In my final blog for the team before moving to NYC, I thought I’d address a topic that has confused people since I started working for Government over 3 years ago – what is a Delivery Manager? But first….

Product Manager or Product Owner?

The subject of job titles came up again this week within our team when Matt, our Product Manager (PM), asked my view on the difference between a Product Manager and a Product Owner (PO).

I told him I see them as interchangeable. That’s how the job market sees them, and that’s all that matters. My preference is to use PO over PM because the word ‘manager’ in the job title is unhelpful, as we run a non-hierarchical team and don’t manage people. I also pointed out that many people in our industry think PM stands for Project Manager (which it does) and that this is something people in his role would likely want to avoid.

To emphasise my point further (and because I love a good venn diagram), I drew this, probably unnecessary, but quite enjoyable, diagram:

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Agile Coach, Delivery Manager or Scrum Master?

Before getting into the perceived differences between roles, here is a brief overview of those most commonly used:

Scrum, the dominant agile methodology, brought the world the role of Scrum Master (SM). They facilitate, organise and remove blockers as the team’s servant leader. As Scrum has been around for a while and has become extremely popular, this is now a well-known job title, if not a well-understood role. I’m not going to include this role in any further analysis, as in my view it’s now become parallel to that of a Delivery Manager (DM).

The job title of Delivery Manager became popular after the Government Digital Service adopted it. It was created for two reasons: Firstly, Scrum was designed for the world of startups and Government is far, far from that world; the DM job description added a number of duties taking that into account.

Secondly, Scrum is only one of many agile methodologies being commonly applied and using the title Scrum Master was seen as too prescriptive. This was well intentioned and in some ways makes sense, however it’s led to a lot of confusion in the market place. It is also now common for organisations to expect Scrum Masters to know more than just the Scrum methodology.

I first came across the title of Agile Coach (AC) in 2013 when learning about Spotify’s Engineering Culture. They moved away from the term Scrum Master in 2011, as they wanted to keep the key principles of agile, without being constrained by all the rules and processes of Scrum. The job title of Agile Coach is now mainstream and is commonly seen in both the public and private sectors. More recently the role has led to a focus on the “coach” part of the role, expanding the people skills required to build effective teams.

My initial thoughts and what the experts said

I’d been asked a few times in the past about the difference between the DM and AC roles and had always seen them as overlapping, but with some specific differences:

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However, when I started to try and categorise what these differences were, it all started to become quite confusing. In search of help I put the questions to some industry experts; their responses muddied the water further:

  • “Agile Coaches are more experienced, they have seen more situations than Delivery Managers and are therefore able to bring more knowledge to the table. One normally progresses from a DM to an AC”
  • “Agile Coaches set up new teams and explain concepts, Delivery Managers run the team day to day”
  • “Agile Coaches don’t actually do anything!”

In search of some clarity, I examined current pay scales across the public sector and found that in some cases Agile Coaches rank a whole grade (≈£20,000/year) less than a Delivery Managers; invalidating some expert opinions.

All that matters if what the market thinks

The more I thought about it, the less clear it became, which considering I thought I was an expert in the field, was starting to annoy me. I kept coming back to my earlier statement around the PO vs PM roles: “All that matters is what the market thinks…” and once again I realised that the market doesn’t differentiate between the two.

Take real life examples of the two job specs:

Delivery Manager (GDS)

Agile Coach (Spotify)

Deliver projects and products using the appropriate agile project management methodology, learning & iterating frequently Contribute to building an environment where continuous improvement of the development process is in focus and where everyone’s common goal is to deliver outstanding software as fast as possible
Work with the Product Manager to define the roadmap for any given product and translate this into user stories Coach teams facing tough challenges e.g. related to how they work and interact together
Lead the collaborative, dynamic planning process – prioritising the work that needs to be done against the capacity and capability of the team Facilitate learning through workshops, meetings, and team offsites
Actively participating in the Delivery Manager community, sharing and re-applying skills and knowledge and bringing in best practice. Actively try to identify areas of improvement and conceptualize methods on how to be more efficient
Ensure all products are built to an appropriate level of quality for the stage (alpha/beta/production) You are not afraid to raise issues and remove impediments from your team

They’re not identical, but they’re certainly very similar and if you were hiring for either role, you’d be delighted if the candidate possessed characteristics from the opposing column.

And these are just two of the job titles out in the market that basically describe the same role (including my favourite contradiction, the “Agile Project Manager”). It had become clear that the job titles are interchangeable and frankly unimportant, but what matters is the impact you make each and every day.

In my first draft of this blog, I grouped the things I do day-to-day into columns titled “Agile Coach” and “Delivery Manager”. This was ridiculous. I’m one person, the team’s servant leader, who does what’s needed to help the team deliver.

What the job involves

  • Beg for, borrow or buy whatever the team needs
  • Hack the environment (printers, wifi, tables, monitors, dividers, walls, bunting etc…)
  • Organise and facilitate agile/sprint ceremonies
  • Understand and explain agile methodologies
  • Create and maintain an atmosphere of continuous improvement
  • Build and maintain a strong team dynamic
  • Remove the fear of failure
  • Visualise the team’s work
  • Unblock things
  • Anything else that is needed!

As an employer, I want someone who does all of this. I want someone who can explain agile from first principles, run a killer workshop,and is prepared to spend their lunchtime buying a fan if needed.

And that’s the point. Both roles claim to believe in servant leadership, so both roles should understand that means doing whatever needs to be done to help the team achieve its goals, irrelevant of job title.

Coach over Manager

For my role, coach is more accurate than manager, especially as the latter leads to misconceptions around being the boss, so I tend to describe myself as an Agile Coach. Either way, for NHS.UK it’s a great role, which anyone who thrives on variety will be drawn to. You get to work and learn with experts in their field, whilst building amazing digital services that will change the lives of citizens for the better.

You stand at the front, you watch from the back, you listen, you interject, you facilitate, you coach, you do.

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If you have any questions about the role of Agile Coach/Delivery Manager, especially how it works in the NHS.UK team, please do get in touch (@benjiportwin) or via the comments and I will do my best to answer :)

5 comments

  1. Comment from Abisola

    Nice one Benji. Makes a lot of sense.
    My view is that the Product Owner designation has been “dirtied” by the Scrum Movement and so I personally prefer Product Manager as that helps them realise they are more important to the product and team than writing and prioritising user stories.

    Reply
    • Comment from Benji Portwin

      Thanks!
      Agree it’s a tricky one and something the whole industry is struggling with. I certainly agree that the person doing the role should pick their own title, but it does make recruiting tricky!

      Reply
  2. Comment from Andrew Palmer

    Simpler definition:
    Delivery Manager is permanent, Agile Coach is temporary.
    If an Agile Coach is a fixed resource then the team will eventually cease to be self organising and look to the coach for direction and actions – not coaching.

    Reply
    • Comment from Benji Portwin

      Thanks Andrew, that’s certainly one point of view and I can see where you are coming from; although personally I wouldn’t agree with the definition. IMHO a good coach creates an environment where the team self organises, by working with them on a permanent basis and reinforces that behaviour when necessary.

      Reply
      • Comment from Helen Mott

        As does a good delivery manager :)

        They both have the same goal: to make the team efficient, effective, super awesome, self-organising and continuously improving so that they can deliver value to users in the best way possible.

        I do tend to think of an agile coach as someone who is working across multiple teams though. Whereas a delivery manager is dedicated to a single team.

        Reply

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