Not long ago, I met a former co-worker for lunch. Back when we worked together, we’d regularly hit up Chinese Express (which sadly, closed its doors last summer), so when he contacted me about getting together to catch up, of course we had to have Chinese food.
Midway through my Mongolian Beef, he said that he’d earned his Certified Scrum Master (CSM) merit badge. It surprised the hell outta me, because he’d been a UX designer for years. Before I bounced from that process-heavy corporate environment, he became a business analyst, but his department never dared dip their toes in agile waters. I was floored. Even more surprising, he said that he now rolled as a Scrum Master (SM) with my former teams.
I could rant at length about the business of Scrum Master certifications, but that’s a whole different post. That being said, every time someone mentions getting certified, I’m curious to know what kinda SM they’ll become, how they’ll be perceived, and what they'll do to influence those perceptions. I wonder if they’ll become a Scrum bully.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with one. I’ve mentioned him before, but for this post let’s call him Tim. Coming off many years as a project manager, Tim quickly earned the nickname, “Scrum Lord.” He was the first one in the department to earn his CSM; possibly even the first in the whole company. Like most large, corporate organizations looking to mimic small companies’ ability to react quickly, and ween themselves from waterfall, they decided to roll with Scrum. Since Tim had his certification, the powers-that-be elected him to oversee our teams. Unfortunately, Tim refused to let go of old school project management practices, ignored input from the teams, and enforced business-as-usual. With a CSM under his belt, he likened himself as the expert. He held development teams to his strict, carved-in-stone interpretation of Scrum, and it’s a big part of what made him a Scrum bully.
Scrum bullies like Tim rely on the perceived importance of job titles as proof of proficiency. But titles, and certifications are no guarantee that you know what the hell you’re talking about. As with everything in life, experience comes with time, practice, and repetition. Ditching waterfall in favor of agile practices (by way of Scrum) is like taking off the training wheels. It forces you to learn how to ride a bike without… well, without training wheels. You wobble, teeter, and totter, fall down, even scrape your knees. You get it wrong, and that’s OK. At some point, you have two options: reattach the training wheels because they help you feel safe, or be disciplined, and learn how to ride the damn bike.
In those beginning days as an SM, you probably ran it by-the-book, but that’s only one stage in the journey. Nobody starts off as an expert. I didn’t, and I don’t consider myself an expert today. The point is to constantly learn, and improve. Scrum bullies never evolve. Tim often started off with phrases like, “According to the Scrum Guide….” To be fair, when adopting Scrum, we’ve all agreed to follow the same playbook. But browbeating folks into following the rules isn’t a compelling enough argument. Scrum bullies have a tendency to think they’re the smartest people in the room.
“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” — Confucius
You’ve gotta Mr. Miyagi that mug. Teach, not preach. Tryna help folks recognize the bloated processes, and practices that get in the way of doing what they love is part of the Scrum Master dance. You often hear phrases like, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” But here’s the thing, it gets the oil because the machine wants the wheel to shut the hell up. The machine doesn’t wanna improve; it only wants its parts to fall in line. SMs are supposed to be a pain in the ass, but in challenging the status quo, and complacency. That’s a far cry from being a bully.
Whether it’s tools, or process, Scrum bullies also crave control. Tim kept Jira on lock. He was the only person with the admin permissions to start, or complete a sprint. Sprints are merely a fixed time period, but he insisted that giving everyone access to the board could potentially throw off reporting to management. And as you’d expect, when he went out on vacation, his precious metrics got thrown off because no one could start the sprint.
Scrum bullies are one-dimensional. They pick up a skill, set their views in stone, and refuse to change how they do things. If we’re being honest, there’s no sure-fire formula to becoming a great Scrum Master, but there’s numerous ways to become a bully. So to neophyte SMs, my best advice is recognize that Scrum isn’t the end state, only a starting point. Scrum evolves, so should you. Pick up other things like Kanban, or Extreme Programming (XP). Learn estimation techniques other than story points. Peep how to use cycle time, and rolling wave planning.
As a Scrum Master, you have a responsibility to your teams, the product owner, and also the organization. Do more than regurgitate what’s written in the Scrum Guide. Sure, know your sh*t, but don’t be a jerk about it. Leverage the philosophy concocted in the 17th, and 18th centuries. Ya know, empiricism. Get involved in the Scrum, and overall Agile communities.
Learn. Grow. Share. Don’t be stagnant. Don’t be a Scrum bully.