What does a Scrum Master really do?

Before I start, I want to say that I dislike the term “scrum master”. The word “master” implies a man. I tried “scrum mistress”, but that doesn’t work, obviously.

A “master” is a person who is in power, who calls the shots. Is that what a scrum master does? Call the shots? Or should we call them “scrum manager”? Do they manage the team or the project? “Scrum lead”, then? A leader is not a manager, but theyr’re still a person determining the direction. The leader leads, we all follow. Or should we call them “scrum coach”, a person who prepares the players for the game and who sits on the bench at the field, coaching them?

I am a fan of Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi. They wrote the book “The Knowledge Creating Company” in 1995. I read it when it came out, at the time I was consulting on AI and knowledge management. My take from the book is that empowerment is key to innovation. The most innovative companies rely on the competence of their teams and its members and let them make their own decisions. This idea matched the ideas of my other favorite guru, Tom Peters. In “In Search of Excellence” and other works he explains how passion and excellence are key. Empower your employees to get the best results from them. Or as Steve Jobs said: “you don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. You hire smart people so they can tell you what to do”.

Nonaka and Takeuchi use a metaphore from rugby to explain. Not scrum, which is a static situation in the field, but rather they use the example of players in the field and a coach on the bench. The coach makes sure the players are well trained, fit, capable, and the right players are in the field at the right time. During the game, the coach can’t do a thing. During the game, the players make their own decisions. One player is ready to kick, two or three start running, and after the ball has been kicked one player runs to catch and the other players change role to support the catcher. They don’t talk to one another, they don’t yell across the field, they just do what’s best for the team. They know what’s best because they’re the excellent players the coach has selected, that the club has selected, for the game.

I see a “scrum master” as a coach. I’ll call them the Scrum Coach. Or rather, as scrum can only be scrum if you have sprints, user stories, a product owner, a scrum master and story points, I prefer to call the coach the Agile Coach. Or just coach. All they do is enable the team to excell, which mans they provide all possible means and resources to the team to work in an agile way.

So what does an Agile Coach really do? A coach does only one thing: they enable the team to excell. Assuming that the team is multidisciplinary, having all disciplines that are needed for the product in the team, the coach makes sure

  • the team communicates
  • the team gets the information it needs
  • the team gets the resources it needs
  • the team is shielded from outside influences not relevant to the team or the product
  • the team is well prepared at the start of the project

The coach does this as an enabler. The coach doesn’t actually need to “do” things.

Does a coach organize or lead meetings? Not necessarily. It’s up to the team to decide on this.

Does the coach organize sprints and user stories? Not necessarily. The team decides on how they work. They may want sprints, or they may not. They may want user stories, or they may not.

Does the coach set goals? Not necessarily. The team knows what they need to do, they may get their goals from a product manager, and they can ask the coach for help, or not.

Is the coach part of the team? Of course they are. The coach watches and listens and jumps in when there’s an impediment, when there’s something blocking the project, when something hinders a team member, when a team member seems not to function optimally, or when a team member seems to be unhappy.

Just think of your favorite team sport. Think of a what a team coach does and does not. Last weekend I watched the womens race in the cycling world championship in Leuven, Belgium. Half of the potentical gold medalists were Dutch. However, the Dutch coach had failed to provide his team with a plan and with scenarios. We saw the riders in orange ride in front and attack again and again, with no luck. At the end, they were tired, and sprinter Marianne Vos was on her own and lost the sprint, she came in second. The Italian coach had prepared for the race differently. The riders in blue did not attack so often, they saved their energy to the end, and sprinter Elisa Balsamo got the perfect lead out by her team mates and won gold. Excellent team work, excellent coaching.

What a sports coach does for a sports team, an agile coach does for a software development team. The coach guides the team towards excellence.