Sunday, January 22, 2017

Clinic: Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, Delivery Managers...

​From time to time questions show up in my mailbox from people asking questions. I like to post the questions and answers here in the hope that others might benefit. I’ve done this a few times before (“Agile Clinic: problem with our agile…”)

I’m always glad to help but it can be hard to find time, plus, not everyone wants to talk about this in public. So, before I jump into this clinic Q&A, I should mention that members of part of Alex Pappworth’s “Be a Brilliant Business Analyst” group can now book one-on-one online consultations with me.

Anyway, to today’s question….

“[We are a Drupal based software development organization in India. It is 150 member team with representations in South East Asia and the US. We have 2 Agile coaches in the organization who are stretched in time managing different projects.”

Hardly surprising, 150 people, multiple projects, multiple locations. I don’t know what the “right” ratio of coaches to teams/people - there probably isn’t one single answer, not least because it will depend a lot on the maturity of the teams, i.e., established teams will need less help than new teams but all teams should have a coach to call on.

“We are looking at restructuring our organization so that these coaches can be supported for project delivery. As of now the Agile coaches have 3 primary responsibilities - 1)project delivery 2) Agile process coaching and 3) people management. Of these 3, project delivery and people management is the most time consuming and exhaustive.”

This is worrying. To my mind Agile coaches should be spending most of their time on process coaching and helping people - not helping with their work, helping them improve, maybe one-on-one coaching or maybe team coaching. I wouldn’t call “helping people” people management, that sounds like line-management or traditional project management.

So first off: get some project managers.

Regular readers will probably be surprised to hear me say that, and I am a little but there are times when a project manager is the right solution. One example, as in this case, when there is a client-supplier relationship and expected deliverables within a project model.

Yes, I question whether the project model is the best model to be using, and I’ll even question whether this company really does projects, but based on this information they do, they should have project managers.

Once you have project managers then the coaches can work with the project managers to improve team performance.

“We have contemplated separating the people management piece by placing a Delivery manager between a coach and scrum master.”

Scrum Masters too? Can’t they pick up some of the project delivery work in the absence of project managers?

One problem with “Delivery manager” is that the role is not well defined or even understood. It is a new role and one which is still emerging. We will probably never have a universal standard delivery manager role but right now it is ill defined.

If you were to add a Delivery Manager I think they would end up becoming a type of Project Manager. In which case we’ve both identified a missing role in your organization, the question is: who are the right people to fill it? Whether you call them project or delivery managers there it seems there is a missing role here.

Line management is a more difficult problem. Here we really have an evolving field.

So far I’ve not heard of any good solutions to “Who is the line manager?”

• Project Managers aren’t line managers because they lack the skills, plus projects are temporary and you want some continuity here.
• Scrum Masters and Coaches aren’t line managers because the type of coaching they (should) use shuns authority.
• Delivery managers…. well if I ever find out what a Deliver Manager does I’ll let you know.

Since Agile as a whole aims for self-organization the issue of line management, and there in some authority, has received little attention. Arguably you should drop the role all together but that is quite radical.

One solution I’ve heard is to make one manager responsible for all line management. At the same time moving towards greater self-organization reduces the need for line management.

“In the existing system scrum masters do not have the maturity or the experience of people management. Since we are still trying to figure our way out keeping in mind that we don’t increase our overheads I have the following questions to ask of you-“

Good call, if the people don’t have the maturity yet don’t make them line managers. And as I said, Scrum Masters probably shouldn’t have that role anyway.

“a) Is an Agile coach expected to do all 3. i.e delivery management of projects, people development(career progression, feedback in retros, conflict mgt) and Agile process coaching ( tech forums, building an Agile culture etc)?”

Well… that all depends how you define the Agile Coach role. I’d ask the coaches to sit down together and draw up a list of things they think they should do, and a list of things they do not to. Similarly I’d do this with the Scrum Masters.

As I’ve said, in my view, most of the time coaches should not be managing the delivery of projects or people development (line management). They will run some retrospective and feedback sessions, although I’d expect the Scrum Masters to take on most of this. And I would expect them to work on process, culture, etc.

(This old post might be useful What does an Agile coach do?).

“b) Given our geographical spread should we be hiring more Agile coaches?”

Yes, at least one per location.

Even if you don’t have developers in one location you will have some people - analysts? sales? - who would benefit from better understanding of the new way of working. And in a location with multiple teams you probably need multiple coaches, but not necessarily 1-to-1, as the teams have Scrum Masters, and some new managers of some sort, the coaches should focus their attention supporting these roles and the teams.

“c) If we were to get a delivery manager in between a SM and Agile coach, people management should be whose responsibility? (We are facing a huge challenge in finding the ideal combination of tech skills and people leaders)”

I don’t think so, this isn’t a hierarchy or chain-of-command. Project/Delivery Managers and Coaches are peers, they each have a different focus but have overlapping responsibilities. On any one team the Scrum Master and Project/Delivery Manager will need to decide between them they work together and which responsibilities they pick up.

Agile Coaches don’t have any additional authority however they are not under taking the day-to-day work, their job is different again.

Right now I think you need to untangle the Agile Coach role first, give it a few months and revisit these questions.

Can’t say I’m surprised you are finding it hard to get the right combination of tech skills and people leaders. Such people are few and far between, sometimes it seems the two are mutually exclusive. Could you work with the existing tech leaders to improve their people skills? - training, coaching, etc.?

“d) Would it be a better idea to identify SMs with potential to be groomed into people managers and move them to a delivery manager role? My concern is that an Agile coach should not be stepping on the toes of a delivery manager.”

Certainly you could help the Scrum Masters grow in that direction. Whether they stay Scrum Masters or become something else I don’t know. And since you don’t have any delivery managers (yet) you talk that through when you are recruiting people (i.e. don’t hire people who have strong beliefs on this!)

(And, by the way, avoid the word “grooming”, in English English it has a very specific, very negative, meaning these days.)


In summary:

  • More Agile coaches

  • Have the coaches define their responsibilities

  • Educate and grow the Scrum Masters

  • Add a new role: perhaps experiment with one or two hires at first

I hope that helps.

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