Coaching, Scrum Mastering, and Expertise

Coaching, Scrum Mastering, and Expertise

[Tl;Dr: Is it more, or less, effective for coaches, etc. to have technical (non-coaching) abilities?]

Over the years I’ve heard every kind of opinion on whether technical expertise is an asset or liability for coaches, Scrum Masters, and the like. Some folks, mainly executives, have sworn they would never hire a Coach or Scrum Master with technical expertise. Others, mainly coaches and Scrum Masters, have held much the opposite opinion. Those being coached have rarely expressed an opinion (although I suspect that’s because they don’t get asked, or think it won’t count, and not because they’re indifferent on the subject).

Personally, I tend to the opinion that, if it were down to me, I’d look for folks with excellent and demonstrable coaching skills, and not worry about the presence or absence of technical abilities unless they seemed intrusive and likely to interfere with the coaching dynamic. I recognise the argument that technical people lend more credibility to like-minded (i.e. technically capable) coaches because they find it easier to respect and identify with such folks. I also believe this argument to be a red herring, at least in the case where the coach or Scrum Master is effective and capable in the Coaching or Scrum Mastering skill-sets.

This is probably a good place to mention the Inner Game, and the suggestion by one of its founders, Sir John Whitmore, that “technical” knowledge and experience is a decided handicap for coaches and the coached, alike. In his book “Coaching For Performance” he tells several stories about this phenomenon, in particular that of the tennis group who, deprived of their regular tennis coach (and tennis expert) improved much more quickly under a substitute coach (with much coaching and skiing experience but no tennis experience).

Given that opinions on this topic seem all over the map, and many (mainly fruitless) discussions continue, I wonder if you have any experiences you’d be willing to share here?

– Bob

Further Reading

Coaching For Performance ~ Sir John Whitmore

1 comment
  1. Piotr said:

    Hi Bob,

    I think the answer is “It depends” 🙂 As usually. Define who you are talking about – do you mean a guy who spends 100% of his time coaching teams? Or do you have a line manager in mind? Or do you mean a senior tech guy who is a member of a single team / multiple teams?

    My point is that if I understand correctly in your article you share a view of lots of people who tend to think of a role of an Agile Coach as of the single role assigned to an employee. While in my understanding everyone plays multiple roles at work – the same way we have multiple roles in our private lives. This is just natural for human.

    The key is to have wide spectrum of skills and use them appropriately to a situation at hand. Is this a coaching situation? Or is it a training situation? Or may be it is mentoring situation / knowledge sharing? Etc. If a person has both Agile Coaching skills and knowledge and at the same time it is still her choice when to apply which of these skills. So a mature senior tech guru can enter a role of an agile coach in some situations and vice-versa – an Agile Coach can enter a role of a tech guru. Or a junior tester can say something that causes silence in the room and solves a tense situation. This is the beauty of situational leadership, the key to healthy team behaviours!!

    p.s. At the same time I share your views on the role of a Scrum Master – that is very often a waste of human potential. I quoted you here –

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