Taking Flight: Coaching is not a Full-Time Role


I recently hosted a learning event for Agile in the San Diego area and had an interesting conversation with an energetic young woman looking to find a ScrumMaster job. During our chat, among other concerns, she lamented on the number of companies that have asked her to justify the role as a full time position.

She’s certainly not the first person to run into this question: many popular Scrum practitioners have posted their thoughts and insights to this query. A common sense line of thought points to the prescribed role defined in the Scrum guide, while further highlighting the need to be economically pragmatic. These seem like safe, surface level thoughts to me. I’d like to try something different: a ScrumMaster is a team coach, and like all coaches (in an Agile work system, not just Scrum), no — the role must not be a permanent position.

In order to explain more authentically, I should clarify that I would have disagreed vehemently with myself earlier in my career, perhaps five years ago. There’s no small amount of self-awareness and vulnerability invested to share with you that I once felt two things:

  1. I was an Agile expert and knew it all. People should listen to me.
  2. I was terrified of what might happen if I were to suddenly lose my job.

Furthermore, in an era where the industry placed overzealous glory on a two-day participation award called “Certified ScrumMaster”, I was convinced that an Agile team simply could not be successful without me! After all, I was taught by–and received certification from–Mike freaking Cohn!

In addition, my employer at the time had asked me to be a ScrumMaster for four different teams – all of which were new to Scrum! How could this not be a full time job?!

Thankfully, in adopting Agile values and principles, I discovered how to question all that I believe through inspecting feedback from reality and responding to it. Today, I believe that any coaching role with a software team is not a full-time position out of necessity. In short, a team coach–which includes any and all ScrumMasters–should adopt a goal of transferring coaching as a lasting behavior, not a lasting role.

Note that I am not suggesting a team coach cannot be a full-time position, but rather, as an act of genuine servant-leadership, the coach should seek to make herself no longer critical to the team’s vision. Like a mother bird teaching fledglings, in an act of true empowerment, she transfers her skills to the team such that they can spread their wings and fly on their own.

Without such mindset, a genuine pursuit of becoming benevolently obsolete, the ScrumMaster (or team coach) cannot offer empowerment with authentic integrity. She cannot make a claim that she encouraged self-organization to the fullest degree. If the team is fearful to take another great leap in their journey without the ScrumMaster, she has not upheld the “leader” aspect of servant-leadership to the fullest degree.

I feel it is necessary to reiterate that the achievement of this liberating, empowered state may take many months, years, or even eons. There is no recipe to create a high performing Agile team, as every person is unique and full of potential. It requires a coach dedicated to their excellence to inspire and guide the journey (which may include bravely fighting a land war in Asia against the organizational status quo).

However, and without question, the team will never achieve the fullest degree of excellence if their ScrumMaster, coach, or whatever project-managery title we’re using these days believes her position is a traditional full-time role. Furthermore, as our organizations continue to overload team coaches with multi-team expectations (a team is just a project, right?), we unnecessarily cloud the vision of coaching, complicate the development of relationships, and delay the team’s growth. How rapidly would you expect a team to achieve their independence with a 4-team coach (offering at best 25% of herself to each team)?

And finally, as if witnessing a software team become capable of anything isn’t reward enough, the ability to make yourself obsolete opens more doors than you can imagine. And don’t be surprised if the doors that open are more than just professional, but personal, as well.

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