Facilitating vs. Coaching – what is the difference?

The scrum master has multiple responsibilities. Here are two of them:

  1. Coach the team, the PO and the organization with scrum.
  2. Facilitate effective ceremonies.

When you facilitate a great retrospective meeting does it mean you coach the team with scrum? The answer is no. Facilitating and coaching are two different things.

Coaching and facilitating are both widely-used term with various meanings. In this blog post I am focusing on those terms in a work related context.

Let’s start with definitions:

Coaching: A form of personal development, The act of helping others (can be more than one person) to learn their way in achieving a specific personal or professional goal. It differs from training and teaching which are focused on knowledge transfer.

Facilitating: The act of helping other people to deal with a process without getting directly involved in the process, discussion, etc. himself.

Let’s take it into the scrum world:
The scrum master coaching individuals with scrum means he helps the team, PO and organization to learn their way to be more agile, using the scrum framework.  Examples:

  • Lead by example: It means, he himself lives by the agile and scrum values and principles.
  • Pull and not push – he is always there, waiting for someone to ask for help. He recognizes and creates opportunities for learning. He is doing that by listening, asking questions, and challenging.

In order to do that he must master Agile, Scrum, coaching, influence techniques, organizational behaviors, system thinking, and more.. This the same as being agile, it is endless journey – you need to keep learning all the time.
Let’s demonstrate using a coaching opportunity: We are in a backlog refinement meeting, the team velocity is 18 SP (Story Points). The team estimated a story as 21 SP and continues to the next story. The scrum master asks the following question: “Can you finish this story in one sprint? When will you know that? When will you be able to get feedback on the work?” “So, what can be done in order to increase visibility and shorten the feedback loop?”

The scrum master as facilitator. In Scrum framework, we have 4 ceremonies and one backlog refinement. So, it is easy to understand when the scrum master can help in facilitating. Facilitation has one rule you need to master and multiple skills to practice. However, this one rule –  not get directly involved in the process – for most people is really hard to follow. The happy news is, that after you embrace this rule, it is easy to learn facilitation skills. There are a few tricks, and the internet is full with ideas. All you need here, is a leap of faith that you can do it, and it is going to uplift your team agility.
One example for facilitation: We are in backlog refinement, the team is playing planning poker in order to estimate the stories. Each time there is one person, Jack, that shouts his estimation. The scrum master asks everyone if they agree to play with one new rule. The rule: Everyone will expose the cards only after the question: ”Is there anyone that did not select a card?” was answered. Using this specific question, and not “Did everyone select a card?” makes a big difference. The first question, you feel comfortable to say yes, because the question is directed to each one of the team members. To the second question, it is directed to the team – and most people don’t want to be the exception.

Note: Now,  a good scrum master will recognize this as an opportunity to individually coach Jack on team-work and scrum (What is his positive contribution in the planning poker game? How does he get that goal?  What are the negative results of his behavior? What he is afraid of? What can he do differently now? Be curious!).

As with other Scrum Master skills, this is simple to explain and very hard to do. Just recall that “everything worth doing is worth doing poorly”, as Marshal Rosenberg teaches us. Try experimenting with being a coach and a facilitator, see how your team reacts, and then tunes and adjust. Success will follow, so long as you don’t give up too soon.

Saying that, I am sure I can learn a lot from your experience. Do you have facilitation toolbox in your bag? Do you have any joker in your pocket? I will be happy to hear about it.

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