The Four Coaches

It is said that “For many reasons, Agile seems to work best when a [line manager] does not assume either the Product Owner or Scrum Master role.” But if so, then who should be that line manager?

The above quote comes from SAFe, and although the latest version of the official Scrum Guide has nothing to say about the topic, it is an often-repeated truth when talking about Scrum. But that obvious follow-up question is not discussed nearly as often. 

In this article, I want to present a thought model that clarifies the responsibilities of the line manager and helps decide who should hold that title. I will present the model, present how we use this model at Nextory today, and finally share and discuss some quotes by great Scrum thinkers on the topic

The Spotify Model

A very well-known answer to the above question is the Spotify Model. In Scrum, there are two leader-type roles, the Product Owner and the Scrum Master. Spotify has extended this model by introducing Chapters. A Chapter is a set of people with similar skills but who may be part of different agile teams. Each Chapter has a Chapter Lead who is the line manager for all members of that Chapter. This means that within a team, not everyone has the same line manager.

To repeat, in the Spotify Model, there are now three leader type roles defined:

  • The Product Owner
  • The Agile Coach / Scrum Master.
  • The Chapter Lead, who is the line manager for all members of their chapter. 

The Spotify Model, if implemented as presented, places the agile coach and the product owners at the same level as the rest of the team, which is in line with Scrum. In addition, the role of the Chapter Lead becomes a natural promotion for an expert within an area who wants to get into management. Who better to be a line manager for a group of experts than a senior expert within the same area?

Challenges with the Spotify Model

T-shaped skill profiles

“The concept of T-shaped skills [is used] to describe the abilities of persons in the workforce. The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.”

Software development requires people with deep knowledge of the topics worked on. But agile development works much better if the team members are also generalists. With generalist knowledge, any team member can step in to support in any activity making the team more flexible.

But cultivating this generalist skill set can become challenging when placing a group of specialists within the same field under a line manager who is typically also a specialist within that same field. Within this group, there will be a pride in being a specialist and learning new skills from other areas will not come naturally. For individuals who want to develop in a new direction with a new specialization, they also need to change their line manager which is a big deal.

The Peter Principle

Although it is not explicitly stated, the Spotify Model encourages the idea that specialists shall be promoted to line managers. But the duties of a specialist and that of a line manager are very, very different. So there is a large risk that the Peter principle will result in line managers who are not particularly good at their job..

The four coaches model

The Four Coaches model has similarities with the Spotify Model, but takes it one step further. In this model, four separate leader/coaching roles surround any given individual employee.

These leader/coach roles are:

  • The Product Owner
  • The Agile Coach / Scrum Master
  • The Senior Specialist
  • The People Manager

The difference between this model and the Spotify Model is that the Chapter Lead has been split into the Senior Specialist and the People Manager.

For completeness, here is a more in-depth description of each of these four roles in the context of this model:

The Product Owner

The Product Owner is responsible for the direction to build products that solve customers’ real problems and generate business value. Simply: What is important?

The Product Owner shall have a clear and deep understanding of how changes to the product will be received by the end user. This means that they can typically come from a customer-near background, like sales or customer support, extended with an understanding of how the product is developed.

The Agile Coach

The Agile Coach is responsible for the team and the process. Do the actions taken by the team lead to a valuable product materializing predictably and often?

The Agile Coach shall be an expert in which methods actually work to develop the product. This means that experience in development methodologies in particular is useful. They need to be experts in how to collaborate effectively, ways to have meaningful meetings, and the agile methodologies that their teams make use of. They should also have an understanding of group dynamics to help form solid teams.

The Senior Specialist

The Senior Specialist is a person who is exceptional at a skill that is critical for the organisation as a whole. Typical examples include development, testing, design, and architecture.

They are responsible for coaching and developing the organisation within their speciality. This means deepening the skill of less senior specialists within their own field, and broadening people with another speciality to help them achieve the T-shaped skill sets. The Senior Specialist may also be a team member in a Scrum Team. 

The Senior Specialist typically also has the authority to set minimum standards or define best practices within their area of expertise.

The People Manager

The people manager is responsible for the individual within the organisation. Individuals need to be welcomed when they join and given a path along which to grow. They will be part of a team, but may swap teams as the needs of the organisation changes. They may have one specialty when they join, but will need to grow both vertically and horizontally. Sometimes they want to develop a new specialty and focus on that as their primary job. They will succeed and expect recognition, be demotivated and need support, and sometimes the company will need to let them go. 

All of this is the role of the People Manager.  This person would typically be an expert in motivation, psychology and group dynamics. The natural place to look for people who are good at this is within HR. 

To make this role even more concrete, this role is responsible for:

  • Recruiting new members to the teams.
  • Removing impediments that the individual or the team they belong to cannot remove themselves.
  • Evaluating the performance of the individual and driving the subsequent promotions, compensation adjustments, or removals.
  • Holding regular informal follow-ups with the individual, e.g. a recurring 1-on-1.
  • Plan and scheduling training for the individuals.

How are we doing this at Nextory today?

So have we implemented this fully and as presented at Nextory? Does each person have a total of 4 coaches/leaders? No, we have not.

So if we have not implemented it, why talk about it? Well, this mental model allows us to clearly communicate how responsibility for each individual within the company is shared. 

We use it to check that every individual has access to each of these roles to coach and lead them.

When we want to make an organisational change, which we as a growing company do almost continuously, we can use this mode to reform a new organisation depending on the coaching/leading skill sets available and needs of any given part of the organisation. 

For some individuals and parts of the business, like our design department, the Spotify model makes perfect sense. So we merge the Senior Specialist and the people Manager into one role. In this case, our Senior Specialist in design is also the People Panager for our designers.

For many other individuals, we actually go directly against the opening quote of this article, in that they have their Scrum Master as their People Manager. Even if this goes against the well-known best practice,it has great support among those team members. They feel that the Agile Coachwho is very present in their day-to-day activities is in fact the best person to judge their performance and support them in their career growth. But the Four Coaches alerts us to the specific challenges this might pose and allows us to compensate for this.

And for many small or newly started teams, there is simply one manager who takes all of the above four roles. This is of course a very traditional hierarchy, but such a team can still fulfill all of the famous agile principles and be a great and empowered agile team. 

What does the literature say?

The model of the Four Coaches is still a very new idea, even at Nextory, and still very much based on speculation at this point. But can we find any support for this way of thinking in the writings of seasoned Agile and Scrum experts?

The conclusion is that there in fact exist some references that encourage this line of thinking. So here are three quotes from three respected sources on the topic.


In the article “The Evolving role of managers” SAFe states the following: 

“[A]ll employees still need someone to assist them with career development. A manager still has to set and supervise expectations and compensation as well as provide the active coaching needed to advance individual skills and career goals. In other words, managers are ultimately responsible for ‘growing their people’”

I state that the manager described in this quote is very closely aligned to the People Manager role outlined above. This quote in particular, and others like it I have read formed the core inspiration when developing the four coaches model.


LeSS has the following to say on the role of middle management

“They should help the team and the Scrum Master with removing obstacles and making improvements. 

This is in line with The Four Coaches model, where the People Manager has the greatest mandate to make broader changes in the organisation. 

“They should teach the team how to improve and solve problems.”

At the team level, I claim that this is the job of the Scrum Master. But at the individual level, the responsibility of this falls on the People Manager. But they should in turn enlist the help of an appropriate Senior Specialists or potentially even external training depending on exact improvement needed. 

“They should Go See to understand what is really going on in the place of work and see how they can best help the team improve their work.”

This would be the largest challenge for a purely non-technical People Manager. But I claim that by being at the place of work, meaning sitting next to a developer or even better next to two developers doing pair programming, can be very enlightening. No engineering skill is needed to understand the body language of frustration, and open coaching questions can quickly help articulate the exact cause. And these are the two main skills that qualify a person for taking the role of a People Manager.

Pete Deemer

Pete Deemer, famous senior development manager and “Scrum Guru” lists the following manager activities in his article “Manager 2.0: The Role of the Manager in Scrum”. I find his list to be a bit of a mash-up, but once split into three groups, some themes became apparent that are in line with the Four Coaches model. So the headings are my addition to his list.

The People Manager should:

  • Help remove blocks that the Team is not able to resolve by themselves
  • Do regular 1:1 meetings with Team-members, to provide coaching and mentoring.
  • Plan training and other skills development for Team-members
  • Plan and manage budgets and financials
  • Do performance evaluations and provide feedback to Team-members.
  • Do career-development and career planning with Team-members
  • Recruit, interview and hire new Team-members
  • Remove Team-members who are not able to perform well within the Team

The Senior Specialist should:

  • Provide advice and input to the Team on technical difficulties that come up
  • Stay abreast of developments in tools, technologies, and techniques the Team is using
  • Anticipate tools, skills and other future needs

The Product Owner should

  • Stay up to date on industry news and developments
  • Give input on what features / functionality the Team should build