Coaching is Key for Scrum Success – Part One of Two


Organizations eager to solve the problems they see in their projects or processes often decide to adopt Scrum in the belief that it will immediate solve all those problems. Although Scrum can and often does resolve some problems immediately, it also has the potential to expose or exacerbate other existing problems and can even appear to create a few problems of its own.

In some cases, this can be seen to be a “failure” of Scrum, even when implemented by an organization that was initially enthusiastic and determined. This perceived failure can cost the organization considerable time and money if the Scrum team continues along the same path they are on, despite the unresolved problems. These costs, as well as frustrations and even pressures from inside or outside the Scrum team can cause Scrum to be abandoned without ever demonstrating its full potential.

How can an organization maximize the benefits of Scrum while minimizing its learning curves and stumbling blocks?

Common problems when implementing Scrum

It’s common to have some issues when first implementing Scrum, especially for the first Scrum teams within an organization. These problems can continue to plague the organization until they are addressed and they can compromise the success of Scrum across the entire organization.

Some common issues are:

  • Teams are unable to achieve success but claim to be “doing Scrum.” Upon closer examination, these teams are shown to be using something only half-jokingly called “Scrum-But.” Scrum-But is where one or more key facets of Scrum are dropped, in whole or in part. This can happen for many reasons including not seeing the value in the parts of Scrum they have not implemented, an inability to see how to implement Scrum for their specific situation, or even because Scrum has exposed problems and impediments they feel they have no control over.
  • Teams adopt Scrum and see some small changes but not as much as they hoped and, over time, the culture of their organization pulls them back into their pre-Scrum methods and techniques. This can happen for many reasons. The team may revert to the old way of doing things when faced with only a partial success; the team may react to Scrum’s exposure of existing problems and issues by going back to methods and techniques designed to hide or work around those problems
  • Teams try to adopt Scrum based on self-education or a limited amount of training, but their organization does not empower them to do so with time, education and support. Organizations can even sabotage a team’s Scrum efforts by requiring adherence to seemingly arbitrary reporting, workflow or organizational rules despite evidence of how changes could be highly beneficial.

Common efforts to resolve these problems that don’t work

As common as some of these problems are, many organizations or teams have attempted to resolve these problems on their own, usually with mixed results, at best. These resolution attempts vary in their base goal and their execution but they share the fact that that they do not work.

Some common resolution attempts are:

  • The organization insists that the Scrum team follow an arbitrary list of criteria or processes, no matter how compatible those are with the team, the project or the organization itself. This creates immediate friction and extra work and tends to sabotage the Scrum team from the start.
  • The organization provides the Scrum team with additional training classes, either internal or external. While Scrum training is important, the Scrum team may still not be able to apply the Scrum facets to their own project, team or organization correctly.
  • The Scrum team performs ad hoc alterations to Scrum itself in order to attempt to fix the identified problems. This, in turn, creates more problems because the team ends up implementing Scrum-But instead of Scrum.
  • The organization or Scrum team gives up on Scrum entirely. Not only are the benefits of Scrum not realized but the team members consider themselves a failure and are frustrated. The organization has now spent money on a “failed” process and will be extremely hesitant to try Scrum again, despite evidence of how it can benefit them.

What is the most effective way to resolve Scrum problems?

Call in a Scrum coach

One of the best decisions an organization can make when faced with Scrum “failure” is to realize that there are problems occurring that the organization may not be able to identify or resolve on its own. These organizations will certainly benefit from the services of a Scrum or Agile Coach.

Benefits of Scrum coaching

Making use of a Scrum coach brings with it a number of significant benefits that go beyond what can be achieved with other attempts at solving Scrum problems.

Among these benefits are:

  • Coaches give the Scrum team the best chance to combine immediate Scrum success with on-the-job training and growth.
  • Coaches bring both tried and new practices and processes to the team and organization reducing the degree of trial and error commonly found in homegrown experimentation.
  • Coaches take time pressure off the managers and supervisors by providing extra guidance and management of the Scrum process on a day-to-day basis until the Scrum process is running well.
  • Coaches bring an outside view of the organization, team and individuals and remove intrinsic bias and interpersonal issues.
  • Coaches provide needed learning and mentoring opportunities to the employees.
  • Coaches collaborate with the managers and leads to help the careers and growth of the organization’s employees with feedback and suggestions.
  • Coaches are organizationally agnostic and are not subject to the same pecking order, enabling them to tell the hard truths that may need to be said.
  • Coaches work on themselves and their craft continuously to bring with them the latest thinking and tools so companies benefit from their continuous improvement to get the best and latest.
  • Coaches create an environment that allows teams to address the difficulties they face rather than sweep them under the rug.
  • Coaches embrace the need for continued learning and strive to lead teams into embracing continued learning as well.

What does a Scrum coach do?

Scrum coaches tailor their actions and deliverables to the organization and situation they are called in to assist with, but they bring with them a broad range of insights and guidance.

Some of the things Scrum coaches do are:

  • Coaches examine organizations, teams and individuals to see what they are doing and how, both in Scrum implementation and in other processes or facets of how they do their jobs.
  • Coaches teach Scrum practices but also teach a variety of other methodologies that may be needed to help the team or organization succeed.
  • Coaches challenge teams and individuals to do their best work and to become the best agile practitioners they can be which, in turn, enables them to do their best work and fosters mindsets that make that best work sustainable.
  • Coaches lead by example by modeling the core behaviors of excellent, successful agile practitioners in order to allow the team to learn and internalize these behaviors.
  • Coaches mentor individuals for personal and professional growth, including Scrum leadership roles when appropriate.
  • Coaches bring with them a better view of the “big picture” than people within the organization or team, because they are coming in from outside.
  • Coaches facilitate change, not just within a team but across multiples teams and disciplines within an organization.
  • Coaches work at many levels, from individual coaching to that of entire organizations.
  • Coaches advise the organizational leadership and management as needed to ensure Scrum success.
  • Coaches question assumptions and the status quo in order to discover the actual needs and requirements behind them.
  • Coaches foster continuous improvement and learning.

What to look for in a Scrum Coach?

There are a number of things an organization needs to look for when they hire a Scrum coach in order to get the best results. With the growing popularity of Scrum and Agile methodologies, there are also a growing number of people advertising themselves as Scrum or Agile Coaches.

A good Scrum coach should be able to demonstrate the following:

1) Good Scrum coaches are experienced. They have “been there, done that” and tends to write about or offers presentations about it. They are an active member of the Scrum community where they both learn from others and share their own experiences.

2) Good Scrum coaches are knowledgeable. They have a breadth and depth in both the tools and techniques they have learned and have a proven track record that demonstrates continuous improvements in their own skills such as learning new techniques or disciplines on a regular basis.

3) Good Scrum coaches are enthusiastic. They enjoy coaching, teaching, mentoring and helping teams achieve success. They love and believe in Scrum.

4) Good Scrum coaches are collaborative. They like to work with teams instead of dictating pat answers. They know how to build the team’s collaborative ability.

5) Good Scrum coaches are communicative. They tend to listen first and ask more questions rather than making immediate statements or decisions.

6) Good Scrum coaches are responsible. They take responsibility for educating and mentoring clients on processes.

7) Good Scrum coaches are organized. They can prioritize both their own work and assist in prioritizing the team’s work, taking into account risk, effort, and dependencies. They are also able to prioritize process improvements and work with clients to get the most improvement for the least cost.

8) Good Scrum coaches are inspirational. They are able to inspire teams and individuals to rise to the occasion and try new things. They celebrate both successes and the small failures that prevent bigger failures at the end of a project.

9) Good Scrum coaches are respectful. They respect the team and the individuals and never lose sight of the fact that these are intelligent people who are striving to do the best job they possibly can, despite any obstacles.

10) Good Scrum coaches are open. They are transparent and upfront about not just what to do but why. They are open to criticism and constructive feedback and willing to listen to other ideas and give those ideas due consideration. They are willing to try something and fail and be transparent about what might not have worked so everyone can learn and move forward.

11) Good Scrum coaches help the organization find its own best answers to its own problems to create sustainable changes.

Part Two will cover “Problems solved by Scrum Coaches” and “Instead of just any Scrum coach, consider hiring a Certified Scrum Coach”

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