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Difference between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach - with a little Maths

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Fourteen workshops, four cities, over 80 attendees so far; and I’ve never been disappointed. An innocent hand raised in one of the teams each time, with possibly the most frequently asked question from leaders familiar with the world of agility; “What is! the difference between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach?”

Now this for certain is not the only article on this topic that you have come across over the Internet; and if this is not the first article that you’re about to read on this topic then you’ve probably made up your mind with an answer; you’re merely checking if what I’m about to say is the same as per your understanding. I don’t blame you, this has been an area of confusion for many and for reasons unknown.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that almost everything that you may have read about this topic from the hundreds and thousands of experts in this field is wrong! And I can say that confidently because I am one of those hundreds and thousands of experts. Then why should you continue reading this article? A good reason would be that I’m not the one to answer this question, it’s Maths; and it seems to be the most logical way to end subjective debates.

Set Theory:

Let me be as discreet as possible, I’m not a Mathematician; my knowledge of maths is limited to high school. And to think of it, if a complex question can be solved using simple math, what could be more correct proof? For e.g.: I believe in Science much more that I believe in the great one; however, if someone was to mathematically prove that the divine exists, who am I to say no? (unless you’re a Flat Earther in which case the following article may not be any importance to you, there are bigger things you need to worry about).

Anywho, speaking of maths, in case you’re not aware of Set Theory or don’t remember it well, here’s a refresher. Below is a simple example of a Set:

What we have here is a Set of Quadrangles; each of these shapes have four sides; Square, Rectangle. Rhombus, Parallelogram, Kite, etc. What’s unique about this Set is that each of these shapes belong to the same family. In other words every Square or every Rectangle is by definition, a Quadrangle. The inverse however may not be true. So although every Square is a Quadrangle, not every Quadrangle is a Square. It is important to understand this concept since it makes next answers very simple to decipher.

Now, for those of us who have adopted the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, more commonly referred to as Agile, a similar set is referred to as the Agile Umbrella. A lot of the terms familiar to us like Test Driven Development, Stand-ups, Sprints, etc. form a Subset of this huge Umbrella. This Set is much more than the known Frameworks, Practices, Values, Principles, Mindset, Culture, and is still growing with every unique Individual adding new meaning to it with their Interactions. Fortunate for us, this is where our answers lay.

The image below shows an example of the Set called the Agile Umbrella:

Just like before, each of the shapes represents a Subset of the Agile Umbrella, or Agile. So how do we relate Scrum here? Just like before, all Scrum by definition, is Agile; the inverse however may not be true. So, not all Agile is Scrum. Although not the topic of this article, this probably answers another common question among early adopters of the manifesto.

But wait a minute, if all Scrum is Agile, then all Scrum*Coach (aka the Scrum Master) must be Agile*Coach. The inverse may not be true; but sane logic would mean that every Scrum Master is an Agile Coach.

That Sounds Unreasonable, Coach:

Of course it does, there almost doesn’t seem to be a reason to have two terms for the exact same job description, not to mention the difference in salaries. Screw Maths, there must be something wrong with the above model; and yes, there is. The above model simply represents the Subsets of Agile Umbrella, it by no means covers the aspects of Coaching Skills. Agile Coaching comes with its own Set, a common one denoted by the Agile Coaching Competency Framework shown below:

So it’s only the Cartesian Product of these Sets that provide the complete picture of the possibilities between Agility and Coaching. However, this still doesn’t change the fact that since the Set of Agile Umbrella is ever growing, when does one fully become an Agile Coach of this Infinite Cartesian Product?

And looking back in the past, there may have been a point in time when the Agile Umbrella Set might have only had Scrum under its periphery (or an organisation that needs nothing more than Scrum). Under this corollary, our Scrum Master would always also be an Agile Coach. Yes, this may still seem unreasonable, but don’t hate me, I’m just the messenger, hate Maths!

Shouldn’t we consider “What if” scenarios?

We most certainly should! What if only part of Scrum is Agile and vice versa? Is that even possible? Let’s consider the Scrum Guide; the latest version mentions that Scrum has moved beyond building software, e.g.: Wikispeed. In such cases, although all the rules of Scrum may apply, not all the values & principles mentioned in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development may be relevant. This gives us a Set Intersection like below:

So based on the implementation, a few Agile Coaches may need to be Scrum Masters when relevant. Other times, our Agile Coach is merely a human.

But the Inverse may not be True:

By all means, yes! That’s the beauty of it. An Agile Coach may be oblivious to Scrum, which simply reinforces the fact that the world of agility is a lot more than Scrum and one must not be limited by it. What’s the worst that could happen if an Agile Coach is not a Scrum Master? In fact, it’s pretty easy to replicate this possibility. Going back to the Scrum Guide, it mentions that the rules of Scrum are immutable. So if not followed in its entirety, the result is not Scrum.

Now although the Manifesto for Agile Software Development isn’t that strict, I would consider that unless all the values and principles are in place (which by the way is pretty easy to have), one has not fully embraced agility. Now one of the principles in the manifesto mentions “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple (two) of weeks to a couple (two) of months”. In Scrum, the decision to deliver is taken by the Product Owner. In case the Product Owner decides to deliver the working software once a quarter, in principle, one is diligently following Scrum but ain’t Agile.

By that logic, one may be an Agile Coach but not a Scrum Master; and one may be a Scrum Master but not an Agile Coach.

So what is the difference between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach?

Mathematically speaking, none. These may exist and be called terms based on their context. Their responsibilities span similar (if not exact) scope and many practitioners won’t even restrict themselves to a particular scope as long as their actions fall within the acceptable values & principles of agility & coaching. It is a choice what one wants to call themselves just like every other role one may play in an organisation. Hopefully this answer resolves one of your biggest impediments (or added more) so that you can play your role much more efficiently and effectively.

This however is not where this article completes. The question isn’t to understand the difference between a Scrum Master and Agile Coach; it’s about understanding your role better and be high performing. This is where I refer one of my favourite books “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. If you’re familiar with his work, then you’ll relate this article to what he calls System 2 thinking. When it comes to understanding about ourselves as an Agile Coach or a Scrum Master, there are a number of System 1 thinking that regulates our act and limitations at our workplace. I list a few here:

  • System 1 states that a Scrum Master works with the Team while an Agile Coach works with the Organisation. System 2 confirms that Scrum Master has responsibilities towards the organisation as well.

  • System 1 states that a Scrum Master knows only Scrum while an Agile Coach knows everything including Scrum. System 2 confirms that the Agile Umbrella is ever growing and it’s practically impossible for an individual to cover all aspects of it.

  • System 1 states that an Agile Coach supersedes the Scrum Master as a natural progression. System 2 confirms it to be the way an organisation functions on their own accord.

  • System 1 states that an Agile Coach assists with transformation whereas a Scrum Master is what a Project Manager transforms into. System 2 confirms that transformation mastery is just one of the competencies of an Agile Coach and individuals have a freewill.

Moving to System 2, becoming a better Agile Coach (Scrum Master):

In March this year, I got to spend some casual time with Shane Hastie and although we discussed a few topics, there were two messages that struck a chord with me. As follows:

  • Everyone is coachable, you may not be the right coach: If a coach cannot hold themselves accountable for the results of their client, may be it’ll do justice to not be the coach.

  • Anyone can be an Agile Coach, not everyone must: It’s the current fad, that doesn’t give one the liberty to be one without the necessary skills and practitioner experience.

These messages help me move to my System 2 thinking, hopefully this article helped you move to yours as well. Cheers!

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