Major Changes To the Scrum Master Responsibilities Left Many Confused
The Evolution Of the Scrum Master: From Manager To Coach (or is it Leader?)
Scrum has been around for years. Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber presented it in 1995. They based it on “The New New Product Development Game“ (1986) by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. Many things have evolved since then.
A great example is the ScrumMaster. The accountabilities of the Scrum Master changed drastically over the years. So much there’s little left of the original. It is no wonder many are confused about it. As an example: only ten years ago the Scrum Master assigned who would become the Product Owner.
In this article, I will discuss the evolution of the Scrum Master.
1998 — The birth of the Scrum Master
The first mention of the Scrum Master was in the 1998 paper SCRUM: An extension pattern language for hyperproductive software development. This paper was created by Mike Beedle, Martine Devos, Yonat Sharon, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. It was inspired by James Coplien’s Organisational Patterns. This is the only statement about the ScrumMaster:
“The ScrumMaster is a team leader role responsible for resolving the Blocks.” — SCRUM: An extension pattern language for hyperproductive software development
2002 — Agile Software Development with Scrum
In 2002 Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle published “Agile Software Development with Scrum”. This book describes the turn of the millennium Scrum Master in detail. It brings the Scrum Master to life.
The book starts the Scrum Master paragraph with:
“The Scrum Master is responsible for the success of Scrum […] The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring that Scrum values, practices and rules are enacted and enforced”. — Agile Software Development with Scrum
The most recent Scrum Guide almost completely echoes this statement, but there are nuances that I will address later.
The book continues with:
“The Scrum Master is the driving force behind all the Scrum practices […]; he or she sets them up and makes them happen” — Agile Software Development with Scrum
This includes virtually everything:
- The Scrum Master works with customers and management to assign a Product Owner;
- The Scrum Master drives the formation of a Scrum Team;
- The Scrum Master works with the Product Owner to create a Product Backlog;
- The Scrum Master works with the Scrum Team to plan the Sprint;
- The Scrum Master conducts Daily Scrums;
- The Scrum Master is responsible for identifying possible impediments by being an active listener at the Daily Scrum and observing velocity;
- The Scrum Master is responsible for removing impediments;
- The Scrum Master engages with management to improve processes.
Nothing that was Scrum-related could happen without the consent of the Scrum Master.
The Scrum Master makes the decisions and removes the impediments:
“How does the Scrum Master keep the team working at the highest possible level of productivity? The Scrum Master does this by making decisions and removing impediments. When decisions need to be made in the Daily Scrum, the Scrum Master is responsible for making the decisions immediately…” — Agile Software Development with Scrum
As you can see, the Scrum Master started out as a manager, driving the direction of the team and making decisions. In the twenty years that followed, the Scrum Master would see drastic changes.
Paper ‘What is Scrum’ 2003
One year later, Ken Schwaber created the paper “What is Scrum”. In the 5 page document, the ScrumMaster is mentioned 4 times. The most important lines are the following:
“The ScrumMaster is responsible for the Scrum process, for teaching it to everyone involved in the project, for implementing it so it fits within an organization’s culture and still delivers the expected benefits, and for ensuring that everyone follows its rules and practices.” — What is Scrum, Ken Schwaber 2003
Within one year after the Scrum book, the ScrumMaster is stripped from a lot of management responsibilities. Instead, the ScrumMaster is responsible for the Scrum process and its effectiveness. Not the ScrumMaster, but the Team (of developers) determines how to turn the Product Backlog into an Increment.
The only other mention of the ScrumMaster is involving the Retrospective. The ScrumMaster organises and facilitates this event.
Ken Schwaber may have shed new light on the ScrumMaster in this paper, but the Scrum Book would remain to be considered the single source of truth by many. With that, the confusion about this role was complete.
First edition of the Scrum Guide — 2010
It took 7 years until finally there would be clarity. In 2010 Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland published the first version of the Scrum Guide. The latest version of the Scrum Guide is Scrum’s single source of truth ever since.
The 2010 Scrum Guide still states the ScrumMaster is responsible for the Scrum process. On top of this, the ScrumMaster ensures the Scrum values are respected. Interestingly, these Scrum values are not in this document at all.
The 2010 Scrum Guide also confirms the leader/coach stance of the ScrumMaster:
“The ScrumMaster is not the manager but leads by coaching, teaching and supporting the team. The ScrumMaster helps the Team understand and use selfmanagement and cross-functionality.” — Scrum Guide 2010
Then again, the ScrumMaster is also accountable to find and train a Product Owner. This is reminiscent of the first Scrum book and is a management responsibility.
The ScrumMaster also guards the Sprint Goal. Not the developers, but the ScrumMaster needs to ensure the team stays focused on this. This again is a responsibility that impacts the team's ability to self-manage.
At the Daily Scrum, the ScrumMaster ensures the event is effective by coaching and shielding the team. The ScrumMaster also facilitates the Sprint Retrospective.
To summarize, the 2010 Scrum Guide largely moves way from the management characterization of the ScrumMaster role. But it doesn’t do this consistently. The ScrumMaster still guards the Sprint Goal and helps to appoint and train the Product Owner.
Second and third edition of the Scrum Guide — 2011
In the second edition of the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master (no longer called ScrumMaster) is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. This is a slight rewording of what it said before.
This edition also introduces the term ‘servant leader’. As of now, the Scrum Master is the servant leader of the team.
Also new are the services to the Product Owner, Development Team and Organization. These all involve teaching, coaching, mentoring, facilitating and helping.
The responsibilities for the Daily Scrum and Sprint Retrospective are unchanged.
With the second Scrum Guide, we arrived at a point where the Scrum Master doesn’t interfere with the self-management/self-organization of the team anymore. She doesn’t guard the Sprint Goal and also doesn't help to appoint the Product Owner.
The Scrum Master finally left the management stance.
In contrast to the second Scrum Guide, the third Scrum Guide didn’t change anything that involved the Scrum Master.
Fourth and fifth edition of the Scrum Guide — 2013/2016
The fourth edition of the Scrum Guide largely keeps the role the same. It does add the responsibility for effective facilitation of Sprint Planning and Sprint Review.
Another, arguably important, addition is the responsibility for the Scrum Master to ensure artifact transparency:
“The Scrum Master’s job is to work with the Scrum Team and the organization to increase the transparency of the artifacts. This work usually involves learning, convincing, and change.” — Scrum Guide 2013
Transparency is one of the pillars of empiricism. The creators of the Scrum Guide emphasize the importance of it by including this artifact transparency section.
The fifth Scrum Guide didn’t change anything that involved the Scrum Master.
Sixth edition of the Scrum Guide — 2017
In the sixth edition of the Scrum Guide, the responsibilities of the Scrum Master no longer include the way the team uses Scrum:
“The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.” — SG
This is an important nuance. The Scrum Master is no longer responsible to make Scrum a success by enforcing it. Now the Scrum Master is responsible to “promote and support” by “helping to understand”.
With this, the Scrum Master completed the journey from manager to guide or coach.
Current edition of the Scrum Guide — 2020
The latest edition of the Scrum Guide removes many prescriptive practices. It focuses on the ‘why’ and less on the ‘how’. Many things are no longer attributed to the Scrum Master:
- There’s no mention anymore of how the Scrum Master needs to ensure effective Scrum events.
- The facilitation of the events is removed.
- Artifact Transparency was a short-lived concept. It is removed and with that, the Scrum Master involvement on the topic is removed.
But, with many topics removed from the Scrum Guide, the following was added:
“The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization.” — Scrum Guide 2020
“The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.” — Scrum Guide 2020
The latest Scrum Guide ends the ambiguity that had shaped around the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master had moved to a position without any power. When a team would fail to use Scrum properly or effectively, the Scrum Master had an excuse to say “I promoted and supported Scrum per Scrum Guide. The team didn’t listen. It’s their problem.” With these 2020 changes, the creators of the Scrum Guide acknowledged they went too far. A Scrum Master should have accountabilities.
On top of that, Scrum Masters are no longer servant leaders:
“Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.” — Scrum Guide 2020
By serving the Scrum Team and the stakeholders, Scrum Masters need to establish Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide and help make the team effective. This is an important but difficult role.
By coaching, mentoring, teaching, facilitating and helping the team and the organisation, they need to bring change. This makes the Scrum Master accountability challenging and beautiful.
The idea of the Scrum Master role being similar to a Project Manager is very explainable with the book “Agile Software Development with Scrum” as a reference. The Scrum Master was in the Scrum driver’s seat.
Since then the role has changed drastically. No other role within Scrum has seen such an enormous change as that of the Scrum Master. This is logical, because since 2001 Scrum has been widely adopted and the world has gained a greater understanding of Scrum. Many Scrum Teams have risen to a higher level of self-management, allowing the Scrum Master to be a coach more than a Scrum manager.
But by 2017 the Scrum Master had turned into a coach without accountabilities. The 2020 Scrum Guide is an attempt to correct this course. Now the Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum adoption and the effectiveness of the team. The Scrum Master is a leader who serves.
The current Scrum Guide intentionally leaves room for different implementations of the Scrum Master. It heavily depends on the Scrum Team and the organisation. Their knowledge, their viewpoints and their adaptation of Scrum. Instead of telling exactly what activities a Scrum Master should perform the Scrum Guide provides the canvas:
The canvas leaves room to creatively and productively determine how and what you’d create. — Sjoerd Nijland
Sjoerd describes Scrum as a canvas. I’d argue the same can be said about the Scrum Master specifically. It’s up to the individual Scrum Master to determine how to deal with the accountabilities.