A Scrum Master must wear many hats. Understanding how facilitating, teaching, mentoring, and coaching differ can ensure the appropriate use of techniques.
These four activities have become standard expectations of the Scrum Master role. Although I’ve used the terms teaching, mentoring, and coaching many times, distinguishing between the three was more challenging than I’d anticipated. I felt facilitation had a more straightforward definition, but as it turns out, it’s more than just leading meetings.
The Scrum Alliance’s 2021 Certification Scrum Master learning objects includes an objective related to this topic: “restate how facilitating, teaching, mentoring, and coaching are different.”
I’ve come across several answers for this prompt. Still, none seemed to resonate until I identified two factors that differentiated each role.
I propose that these two questions separate the four Scrum Master hats:
Segregating the roles by these two dimensions creates a two-by-two framework to visualize the similarities and differences.
The first dimension I call the ‘knowledge’ dimension. On one end of the spectrum, your knowledge is general; on the other, it’s Agile-specific.
The second dimension I call the ‘time frame’ dimension. This dimension ranges from short-term to long-term.
Where we land on these dimensions will determine which hat the Scrum Master is wearing at any given moment.
Short-term activities not requiring agile-specific knowledge fall into the realm of facilitation. When a short-term interaction requires Agile knowledge, it will fall into the realm of teaching. Coaching and mentoring are longer-term engagements; the main difference is whether Agile knowledge is needed.
In truth, I could have based the second dimension on several factors, but I chose time frame as it was the most apparent and would therefore be easier to recall. Intention, tone, and trigger are three additional differentiating aspects.
Your intention will focus on either execution or strategy. The goal will be to establish a plan with a strategic focus, but completing a pre-existing plan is an execution focus.
Depending on the activity, Scrum Masters will either use a guiding tone or a directing tone. One helps people make decisions for themselves, and the other is more pointedly suggestive of a solution, but you should never cross into commanding people.
When a request for help initiates an activity, we consider that a pull-based trigger. Alternatively, when the need to adjust behavior is the instigator for an activity that is a push-based trigger.
Let’s dig a little further into these stances to understand the specific nuances of each and put these concepts into perspective.
Oxford’s English Dictionary defines facilitate as “to make easy or easier.”
As a Scrum Master, when you act as a facilitator, you make it easier for a group to collaborate, make decisions, resolve conflict, solve problems, remove impediments, or meet their objectives. You don’t have to know much about the various Agile approaches; you can accomplish this with general skills. Your focus will be on helping the team execute an objective or result.
When facilitating, you’ll work with more than one person, whether a meeting audience, a contractor, leadership, or team members.
It’s a common misinterpretation that facilitation only relates to running meetings. All kinds of scenarios pop up throughout a Sprint where you can suggest techniques or approaches that will allow the team to reach their objectives more efficiently.
It may be helping the team reach the desired outcome of a discussion or helping them accomplish the Sprint Goal. In any case, facilitation activity happens over a shorter period, be it the Sprint or the time-box of a meeting.
Typically, facilitation will arise out of necessity. Someone needs to step in and make the process easier. It’s unlikely that a team member will stop in the middle of a conflict and request that you help them navigate the situation. Thus, facilitation is more of a push system than a pull system. The need to step necessitates a more directive tone while facilitating. You’re not entirely ordering people around, but your suggestions will be more emphatic than if you were mentoring or coaching.
I associate facilitation with the sweeper position in the sport of Curling. Appropriately sweeping the ice allows the stone to travel further.
According to Oxford’s English Dictionary, the word teach means to “show or explain to (someone) how to do something.”
When teaching, you share your agile knowledge with others to help them meet an objective or overcome an obstacle. Teaching tends to be more focused on execution, as you’re providing the team with the knowledge required to follow some Agile process or technique. You’ll generally trigger this stance in response to an identified gap in understanding. As the expert, you push the information to the team, requiring a more directive tone.
Teaching will take place in shorter episodes like a two-day course or a five-minute conversation. You’ll typically have multiple participants, though it is possible to teach a single person.
I think of teaching as mini-training courses. You’ve probably sat through some version of a two-day professional training. The trainer has a specific plan they follow, intending to teach us a skill that will presumably make us more efficient in the future.
Teaching doesn’t always have to be so formal, though. You might find yourself interjecting in a Sprint Planning meeting to teach the team the purpose of the Sprint Goal, and this impromptu five-minute conversation is still an example of teaching.
As a Scrum Master, you’ll use your subject matter expertise to help individuals become more self-sufficient, and teams become more self-organizing. You’ll wear the mentor hat when you take on this challenge. Mentoring requires a longer-term commitment than facilitation or teaching.
Oxford’s English Dictionary defines a mentor as “an experienced and trusted adviser.”
In my CSM certification course with Mountain Goat Software, they defined mentoring as “a relationship in which a more experienced person assists others in developing specific skills and knowledge.”
Your Scrum Master experience comes into play with the mentor role. You’re mentoring team members to be more self-sufficient at an individual level, and you mentor the team to be more self-organizing.
Mentorship leans more toward the strategic side of things. You’re planning how to take the next steps on an Agile journey. You guide the team on the proper application of Scrum, and as situations arise, you advocate for the appropriate application of the Scrum values to resolve impediments.
Mentoring relationships are longer-term engagements where the participants typically ask you to guide them in the appropriate direction.
I found that looking up the generic definition wasn’t all that useful because coaching is a general term commonly conflated with teaching or mentoring. There is a quote that I feel succinctly describes coaching:
“Coaching is unblocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping people to learn rather than teach them.”
-Sir John Whitmore
You may need to coach at the individual, group, or organization level. Regardless, coaching will be a longer-term activity that requires some strategic planning.
Successful coaching doesn’t require Agile-specific knowledge as you use general coaching techniques such as active listening or powerful questions. Coaching aims to help people discover their best process instead of being prescriptive about what they should do.
I think of coaching as an advanced form of rubber duck debugging.
It’s typical that when you try to explain a problem to someone else, you’ll identify the solution before you even get to the end of the explanation. The development community took this a step further and removed the second human. By explaining the situation to a rubber duck, you’ll solve your problem on your own.
A coach is an advanced form of a rubber duck with skills to prompt you to explore your problems in a way that leads to answers.
|Definition||a relationship in which a more experienced person assists others in developing specific skills and knowledge.||unblocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.|
|Audience||One or Many||One or Many|
“Coaching helps the team’s performance get better, in a series of steps coached by you and chosen by them. Mentoring transfers your agile knowledge and experience to the team as that specific knowledge becomes relevant to what’s happening with them.”
-Lyssa Adkins, Coaching Agile Teams
In the cont xt of the four stances we’re discussing, coaching and mentoring are very similar. The differentiator between coaching and mentoring is the reservoir of knowledge that you’ll leverage. If you’re pulling from Agile-specific reserves, you’re mentoring, and if you’re drawing from general knowledge, you’re coaching.
I will say, for purposes of answering the specific question asked on the CSM test, this information is relevant. However, in real life, we hardly ever differentiate between coaching and mentoring in this way. When someone refers to themselves as an “Agile Coach,” they are lumping mentoring and coaching together (as well as facilitation and teaching and some other stances.)
This blurring of terms was most confusing when I started digging into the differences between these roles. By its name, Agile Coach seems like it would focus on coaching, but the term is used in a general way and encompasses many facets of leadership.
|Definition||show or explain to (someone) how to do something.||a relationship in which a more experienced person assists others in developing specific skills and knowledge.|
|Audience||One or Many||One or Many|
Teaching is providing facts or corrections that you may be able to apply generally. In contrast, mentoring is guidance on applying agile practices to solve a current situation the mentee needs help with.
Teaching will be more directive. You’re sharing your information and knowledge with others to fill a perceived gap. You’ll often follow a pre-planned agenda based on established best practices for teaching the content.
Mentoring requires more of a guiding hand. You’re suggesting what the mentee might try as a next step to improving their Scrum practice or solving a particular problem. Mentorship tends to be more tailored to the audience and the struggles they’re dealing with at the moment.
Teaching a given topic is typically a single instance spanning minutes or days, whereas mentorship is an ongoing relationship spanning weeks or months.
A one-hour session with the team to explain the Scrum Values and why they’re essential to the success of Scrum would be an example of teaching. Alternatively, giving Harry feedback that he needs to be more open about his impediments in the Daily Scrum so that he could get the help he needs from other team members is an example of mentorship.
|Definition||to make easy or easier.||show or explain to (someone) how to do something.|
|Audience||Many||One or Many|
Facilitation is primarily about removing obstacles and making processes smoother.
Teaching is similar if you think of it as imparting information to the team that will help them be more efficient in the future.
Both activities focus on execution toward reaching a goal. In the case of facilitation, you may be trying to accomplish the desired meeting outcome or remove an obstacle to achieving a Sprint Goal. When teaching, you’ll be trying to impart a specific piece of knowledge to the audience that will be relevant in helping them reach future goals.
The main difference between teaching and facilitating is that one requires specific knowledge. Facilitation skills are a generic skill set. You don’t have to know about Scrum to facilitate a meeting or point people in the right direction to solve a problem. We cannot say the same for teaching.
You’re teaching when you tell the team the Daily Scrum’s purpose and generally accepted formats. You’re facilitating when you help the team determine the best approach to remove an obstacle surfaced in the Daily Scrum.
|Definition||to make easy or easier.||unblocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.|
|Audience||Many||One or Many|
Facilitating and Coaching are similar because you can perform either without knowledge of Scrum. You could also argue that both are focused on helping people get out of their own way. The stances are different in all other aspects.
You’re coaching when you help a team identify that they lack a proper onboarding plan. You’re facilitating when you assist the team in resolving the conflict of what they should include in the plan.
|Definition||to make easy or easier.||a relationship in which a more experienced person assists others in developing specific skills and knowledge.|
|Audience||Many||One or Many|
Facilitating and mentoring are exact opposites of each other in the context of the dimensions we’ve been discussing.
Helping a team to self-organize by suggesting that they assign tickets to themselves based on the priority of the next task on the Sprint Backlog is an example of mentoring. Proposing that the team runs the Daily Scrum by quickly discussing each active ticket in the Sprint Backlog is an example of facilitation.
|Definition||show or explain to (someone) how to do something.||unblocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.|
|Audience||One or Many||One or Many|
Teaching and coaching are also exact opposites of each other when considering them in the defined dimensions. I find this a bit coincidental, given that “teach” is often used to describe the term “coach.”
Helping the team identify weaknesses or missing skillsets is an example of coaching. Proving the team with the knowledge to build or improve skillsets is teaching.
Now that we’ve covered the relationship between these four stances of a Scrum Master, you might be asking why this matters? There are three primary reasons:
The first reason you should care is that recognizing your role at any given time can help you select an appropriate tone and approach. Suppose you realize that you’re mentoring instead of teaching. In that case, you can deliberately take on a more guiding style that will help individuals become more self-sufficient, as opposed to more of a preaching tone that might cause them to tune out.
The second is that this is a learning objective for the CSM (Certified Scrum Master) certification from the Scrum Alliance. I find certification learning outcomes valuable in helping to determine the body of knowledge that is important in our industry. Even when I don’t intend to pay for certification or take a training class, I find self-paced learning based on pre-defined objectives valuable.
Similarly, I read the user’s manual for all our appliances and equipment. If the lawnmower manufacturers took the time to write a manual, I’ll take the time to read it. They are the experts on this machinery and have provided me with the information they think is the most important to a lawnmower owner. I want to know that I’m using and maintaining the equipment properly to protect my investment.
It’s okay if you’re making that same face that my husband makes when I suggest to him that he should read the manual.
Knowledge is power regardless of whether you pay for the course or are interested in obtaining the actual certification. The learning objects are what experienced agile leaders have defined as essential. I’ll defer to their experience and assume there is value in knowing what they felt was necessary.
The last reason is that you may come across an interview question based on understanding the differences between these four Scrum Master roles. I wouldn’t recommend this question, but it never hurts to cover all of your bases if you’re preparing for an interview.
Although the roles of facilitator, teacher, mentor, and coach seem similar, you can differentiate them by the type of knowledge required and the time commitment. Identifying which hat you’re wearing can help set the stage and ensure you’re providing the most value to your team in the given context.
|Definition||to make easy or easier.||show or explain to (someone) how to do something.||unblocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.|
|Audience||Many||One or Many||One or Many||One or Many|