In Agile Coaching, Team and Leadership, Thought Leadership, Training

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What is the relationship between Team Coaching and the Scrum Master role?

Fundamentally, a Scrum Master is a team coach and servant leader and as such team coaching and the Scrum Master role are synonymous with one another. The exact definition of the role in the Scrum Guide, vis-à-vis how the Scrum Master works and serves the development team, is as follows:

How does the Scrum Master serve the Development Team?

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality
  • Helping the Development Team to create high-value products
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed, and
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted nor understood.

There is a large emphasis on coaching within the role of the Scrum Master. So, we must ask, what in fact is team coaching? How is it different to 1-to-1 coaching? And how does this definition relate to the role of the Scrum Master and indeed the Scrum Framework?

A new study in 2019 examined team coaching and how it differs to 1-to-1 coaching and found that team coaching is focused on four primary issues:

  1. Developing and achieving a common goal.
  2. Helping the team develop a higher level of performance.
  3. Developing a culture of learning and reflection.
  4. Developing inter-team trust, communications and awareness.

The study revealed that, to achieve the above, team coaches need to:

  • See the team as a system.
  • Have advanced coaching and group facilitation skills.
  • Have a higher level of awareness of a range of issues not required in one-to-one coaching.
  • Be a long-term fixture with the team.

This study was conducted by researchers from Henley Business School, University of Reading, Aston Business School and the Management School and the University of Liverpool. Collectively, they have looked at how team coaching is developing as an idea and as a concept.  Through this research they found that team development broadly sat within four types of activity and that the following definitions were the most common:

What constitutes a team development process?

  • Team building
    • Some form of team engagement in an activity, followed by reflection on the behaviour and relationships of individual members and how they contribute to the team’s overall performance.
  • Team training
    • Usually considered to be a systematic and staged strategy to improve performance on a task or a series of tasks, or to improve team cohesion and performance.
  • Team development
    • An overarching term for the process of using any method to develop a team, or sense of team, and a more specific set of activities to improve team performance.
  • Team coaching
    • A continual developmental process whereby there is a coach whose aim is to provide feedback and encourage reflection about how the team is performing. It’s considered to be a series of ongoing direct interventions to increase coordination, task performance and making good use of their collective resources.

They further found that a coach is separate to the team in respect that they are not supervisors or team leaders. A 2016 study demonstrated that this independent team coach has a very different form of authority and power dynamic than a traditional manager or leader.

Where is the synergy between team coaching and the Scrum Master role?

The 2019 research outlined four primary themes, which I have listed below. I have also, alongside their findings, given examples of how these findings map to the ScrumMaster role and the Scrum Framework. You will see how the role is inherently a coaching role and is supported naturally by the Scrum framework to enable coaching to take place.

 

Findings

The Scrum Master role and Scrum Framework overlap

The team needs a common goal and the coach is there to help the team define the common goal. This ensures every member of the team has a similar understanding of the purpose of the team at that moment in time.

As part of the Scrum Master’s service to the Product Owner, the Scrum Guide says “Ensuring that goals, scope, and product domain are understood by everyone on the Scrum Team as well as possible”

The Scrum Master during Sprint Planning will facilitate the formulation of a Sprint Goal and ensure that it is understood by the whole Scrum Team, more so each “increment is a step toward a vision or goal”. So, not only does the Scrum Master facilitate the production of the Sprint Goal, they commonly facilitate or, at the very least, ensure that there is a clear over arching Vision for the Product or Project. Moreover, they ensure that everyone is clear about this vision so that the whole team has a common goal and a shared understanding of the goal.

Team performance is found to be the next concern of team coaching and this branches on two levels:

  • How the team performs as a team (how they interact, make decisions, deal with conflict etc.)
  • How the team completes tasks (skills, knowledge, application etc.)

With reference to the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways including:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality.
  • Helping the Development Team to create high-value products.
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress.

The Scrum Master also serves the organisation by

  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team.

And serves the Product Owner by

  • Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items
  • Understanding product planning in an empirical environment
  • Ensuring the Product Owner knows how to arrange the Product Backlog to maximize value
  • Understanding and practicing agility

The Scrum Master achieves this through various coaching interventions; for example, during Sprint Planning, the Daily Scrum, Product Backlog Refinement, Sprint Planning and, most importantly, the Sprint Retrospective.

Team learning and reflection. The study found that a primary aim of team coaching is to ensure that the team constructs knowledge and develops the skills and attitudes needed, for example, to help the team to learn and think about itself and how it operates.  This means creating a safe reflective space.

The Scrum Master would most generally achieve this through their skilled facilitation of the Sprint Retrospective.

The Scrum Master creates a safe place for team members to say what needs to be said and a safe space for the team to explore, reflect and learn so that they can take positive action going forward to improve.

The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to:

  • Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools;
  • Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements; and,
  • Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the Scrum Team does its work.

The Scrum Master encourages the Scrum Team to improve, within the Scrum process framework, its development process and practices to make it more effective and enjoyable for the next Sprint. During each Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Team plans ways to increase product quality by improving work processes.

Capability development. This involves helping to develop trust, improve communications and increase interpersonal, personal, organisational and situational awareness.

Ultimately, the Scrum Master achieves this through the coaching actions they take against the three previous findings and undertaking their responsibilities as defined within their role in the Scrum Guide, namely serving the Product Owner, The Development Team and The Organisation. The Scrum Master achieves this via the Scrum Events, through coaching interventions, and by creating a safe place for the team to explore, reflect and learn. There are many techniques that a Scrum Master may use to help the team achieve this outcome and ultimately through their skilled coaching and facilitation they are enablers for team growth and development.

Coach the team as a system

The findings also revealed that the team coach views the team as a system and focuses on that system as an entity, whilst still recognising the varying skills, knowledge, needs and perspectives of the individuals.

What is interesting about the above finding is that this view is perfectly reflected in Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC).  This is an International Coaching Federation (ICF) certified and approved coaching framework. The four cornerstones of the Relationship Systems Model in the Workplace are:

  1. The Relationship System is the Focus
  2. The Relationship System is Naturally Intelligent and Creative
  3. Work With the Whole Relationship System
  4. Reveal the System to Itself

The findings of the study and the ORSC model fit in perfectly with the mindset of a great Scrum Master and it is interesting to read Eben Halfords blog “You are probably not part of a real team” which also talks about teams as systems.

Moreover, the study found that coaching a group of people together requires advanced coaching and facilitation skills which entails:

  • The ability to deal with the risks involved of taking on a group.
  • Being able to navigate a complex and continually changing, developing and revealing series of relationships.
  • The ability to listen to and work with multiple and often conflicting or competing perspectives, ways of thinking and beliefs/value systems at the same time.
  • The ability to observe and interpret interactions and spot emerging properties and to ‘read’ relationships.
  • Understanding and being able to work with and use group dynamics, processes and facilitate a group ‘live’.
  • Developing a collective conversation around issues of importance for the team.

Lastly, the researchers identified that team coaches are usually invested in the long-term performance of the team and are usually not engaged on short-term discrete outcomes. As such, they need to build a trusting and powerful relationship with the entire team.

In conclusion, the 2019 study found that organisational team coaching is ‘live’, with real-life organisational issues being dealt with and changing as the coaching is ongoing. Organisational team coaching is in a live context with ‘in-the-moment’ consequences and outcomes. This requires an advanced level of awareness and skills on the coach’s behalf.

Conclusion – The Scrum Master is a Team Coach

This study for me is totally compatible with the role of the Scrum Master, after all this role is a coaching role, team coaching and the Scrum Master role are totally aligned.  To be a great Scrum Master is however an on-going journey of discovery and learning. Some ideas of how to develop as a Scrum Master and agile coach can be found as part of our Agile Coaching Growth Wheel. There are many areas to explore and many areas of self-learning. There are also elements that you can develop on a more formal basis through direct training and coaching. However you choose to proceed in the journey, it will be very fulfilling, but can often be difficult and challenging. The most important takeaway from this: the ScrumMaster is a team coach.

References

Jones, R. J., Napiersky, U., & Lyubovnikova, J. (2019). Conceptualizing the distinctiveness of team coaching. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 34(2), 62-78. In Team coaching and how it is different to 1-to-1 coaching. Research Briefing. The Oxford Review. www.oxford-review.com

Schwaber, K & Sutherland, J. (2017). The Scrum Guide. The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game.

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