On Coaching: Show, Don't Tell
Updated: Apr 7
The Scrum Master/Agile Coach role is a very challenging role in the Agile World, not at all straight forward. To become a great SM you need to develop certain skills over time to help you add value to the companies you are working with.
SMs are often called:
...SHERPA because they are supporting the Team without telling them what to do. However, they are the backbone of the expedition and you cannot go without them, they are the leaders when it comes to guiding and ensuring safety.
...JEDI as opposed to a Scrum Nanny. He is the leader of Scrum helping the team understand the process and adapt it to their needs. Often they are taken for nannies and focus on administrative work, they become the team's secretary, which is wrong.
...ARMCHAIR PSYCHOLOGIST because they have a lot in common. Same as a SM, the psychologist tries to help the patient solve the problem by himself and not tell him how to fix it. Another important aspect is the listening, as most psychologists spend a lot of time listening to the patients before asking the powerful questions.
...AGENTS OF CHANGE which makes us usually not so much beloved by the people we interact with. Schopenhauer said that "every original idea is first ridiculed, then vigorously attached and finally taken for granted". SM do not expect to be liked in an organization, even considered a pain in the neck most of the times. Whatever is new and different scares people away and blocks them from trying it. I see the SM as the famous "Fearless Girl" from the Wall Street. The little girl that defies the Bull, symbolizing the female empowerment, here I see it as the power of the people who defy Change.
...EVANGELISTS similar to the agents of change, as they spread the word of Agile. They visit companies, universities, conferences to inspire people and to help them understand what the change brings.
The SM is a Servant Leader, term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in "The Servant as Leader", an essay that he first published in 1970. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
In this regard, the Scrum Master helps the team members come to conclusion themselves, without adding anything from his/her side. SM guides people, enable them to try out ideas and experiment with the purpose to learn and improve.
The SM does not tell you what to do, but he/she gradually inserts hints that lead the team coming to the right solution. In this regard, the SM uses sometimes powerful questions to help the team discover the benefits and reasons behind.
As a Leader, the SM should use story telling as a powerful tool for showing situations, which led to failure or success, the team should afterwards decide for themselves how they want to continue. You show, but you do not tell them what to do. However, the SM paints a mental tapestry that should inspire the team members on their next steps.
Stories need to be real, have a learning in the end and not only happy ending stories, as the most powerful stories that inspire people are failure stories. They push people beyond their limit to transform the failure to success.
As SM you may inspire yourself from other teams, sports (football teams very common example I use), music or movies. It is not easy to come up with a story on the spot, so great SMs have a story repository, which they build in years. A great way to do so is to organize Agile Critique Sessions with other SM/Agile Coaches that can give you constructive feedback.
To reach this “show, don’t tell” stage, the SM needs first to be a great Active Listeners. He/she needs to listen well before talking, as we have the tendency to reply rather than listen. We have 2 ears and 1 mouth and we need to allow a lot of time to understanding the story behind the project, in order to plan how to help the teams. I advise you to start looking into this topic and practice the silence, it is fun. You may observe amazing things, for some it will be hard to stop and wait for seconds before saying anything.
The last thing I consider important relates to Simon Sinek who teaches us in his famous speeches and great book to start with the WHY. I met a great Agile Coach and while we had our first conversations, there was one question that she asked all the time, no matter the topic: Why? It drove me mad at the beginning and after a few time, I realized the importance of it. Ever since that moment I never start anything new, whether work related or personal if I don’t ask the Why first. This is another magic question that can lead you to amazing responses.