How to get promoted to Agile Coach, and why we retired the Scrum Master role

Like many large multi-nationals, we were slow to embrace Agile. Indeed, acceptance of Agile is still not universal and much work remains for us to become Agile by default across our entire organisation. That being said we have made great progress.

We employed many levers to embrace Agile. It was not just about persuasion, lobbying, experimentation or education by pioneering Agilist — although all these things were important and part of our journey. Rather our success with Agile was founded on recognising that passionate Agilist had an important contribution to make to our organisation and we needed them. Everyone needs a home, and Agilists are no exception. So whilst we recognised that agile thinking needed to permeate the minds of everyone in our organisation, it was important to create a warm an inviting home for people who had specific focus, drive and responsibility for making it happen. After some significant pondering, we settled on creating the Scrum Master role and career path within our workforce architecture — and this was the game changer for us.

Whilst I’m not a fan of siloing people in abstracts concepts such as roles, we choose Scrum Master as traditional mindsets like “standards” — and the Scrum Master role had a degree of clarity within the wider industry (in 2015) which no other agile role had. Agile Coach, Team Facilitator etc were quite nebulous, and the energy required to sell the value of these roles was much harder. The path of least resistance was to “play the system” and use a well understood industry role name. At this point I should say that whilst Scrum Master is a well recognise role, there remains a huge amount of confusion and malpractice. Like many other organisations, we encountered Larman’s Law of Organisational Behaviour (and still do from time to time), namely:

1. Organisations are implicitly optimised to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

2. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

Only by creating the role (Scrum Master in our case), and hiring into it, could we effectively create a Community of Practice to reset the organisation psyche that Scrum Master didn’t equal Project Manager. This proved pivotal in accelerating our organisation’s adoption of Agile practices and thinking, and provided clarity around career paths to hire and retain Agile talent.

For us, this approach has proved extremely successful, and has meant we have been able to embraced Agile without the crazness of “Agile Transformations”. We’ve been able to education, experiment and build out our capability in a manageable, incremental and controlled manner, and it also created a safe space to attract passionate agilists into our organisation. So if it had been so success, why would we want to retire the Scrum Master role?

As our Scrum Master community of practice grew, one reoccurring question started to get asked:

“How do you get promoted to be promoted to an Agile Coach?”

So on face value this is fair enough. In the UK, an Agile Coach has a average salary of £71K (according to GlassDoor) whilst a Scrum Master has a lower average salary of £54K . In part, I believe this is down to Larman’s Law and the Scrum Master role being seen as a junior Project Managers (PMs) by many organisations, or the role being seen as “administrative”.

Both these perceptions need tackling. Whilst it is flattering that PMs believe they can get value from the experience of being a Scrum Master, the behaviour and mindset is very different in my experience and not entirely compatible. The perception that the role is administrative, leads onto a passive style of Scrum Mastery, something I strongly believe is a misconception, a threat to how “Agile” is perceived, and gratefully address in the latest Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters in our organisation need to be passionate, proactive, and highly driven in the pursuit of our Agile Values and the delivery of end value.

As time has gone on, the community has started to ask an even more fundamental question around Scrum Mastery — namely is a Scrum Master really an Agile Coach? Whilst there is a common view that an Agile Coach tends to take a broader view across a department or organisation, we strongly encourage all our Scrum Masters to look both inwards towards the team, and also outwards to the environment that the team operates within. The Scrum Guide supports this view. Only looking inwards or outwards is highly limiting. Furthermore, we have struggled to define a point or stage in a Scrum Master’s career that means they should not concern themselves with either aspect. Defining such a point would be hugely limiting and constraining for both the Scrum Master, the organisation and the teams — and to what end?? Such a limitation or constraint could only be justified for maintaining a traditional hierarchical and siloed HR structure that Scrum Masters seek to negate on a daily basis with their teams.

Other time it has become apparent that the role name of Scrum Master itself infers some limitations and constraints. We encourage our Scrum Masters to think about Agile, not just Scrum. Whilst we get a lot of benefit from Scrum and it is the framework we use the most, we recognise it is not the best approach for everything, and we must maintain an open mind. So, for example, if a team decides to adopt Kanban based on their inability to dynamic nature of work demands, they are likely to still benefit from a team coach/facilitate, yet having a “Scrum Master” sounds odd.

After 8 years we have reached a new milestone in our Agile adoption. A vibrant and empowered Agile community of practice has decided to retire the Scrum Master role — recognising that all career minded Scrum Masters are in fact, and always have been, Agile Coachesno promotion required. Scrum Mastery will live on as something commonly practiced — but we have removed some of the implied and perceived constraints and limitations associated with the role name.

All our Scrum Masters are now Agile Coaches which sends a powerful message indeed about their ambition — regardless of their seniority.

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