ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches: More than a Title

As I said in an earlier column, it’s not enough to slap the tile of Scrum Master or Agile Coach on a project manager, manager, or whatever other warm body happens by.  It’s also not enough to look for the keywords “CSM” or “coach” on a resume.

If you are serious about helping teams learn and thrive as self-organizing Agile teams, get serious about ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches. Start thinking about the work, the role, and the job–not just the job title.

Here’s my initial take on a job analysis of the role (using the job analysis template from Johanna Rothman‘s very useful book, Hiring the Best.)

First, I considered the qualities, preferences, and skills. Second, I thought about the sort of knowledge and understanding that’s essential for the role.  Then, I thought about elimination factors, patterns of thought and behavior that would eliminate a candidate from consideration.  Of course, you can’t just ask yes/no questions for any of the characteristics on this table. You have to do behavioral interview questions and auditions (see Hiring the Best if you need a refresher on interviewing and auditioning candidates).

QualityR/DPreferenceR/DSkillR/DDemonstrated UnderstandingR/D Elimination Factors
InitiativeRWorking in a team environmentRTeam coachingRAgile values, principles, methods, practicesRDirective
FlexibilityRFinds satisfaction in helping others succeed.RFacilitationRTeam and group dynamicsRDefensive
OptimismRAgile practicesRWorking thru influenceDJudgmental
ResilienceRAbility to explain the "why" behind agile practicesRLow threshold for frustration
DeterminationRInterpersonal skillsR
DiscernmentRTeam dynamicsD
SupportiveRSystem thinkingD

R = Required, D = Desirable

After I had a handle on the skills, qualities, and characteristics, I considered the interactions, activities, and deliverables for the job. I summarized it all here:

Who interacts with this person?Team members
Product owner
Manager(s) associated with team members
Other coaches
Primary roleCoach
Secondary roleFacilitator
Secondary roleIntegration with other agile teams
Secondary roleOrganizational change agent
Management componentManage his/her own impediment backlog
Job grade level (consider pay and message to the organization)For purposes of pay level, look at interactions and scope.
ActivitiesCoach one or more teams.
Ensure team enabling conditions are in place.
Create or advocate for those conditions if they are not in place.
Facilitate team meetings (e.g., sprint planning, sprint demo, retrospectives, decision making meetings, etc.)
Ensure that information radiators are up to date.
Develop additional team radiators to address issues unique to the team.
Advocate for the team (e.g., block unnecessary meddling)
Help the team see their own process and improve their processes.
Coach on agile practices
Guide the team in adapting process to fit the local reality w/o losing the intent.
Coach on interpersonal and collaboration skills.
Coach on technical practices
Identify impediments
Use influence skills to remove impediments
Transfer knowledge and skills to team members so the team becomes more self-sufficient.
Up-to-date team radars
Impediment backlog
Knowledge transfer
Essential Qualities and PreferencesInitiative, flexibility, optimism, determination, resilience
Working in a team environment, supportive, not cowed by authority
Desirable Qualities and PreferencesDetachment, discernment
Able to navigate conflict
Essential non-technical skillsCoaching, interpersonal skills, Agile practices
Desirable non-technical skillsFacilitation, influence
Essential technical skillsDepends on which team the coach will work with
Desirable technical skillsDepends on which team the coach will work with
Minimum education
Minimum experienceOne year coaching a team. Two years working with an agile team
Demonstrated understanding of:Coaching
Agile values, principles, methods, practices
Team and group dynamics
Working through influence
Cultural fit factorsThis is in some ways a cultural change role. The candidate must fit the desired cultural pattern, but not be so far from the current culture that he's rejected.
Elimination factorsPreference for directing others, defensiveness, judgmental attitude, low threshold for frustration

Of course, what you look for in an agile coach or Scrum Master will be somewhat different. Each team has different needs for coaching. A given team may need more (or less) help with specific engineering practices. Another team may need more help with retrospectives or planning. The key is to think of this like any other job. ScrumMaster or Agile coach are not a plug-and-play roles. You need to look for fit–with your culture and with the needs of the team.

19 Replies to “ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches: More than a Title”

  1. Thanks Esther, what an awesome post at such great timing – just about to hire 2 SMs for permanent roles and was going through the SFIA framework to find similar descriptions – now i have my template for all new hires, and I will read the recommended Hiring the Best book before any interviews.

  2. The CSM training by itself is so minimal that it is really quite shameful for anyone to call it a certification. Two days being coached and lectured, at best, assuming the person doing the training is any good, you could consider it Agile 101.

  3. This is great!! Thanks.

    A few of comments:

    – For some teams, the Coach and ScrumMaster could be the same person – two different roles, two different work but the one person. An experienced ScrumMaster often makes a good coach and often the work overlaps.

    – Noticed ‘Coach on agile practices’ and ‘Coach on technical practices’ was listed as an activity. Should ‘Coach on agile thinking’ be an activity too? I think the practices and the thinking are different.

    – Coaching at an organization/enterprise level is important when scaling agile – this is distinctly different to ‘Coach one or more teams’. Should this be an agile coach activity? or do you see this as an organizational change role?

    • HI, Chris

      I agree that it is important to coach on the thinking behind practices. That’s why “Ability to explain the “why” behind agile practices” is listed as a required skill. If I were hiring, I would want the candidate to demonstrate understanding of Agile values, principles, methods, practices.

      Agile coach/ scrum master is an organizational change role, by its very existence.

      Large scale Agile change efforts do require coaching and steering. But changing a large organization requires a different set of skills than coaching a team. The expectation that a lone scrum master / coach can lead change across the organization misses the complexity of the job.

      When you have seen situations where there was a scrum master and a coach, how was the work allocated? Who did what? Was the coach role permanent, or a temporary role to coach on specific skills?


  4. Hello Esther!

    I have some fresh experiences from two different views of what was meant with “ScrumMaster”. In one case it was suddenly clarified that setting up a Scrum Master meant “you can have a ScrumMaster so that you can have fun, but when it gets close to deadline then I, the projectleader, will decide how you do your work” (sorry about the somewhat bitter formulation…).

    In the other case, being a ScrumMaster meant to “be an oil in the machinery” and to be around wiping peoples noses.

    As Jerry Weinberg writes in The Secrets Of Consulting: “The name of a thing is not the thing”

    • Your stories illustrate some of the reasons behind this post. People hear that the team needs a “scrum master,” and appoint one, without any real understanding of the purpose of the role.


  5. Excellent!

    Would that the hiring managers used this to make their decisions, and actually understand what it is they are asking for. However, as an Agile Coach/Scrum Master, I especially like the “deliverables.” That’s an area we need to really own and acknowledge to ourselves as well as to our management who sometimes struggle in understanding what it is we do.

  6. Esther,

    When we have both a ScrumMaster and a Coach, it is usually when the team and ScrumMaster are still learning agile. In all cases, the ScrumMaster is a permanent team member and part of the ‘core team’. The coach depending on the team’s maturity and experience with agile works with the team a few hours a week to the full 5 days a week. In this capacity, the coach is a temporary role or an ‘extended team member’. I think this works as it keeps the coach out of the weeds and can provide the independent views, observations, mentoring and coaching.

    The coach would work with team members of specific skills based on team needs and the ScrumMaster can concentrate on the actual delivery with the team. For new teams the coach starts off working with the team 5 days a week and tapering off to a few hours as they become more self-sufficient. At first the coach may facilitate the first few ceremonies side-by-side with the ScrumMaster and in later ones just be present to observe to provide feedback.

    The feedback I often get from the teams I coach is what they value most from having a coach is the questioning and challenging of their mental models based on traditional thinking. Hence, a large part of the coach’s role is to coach the team on the use of agile principles and behaviours so they can become self sufficient.


  7. Awesome post!

    This is a great starting point to crystallize your ideas.

    There may be unique needs of each team that require some tweaks to this define the role / job description.

    This blog post can save hiring managers hours of work!

  8. Greetings Esther,
    Joining this conversation very late, but better late than never. as coaches, we’ve been trying to identify our areas of strengths and opportunities for improvement, and created a similar multi-dimensional list to help us grow.
    had a couple of questions:
    a. what’s the difference between “agile practices” and “ability to explain the why behind them”? is that thinking along the lines of maybe a junior coach knowing the practices, but not necessarily the why, and someone with more experience knowing the why? because it seems to me that without a grasp of the “why”, it would be hard to convince anyone to adopt something.
    b. along similar lines, i’m assuming “low threshold for frustration” means “low threshold for visibly expressing frustration” – frustration that’s felt internally, and then channeled into constructive feedback is perhaps not as bad?

  9. Hi,

    I’ver been using this very nice post for years when people have asked about what Scrum AMster role entails.

    I just looked at it again and saw this:
    “Secondary role: Integration with other agile teams”

    It looks a bit like the Scrum Master would do project manager duties and synchronize with other teams, or that he/she would do knowledge transfer. I think that would not be accurate for the Scrum Master role, nor helpful to organisations.

    Is there another interpretataion of that line?


    • Hi, Henrik.

      I do not see the Scrum Master as a project manager role. I agree with you, that would not be helpful (coordinating roles are usually an org. design “smell” in my experience).

      I see the integration more as facilitating information flow and ensuring that lateral linking happens.

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you’ve found this post helpful.

      Warm regards,


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