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

What’s The One Question A Scrum Master Must Ask?

When interviewing for a new Scrum Master or similar position, we can often intuit much about the position, the team and the company from those many little clues which offer themselves. But one thing often less obvious, and so, worth asking about is:

“How does the blockers’ pipeline work here?”

The key role of the Scrum Master is to facilitate the escalation (and to some extent, resolution) of blockers a.k.a. impediments – problems noted by the team but not actionable / fixable by them because the root cause lies outside their span of control.

Some organisations will already have a pipeline or process for escalating such “blockers”. Many more will not, not often understand the need for one and the role of non-team people in that process.

The prospective Scrum Master may want to see how the land lies before committing to a position in an organisation that is not ready or able to institute an effective blockers’ pipeline.

– Bob

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