Coaching advice for Scrum Masters (Part 1): Maximizing Scrum Team’s Self-Resourcefulness

A Scrum Master is accountable for the quality of the Scrum Process as it is practiced by the Scrum Team, not just as it it flows forwards through the Scrum Ceremonies, but also at the core of everything that the Scrum Team does. This extends the Scrum Master’s responsibilities into becoming the Scrum Team’s Agile Coach. In these series I would like to help Scrum Masters develop their insights into the world of Coaching (in general) and into Agile Coaching (in best practices) as they endeavor to raise Scrum Team’s Agile Maturity level and put them on an upward development path towards much higher efficiency, and through that, much better productivity levels.

Part 1: Scrum Master should help the Scrum Team make the most of their own capabilities, capacities and resources.

When a Scrum Master embarks on extending into the realm of Coaching, he / she becomes a partner in creating Scrum Team members capabilities.

Regardless of how many members exist in the Scrum Team, or whether the Scrum Master is responsible for one or more Scrum Team within the organization, the Coach in Scrum Master should thrive to assist the Scrum Team members to achieve – whatever it is that they do – themselves!

Despite common confusion and mixing up Mentorship with Coaching (and the painful fact that the majority of businesses can not differentiate the two and as they hire you for Coaching they are expecting Mentoring services!) they are totally difference engagements.

Mentorship expects you to give advice and “Teach” best practices to the Scrum Team. Coaching means you get the Scrum Team to find the hidden answer in their own questions – or bad habits (aka Anti-Patterns) – and construct their own answers out of it!

The key factor here is to help the Scrum Team members unlock their own potential towards raising their own performance.

This is based on the belief that your Scrum Team is comprised of smart professionals who can be trusted to have the ability to find their own answers to build their own best way up.

If you are Coaching them, then you will avoid “Telling” them what to do, as this would take away their ability to break through their chaos and establish their own construct out of it.

A Coaching Scrum Master is not there to “Answer” the Scrum Teams “Questions”, but to get them to “Question” their “Answers”.

That means to get them to drop what they thought they had already figured out and to get ready to look at them in a new light. To doubt them and re-evaluate they “way of doing thing” and “what they always defined as their answers”.

A Coaching Scrum Master gets the Scrum Team to surface their own insights and understanding of the problems by directing the focus on the Scrum Team.

This shift in focus (on the Scrum Team) develops, and strengthens, as the Scrum Master makes every ceremony, activity and conversation, to be about the Scrum Team.

Regardless how process savvy the Scrum Master is, or how confident he / she feels about having the right answer, the Coach is there to enable the Scrum Team to find their insights and energy to come up with their own ideas and to learn through experiencing it themselves.

A Coaching Scrum Master is there to support and provide the Scrum Team with the process, tools and the structure to help them achieve much more of they could have done on their own.

Interesting enough, while Coaching, you do not need to actually be the highest ranking expert on the team’s specialty in the room. That means as a Coach, you can still do a grand job working with a team of Surgeons, Oil Engineers, Olympic Athletes, Marines and any other category of specialization you would guess … You do NOT to be an expert in their field! unless you want to be a Mentor as well.

A Coaching Scrum Master is experienced in:

  1. Asking the right questions: The questions that in return get the Scrum Team question their status quo, and their current assumptions in play.
  2. Actively Listening to the answers: To show attentive presence while the Scrum Team are scrambling to the best of their abilities to respond to your carefully crafted – insight igniting – questions.
  3. Actively Monitoring the interaction: To watch, to read between the lines and to fish out the hidden parts (that me wrapped inside fuzzy responses,
  4. Actively Sharing Feedback: to let the Scrum Team know what you have noticed and interpreted through listening to their responses (and they was they have put together their responses).
  5. Repeat and Repeat until the Scrum Team is satisfied with the change in their perspectives and are set for a new step upward!

(You should have figured it out by now that even if you are truly the most skilled and proficient person in that group, you should still adhere to these steps and resist the rising urge to share your knowledge of the field with them! … be Coach during the process, not the Mentor!)

Orient the conversation toward the Actions and the Outcomes

A Coaching Scrum Master lets the Scrum Team to choose the problem they want to resolve.

If they seem to struggle with pinpointing the real problem a Root-Cause Analysis (which I will explain somewhere else), can help them figure out what is that they are trying to resolve.

One Caveat would be that putting problems through the Root-Cause Analysis may lead to discovery of multiple – additional – problems. But then that is why you are there, right? and besides, unless you get the to attack the root of their problems, they would not get the deep and comprehensive resolution that they need to root out the problem and be done with it.

Do not Mentor when you are Coaching!

Refrain from sharing your own insights and opinion during the coaching session.

This is not easy as it easily combines your own urge to share your expertise, with the pressure from the Scrum Team to get you to give them the ready answer and save them the effort needed to create their own approach and resolution.

But if you do that, you will deprive them from their chance to grow! You want to Coach them into a higher maturity level and for that they need to stand on their own feet.

What if they really need your opinion?

In cases where it is obvious that the Scrum Team is stuck in a stalemate and cannot structure their approach from where they are standing, they may need a push from you – in the format of Mentorship – to get back on the road.

If that becomes the case:

  1. Make sure they have exhausted all of their options and ideas and are truly stuck where they are (do not cater to their laziness! just get them on their feet if they are stuck in mud).
  2. Make sure they understand that you are exiting the Coaching role momentarily to act as Mentor, just because they have solicited your advice and once you are out of the puddle, we are all back to Coaching.
  3. Make sure you share with them enough insights to get them up and moving (try not to resolve it for them to the last bit.
  4. Make sure they are building a habit of running to your Mentor side everytime the answer is not in their plain line of sight.
  5. Make sure your soft side is not trapping you to fall for their creative excuses everytime they are trying to avoid the effort. (To break through their trap, ask them “What have you tried out to resolve this problem?”, and follow with “When did you try that resolution?” and even expand it into: “Can you show me evidence of that trial and the outcome?”

We will continue this conversation through other upcoming parts!


Arman Kamran (The Agilitizer)