What’s the difference between an Agile coach and a scrum master? A quick internet search returns a variety of competing opinions (and a lot of ads for training classes). This is not an arbitrary question – these terms have a great deal of power to set expectations for behavior. While some of the components of the roles are similar, the two roles are different in at least one major way – scope.
Both Agile coaches and scrum masters help teams. Both roles are tasked with helping Agile teams use Agile values and practices to deliver value to the organization. Agile coaches and scrum masters use similar techniques to guide, facilitate, and coach teams so that they learn and use Agile techniques, confront delivery problems as they occur, and work together as a well-oiled unit. If we stopped here the two roles would be the same. However, the scope of the two roles is different.
Agile coaches typically pursue the implementation of an organizational vision of Agile, or are tasked with delivering external knowledge and expertise to a team. In both cases the coach is external and is not a member any specific project team. In order to effect change from the outside the project, the coach needs a broader exposure to Agile roles than a typical scrum master. A coach should have played all of roles on an Agile team multiple times. They have the gravitas to influence without direct authority and from outside the team. They interact with a team or teams, and then let the team synthesize and internalize the advice. The Agile coach is typically the voice of Agile at an organizational level. This generally requires broader exposure and experience with Agile techniques, which is why many organizations use external consultants to play this role. The need for an Agile coach is generally transitory, specifically they are needed when external injections of knowledge or energy is necessary to help ensure the application of Agile continues to evolve.
On the other hand, the scrum master is the team’s tactical coach (scrum defines the team as the scrum master, product owner and the development team). He/she facilitates the team’s use of Agile techniques and helps to protect the team from the outside world. Scrum masters are the voice of the process at the team level. Scrum masters are a critical member of every Agile team. The team’s need for a scrum master is not transitory because they evolve together as a team.
The role of an Agile coach and that of scrum master have similarities, but also significant differences.