Agile Coach or Scrum Master: who delivers the best ROI?

Should we rely on an Agile Coach or a Scrum Master? This is a legitimate question for any company engaged in agile transformation, or wishing to do so. I'd like to share some of my experience, illustrated by concrete examples.

When it comes to using agile approaches to improve the efficiency of an organization's projects, two roles stand out: the Agile Coach and the Scrum Master. Their expertise, and sometimes their fields of intervention, are similar. But how do you choose the mode of intervention that will deliver the best return on investment (ROI)? To answer this question, we'll look at their responsibilities, their respective advantages, and then at the criteria for making the right choice. 

The Scrum Master: promoter and guardian of the methodology 

The Scrum Master, "officially" described here, is a well-known role in the world of agile development. It is provided for by the Scrum framework, which makes it indispensable in this way of working. Its main mission is to ensure that the team follows the Scrum methodology, in order to practice true agility. As such, he organizes meetings, facilitates processes, removes obstacles to the team's production and helps the team to respect Scrum principles. 

Let's take the example of a software development team that was struggling to meet project deadlines and budgets. After hiring a skilled Scrum Master, the company was able to start implementing Scrum and saw a significant operational improvement. In addition to meeting deadlines, the teams improved the quality of their deliverables. In addition to meeting deadlines, teams improved the quality of their deliverables, and the Scrum framework almost immediately increased their involvement and motivation.

To illustrate the tangible benefits of Scrum Master, see this article, which focuses on three key areas.

The Agile Coach: a catalyst for change 

The role of the Agile Coach is usually broader than that of the Scrum Master. The Agile Coach is a change agent who helps the company adopt and implement an agile culture. He doesn't limit himself to a particular framework (that of teams producing a software product) like Scrum. He can work with a variety of agile methodologies and practices to meet the company's specific needs. Unlike the Scrum Master role, this is a one-off intervention, integrated into the project team. 

Let's take the example of a large company wanting to transform its organizational culture to become more agile. By hiring an Agile Coach, the company maximizes its chances of successfully reorganizing its teams and introducing more collaborative working practices. At the very least, this helps to reduce costs and time-to-market for products, and can also lead to the emergence of new innovations.

This transformation is likely to have a major impact on company performance. And this at a more global and generally cross-functional level than is possible with Scrum Masters at project team level. However, the difficulties (and therefore the risks of failure) are commensurate with this level of gain. 

Agile Coach or Scrum Master: how do you decide?

The choice between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach depends on the company's specific needs. Here are some decision criteria, illustrated by real-life situations. 

Agile Coach and Scrum Master: we don't exactly do the same job, but we share the same passion. Namely, getting things done in the right way.
Photo by Eden Constantino on Unsplash

The company's level of agile maturity 

If the company is new to agile, a Scrum Master can be a wise choice for a successful first transformation experience. It allows you to experiment on a smaller scale, while controlling the risks. In addition to "field" testing, and a first good experience, this is a real way of initiating acculturation to agility. 

If you already have an agile approach underway, or a first level of agility, a coaching intervention may be more appropriate, to relay, disseminate and deepen what has already been initiated in the field by the Scrum Master.

In this way, a Coach will be better able to push back the limits encountered by the Scrum Master in the operational approach he has initiated. The Coach has experience, tools and a specific intervention framework, which will enable him/her to unblock situations that are awkward for the Scrum Master. 

Finally, in the particular but very frequent case where the Scrum Masters put in place at the time of the organization's agile transition are still in the appropriation phase of the role (or still have a certain juniority in the role), a Coach will help the Scrum Masters to increase their competence in all the tricky aspects of the role.

This coaching will not only help the Scrum Master role to be set up correctly, but will also help stakeholders to find the right positioning. In this context, coaching is often a key success factor in getting an agile transition off to a good start. 

The need for organizational or global transformation

Are there any cross-functional synchronization needs that "resist" the level of agility already implemented? A typical example is the existence of silos or counter-productive interplay between players. In this case, a coaching intervention would be more appropriate. The company needs to evolve its culture and operational reflexes, and develop an agile approach at various levels throughout the organization. 

A typical example is a highly siloed and/or hierarchical organization. In this type of context, practices and habits contrary to agility can limit, or even compromise, local benefits on the ground (such as an agile project). 

Company size 

Large companies with many diverse teams will need an Agile Coach to coordinate and harmonize the whole organization. For smaller structures, Scrum Masters may suffice. This is provided that the small structure in question does not suffer from the ills typical of large organizations. For example, in theory, silos are generally less prevalent in a small structure... but the reality is more complex. 

Smaller organizations don't necessarily need to add an agile coach role to their Scrum Mastering structure, but it's no guarantee.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In conclusion: Agile Coach or Scrum Master?

The choice between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach is not just a question of cost. It's also a question of the company's agile maturity and long-term objectives. Both roles have an important and complementary ROI: either through immediate improvement at project level with a Scrum Master, or through long-term cultural transformation with an Agile Coach.

Why not combine the two?

In many cases, combining these two complementary roles can be the optimum solution for maximizing efficiency and profitability.

Simply put, having good Scrum Masters in place to clean up and reinforce project practices is the first step. It is generally indispensable. It may be sufficient, depending on the company's culture. 

A very interesting pattern that we frequently recommend is to start with Scrum Mastering. This helps to anchor the approach and generate initial operational gains, before extending it to other areas of the company. This enables the Scrum Master to spot cross-functional issues, identify key risks to be addressed for a global transformation, and thus start this global transformation on a solid footing.

In the frequent case where the company wishes to train employees for the Scrum Master role, it may be worthwhile to call on an external Scrum Master to "clear the way" for the installation of the role. 

Agile Coach or Scrum Master: a cumulative ROI 

Finally, there's a final advantage to this pattern, when using an external service provider for Scrum Mastering. It enables the company to test the service provider's real capacity on an initial, comparatively simple and controllable scope, before relying on a Coach to guide a large-scale transformation. 

In all cases, the investment in the combined pattern is smoothed out. The intervention of Scrum Master(s) generally leads to initial short- and medium-term gains (time-to-market, innovation, financial, image, employee motivation and loyalty, etc.). Coaching, on the other hand, targets medium- to long-term benefits.

The time horizon of the various impacts can therefore often seem counter-intuitive. The Scrum Master, a long-lasting role, already produces visible effects in the short term, whereas the Coach, a mission of limited duration, will often produce more visible effects in the medium or long term.



"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is." Yogi Berra


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"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is." Yogi Berra

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