cross-functionality;
- Ensure that all Scrum events take place, have a positive atmosphere and productive outcomes, and are kept within the timebox;
- Remove impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress;
- Facilitate stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed;
- Lead, train, and coach the organization in the Scrum framework’s adoption;
- Plan and advise Scrum implementations within the organization.
What the Agile Coach Does
Unlike the Scrum Master role, the Scrum Guide doesn’t say anything about the Agile Coach. Instead, I’m going to try and come up with the most universal definition that I can.
The Agile Coach is responsible to establish an agile mindset within the organization and to support the rollout and implementation of the agile framework(s) that it has chosen to use.
The Agile Coach is a seasoned professional who works across all levels of the organization as requested or needed, from the leadership team to agile teams and individuals.
The most common responsibilities for the Agile Coach are:
- Coach the organization, departments, teams, and individuals in agility and self-organization;
- Ensure that the organization achieves a sustainable pace of agile delivery;
- Remove impediments to the organization’s agile journey;
- Facilitate communication and collaboration as requested or needed;
- Lead, train, and coach the organization in the adoption of agile;
- Plan and advise the adoption of an agile mindset and the rollout of agile framework(s) across initiatives, programs, and projects.
There is, as you can see, some overlap between the Agile Coach and Scrum Master roles. However, an Agile Coach can (and often does) choose to specialize in a specific subset of the software development field.
For example, a Tech Lead who has years of experience in development with the Extreme Programming (XP) agile methodology can choose to add agile coaching skills to their toolbox, or even make a career change to become an XP Coach or Technical Agile Coach. The value of their coaching will come from knowing how to help others apply the “simple rules” and programming practices of XP.
A consultant who’s highly experienced in Kanban can choose to change their core business from solving problems for customers to helping customers solve their own problems by becoming a Kanban Coach or Agile Process Improvement Coach.
Whereas the Scrum Master role demands a servant leader with a generalist view of software development, the Agile Coach role tends to welcome (and reward) specialization.
How Is the Agile Coach Role Different From Scrum Master?
Both the Agile Coach and Scrum Master use training, mentoring, coaching, and facilitating as tools to spread the adoption and use of agile in the organization. They simply do so at a different level and scope.
The Agile Coach works with the organization as a whole. In big companies, the Agile Coach can work with one or multiple organizational units. They are seasoned servant-leaders who work as much with the executive or senior management team as they do with the network of agile teams within their organization.
The Scrum Master works as a full-time team member in a single Scrum Team. In some companies, the Scrum Master can work as a part-time member of 2-3 teams at most. This is especially true for creative agencies and IT service suppliers, whose business model is very often to build agile teams for their customers.
|Criteria||Scrum Master||Agile Coach|
|Level||Works as a full-time member of a single Scrum Team (or as a part-time member of up to 2-3 Scrum Teams).||Works on the level of the organization. Can work with multiple organizational units and/or agile teams at a time.|
|Scope||Team-level agility and removal of team-level impediments to agile adoption and delivery.||Organization-level agility and removal of organizational impediments to agile adoption and delivery.|
|Seniority||Junior to Mid-level||Mid-level to Senior|
|Certification||Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)|
Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM)
Certified Scrum Professional – ScrumMaster (CSP-SM)
|Certified Team Coach (CTC)|
Certified Enterprise Coach (CTE)
|Career path||Scrum of Scrums Master|
Release Train Engineer (RTE)
Solution Train Engineer (STE)
|Head of Agile Practice|
Chief Information Officer (CIO)
To become an Agile Coach, you generally need more seniority than to become a Scrum Master. Scrum Masters usually become Agile Coaches 5 to 10 years into their career development. Depending on your level of experience, consider obtaining a Certified Team Coach (CTC) and/or Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) certificate from Scrum Alliance.
To become a Scrum Master, you need to have agile project management experience and/or have worked as a member of a Scrum Team. Consider attending an in-person training accredited by Scrum Alliance to become a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM), or by Scrum.org to become a Professional Scrum Master (PSM).
In many organizations, the Agile Coaches and the Scrum Masters are part of the Agile Practice, Agile Center of Excellence (Agile CoE) or Project Management Office (PMO) department. It’s not uncommon to see the Scrum Masters reporting to the Agile Coaches and the Agile Coaches reporting to the head of the Agile Practice, Agile CoE, or PMO department.
How to Coach Agile Teams
No matter if you’re an Agile Coach or a Scrum Master, it’s clear that training, mentoring, coaching, and facilitating should be the top tools in your toolbox.
Agile coaching matters because agile is easy to understand and hard to master. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is only 68 words long (if you don’t count the 12 principles). Most agile frameworks are intentionally lightweight and purposefully incomplete. The 2020 edition of the official Scrum Guide, for example, fits on 14 pages.
To help agile teams do well, you don’t need more guides or additional rules. You need to know the subtleties of applying the agile mindset and of working in agile ways. Coaching helps individuals and teams who are getting started on their agile journey—or who are very well experienced, but are facing complex agile implementation problems—make the right choices to the best of their knowledge and perform at the best of their abilities.
In other words, the primary goal of agile coaching is to help the organization, teams, and individuals to continuously improve, at their own pace and in a sustainable rhythm.
Set High Expectations. Stay Self-Aware and Adapt Your Approach
In Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition (which is honestly one of THE BEST books I’ve read about agile), Lyssa Adkins identifies three steps to coaching agile teams:
- Set the expectation for high performance;
- Master yourself through self-awareness and mindfulness;
- Adapt your coaching style to the agile team and present situation.
Above all, the Agile Coach knows that the team—and the individuals on it—can achieve more. The Agile Coach doesn’t demand that performance, but they expect it. They also genuinely trust the team and believe that they want to (and can) achieve more. This is reflected in all of their interactions with the team and its individual members.
The Agile Coach is in a position of authority, but they remain a servant leader. Coaching agile teams and their stakeholders can be a challenging job. Especially when the stakes are high and in moments of political conflict or emotional pressure. This is why the Agile Coach always starts with self-awareness. They tune their responses aptly and choose the words they use skillfully, so that they can get their message across no matter the situation.
Teach, Coach, Mentor, and Facilitate as Needed
This requires the Agile Coach to have a diverse set of coaching styles. As with any change, organizations, teams, and individuals go through different stages in their adoption and use of agile. Different stages require a different approach. To achieve the best results, the Agile Coach blends teaching, mentoring, coaching, and facilitating.
In her book, Adkins goes on further to explain that the Agile Coach can wear multiple hats, each of which is useful for a specific type of situation:
- Problem solver
- Conflict navigator
- Collaboration conductor
The seasoned Agile Coach rotates their hats to help the organization achieve greater results, the team get healthier together, and the individuals adopt an agile mindset to their day-to-day work.
Choose Your Coaching Style Mindfully
You’ve been assigned or asked to coach an agile team. Where do you start?
In their 2009 book Agile Coaching, Liz Sedley and Rachel Davies propose that newly-tasked Agile Coaches should use the PrOpER cycle.
The PrOpER cycle is a coaching tool that you can use for any situation, which can help you quickly make a conscious decision about what style of coaching to apply.
Here’s how the PrOpER cycle works:
- Problem. Pick a problem to work on. Observe how the team you’re coaching works. Identify which attitudes and behaviors are helping them—and which ones are not.
- Options. Consider your options. What coaching style or coaching tool could you try that can help the team to tackle this problem or challenge in a better way?
- Experiment. After consideration, choose one of the options and apply the coaching style or tool you decided to.
- Review. Review the outcome. Determine whether it helped improve things, made them worse, or had little-to-no effect at all.
The Bottom Line
The roles of the Agile Coach and Scrum Master overlap as much as they differ.
The Agile Coach works on the level of the organization (or with one or multiple organizational units), supporting the adoption of agile ways of working and helping agile teams and individuals apply the agile mindset.
The Scrum Master works as a member of the Scrum Team (or as a part-time member of 2-3 Scrum Teams at most), helping the team to master agile and their agile framework of choice, as well as causing the removal of impediments to progress and delivery.
Both the Agile Coach and the Scrum Master use teaching, coaching, mentoring, and facilitating as the primary tools in their professional toolbox. One is more concerned with helping the organization establish a sustainable pace of agile delivery, whereas the other is doing the same on the level of one or 2-3 Scrum Teams.
Most Agile Coaches began their career in agile as Scrum Masters. And in many organizations, Scrum Masters report to Agile Coaches. Usually, the two work as part of a department called the Agile Practice or Agile Center of Excellence (Agile CoE), which is tasked with leading the organization’s adoption and use of agile ways of working.