June 8, 2015

Is it necessary to be an experienced Scrum Master to coach a Scrum Master?

From time to time I hear people say that an Agile Coach should have specific experience in the role they coach, in this post I share my opinion

My understanding of the intention behind the necessity

A good coach needs empathy for the client, needs to understand the job of the client well enough to help him and needs to be respected by the client.

Some people have the opinion “You need to work in the role from time to time, so that you know what you are coaching about”,  or “Without actual hands-on experience in the job there is the risk that you start to live in an ivory tower”. I respect that this opinion has some validity. It could be difficult to guide the client if all they get from you is theory and dogma.

The questions is: In order to be a good coach, is it required to work operational from time to time?

My experience is different

During the last five years I worked as a Scrum Master for a few months. It’s a while ago.

Honestly, my biggest advantage with my limited experience at the beginning was that it helped me to be open. It helped me to observe and learn. I didn’t need to unlearn bad habits.

I am fortunate to have a brilliant environment to learn and develop my capabilities as an agile coach at agile42.

A good agile coach needs to be aware that there are common patterns, problems repeat and every customer is different.

A Scrum in rugby

The ability to conceptualise the situation and a systemic perspective is more important than having all the solutions.

In the last few years I have been moving more towards coaching and facilitation, while remaining concrete through mentoring and advising. I dive less into context and stay more on the meta-level, which enables my clients and coachees to act on their own.

Mentoring, advising and teaching was filling the gaps where coaching wasn’t enough. While people demand and deserve concrete answers, we have to pay attention to keep maximum ownership to them. Otherwise we would create a risk of them just following our advice blindly. The reality is that they know much more about the environment and should make those decisions.

By learning to let the coachee make the decisions, my coaching has become more effective. I believe this is because I don’t make myself the bottleneck by trying to understand their situation with all the details. This approach allows the results to stay in a sustainable way and improve over time.

Knowing exactly how it works in some environments, doesn’t mean you are better prepared to help others to find their solution. There is a tendency to just try to place the solutions of the previous engagements and failing to recognise that the game is a different one.

I experience this tendency often at conferences “in the battle of the best solution” and as challenge for people who are freshly minted as agile coaches.

These observations let me think about the previous experience not only as a benefit, but also as a burden.

A path on how to do a good job with limited first-hand experience

From my perspective, the following aspects give me the frame to become a great coach and a little bit better every day:

Our coaching approach is concise on when teaching, mentoring, advising and coaching are most appropriate. It helps me to have the balance between being concrete without being prescriptive and creating ownership for the client on their solutions from the beginning.

Our set-up with the client of working in short engagements as opposed to working with the client permanently  has helped me to keep the outside perspective and to leave the operational doing to the people. Stepping in and doing their job isn’t an option when my guidance isn’t good enough. Prescriptive guidance would quickly lead to dysfunctions that I can’t fix. I need to be an effective guide to help them in a sustainable way.

Close exchange and reflections with fellow coaches help me to stay up to date and to be challenged to achieve the best results. In order to be able to talk with the colleagues, I need to be able to have a good systemic perspective. The diversity of the coaches helps to see multiple perspectives and new options to approach situations.

Working with different clients, clients of different sizes and different industries helps me to understand that problems are similar, and still every client represents a new challenge.

The feedback over the long run. I stay in contact with many clients and their feedback is my compass to my work. This helps me to reflect on what makes my coaching effective and what needs to be improved.


Many agile coaches cite books as their holy grail without any practical experience which sometimes is weird and annoying.

A good agile coach needs to have experience and build up his capabilities. Achieving this through hands-on experience in the client's role is one approach.

Use football as an example. Some great coaches have been great players previously and others have not been. There are alternative frames to become a great coach.

To make it clear, I’m not against such experience. It could be the right thing for some people to grow and develop their capabilities.

My point is: Statements like “You need …, you have to …” are inappropriate.

You need a frame that helps you with your personal development and being confident to deliver good results to your clients.

Above, I have shared my personal understanding.

I respect and value other approaches and I insist: Every agile coach needs an approach to constantly get better.

What is yours?

Photo "Scrum" by MontyPython

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Ralf Kruse

I'm an Agile coach. Sometimes I'm excited and sometimes I feel more like Marvin ;-) Follow me @ralfhh
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Ralf Kruse

I'm an Agile coach. Sometimes I'm excited and sometimes I feel more like Marvin ;-) Follow me @ralfhh

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