The 9 stances of terrible Scrum Masters

Your Scrum Teams deserve better.

#6 — The watermelon-syndrome Scrum Master. Photo by Hkyu Wu on Unsplash

Can the Scrum Master accountability be any more misguided, misinterpreted, and misapplied?

“We have to get our points.”

“That’s not what the Scrum Guide says. See, it’s called the Daily Scrum, not a standup.”

“We have no choice; we’re part of the system. It’s the way we do things here.”

“Team, you need to have a stretch goal this Sprint.”

“I don’t know what the team is working on.”

“We need to get good at output before we focus on outcome.”

“Even though the developers are not speaking up, I can speak for them. They can do it. I believe in them.”

— Real, cringe-worthy Scrum Master statements

It pains me to admit these statements are from real Scrum Masters. This unfortunate reality underscores how off-track Scrum Masters can get.

In my experience, many companies treat Scrum Masters as an afterthought or give them no thought at all. And if Scrum Masters finally come into the picture, they often lack or have the wrong experience. Many only have a certificate, a training course, a new team, and a smile.

Furthering their plight, Scrum Masters are rarely given the appropriate influence. They often don’t have the organizational clout to enact change. These Scrum Masters are as powerless as a life raft stuck in a storm on the open sea.

As a result, Scrum Masters can easily head down bad paths. When they take the wrong turn, they hold Scrum Teams hostage from their true potential. And this rocky road can cause teams to slide into Agile failure modes.

I have seen nine bad Scrum Master patterns worth squashing.

The Scrum Master in name only

When you relabel existing roles to Scrum Master, you have an illusion on your hands.

When a company goes Agile with Scrum, it realizes fast nobody has the title of Scrum Master. Some companies then go to the easiest and quickest solution by repurposing folks as Scrum Masters. Anyone will do in these situations as long as the person can spell Scrum Master.

Every team now has a Scrum Master. Check.

But with limited Agile and Scrum experience, these Scrum Masters do more harm than good. Sure, they get sent to training and get certifications, but you can’t train experience.

As soon as a team hits its first obstacle, inexperienced Scrum Masters rely on what they know. And it’s often not rooted in Agile values and principles.

Inexperienced Scrum Masters move teams backward not forward in the Agile journey.

A better way

A few years back, I had a great opportunity to cultivate a freshly-minted Scrum Master.

I was the Agile coach of a product group early in its Agile journey. A new Scrum Master joined. His prior experience included being a manager at Starbucks and serving as a crew coach. Not only did he have no experience as a Scrum Master, but this would also be his first stint in software development.

I paired with this new Scrum Master on everything I was doing as an Agile coach. We had deep debates on how to address obstacles in his team and the product group. Over time, he gained confidence.

After three months of pairing, he had settled into his stride. After six months, he was among the best Scrum Masters on the product. His team had high engagement and was living Agile and breathing Lean.

Building great Scrum Masters takes deliberate focus and time from experienced mentors.

Scrum Master shortcuts don’t work.

The misguided Scrum Master

Oh, what havoc a misinformed Scrum Master can wreak.

When Scrum Masters have been guided towards bad Agile or Scrum, the bad habits they form don’t break easily and can cause damage to teams. These habits die hard because these Scrum Masters believe their behavior exemplifies Agile. It’s all they know.

Here are a few examples of bad habits misguided Scrum Masters bring:

  • Setting team stretch goals
  • Assigning velocity targets per day per developer
  • Having the team commit to Sprint Backlogs
  • Measuring committed versus actual points

When a Scrum Master brings experience steeped in anti-patterns, team engagement often suffers.

Find better Scrum Masters

Avoid the misguided Scrum Master like the plague.

When you are on your search for the right talent, look for the warning signs. Avoid Scrum Masters who want to squeeze every ounce of efficiency from each team member.

Look instead for Scrum Masters who desire to build and support awesome, engaged teams. Find those who want to inject purpose, autonomy, and mastery into their teams. Seek Scrum Masters who embrace learning and improvement as the path to greatness.

Informed Scrum Masters with the right experience build Lean and Agile-minded teams.

The order-taker Scrum Master

A Scrum Master who takes orders unconditionally can’t protect the team.

When Scrum Masters enter the organizational hierarchy, they become part of the system. Their bosses give orders. The Scrum Masters take orders.

Serving team needs becomes difficult when a Scrum Master’s career depends on following orders. The orders then flow downhill to the teams, and autonomy flies out the window.

Scrum Masters with no autonomy can’t protect a team, and they can’t enable change.

Seek this instead

Effective Scrum Masters have the autonomy to clear the path for self-managing teams.

Self-managing teams need Scrum Masters to protect them from those who wish to manage them. This requires courage from the Scrum Master to guard and enable team decision-making. Also, it requires a supportive organization to invite the defense of team autonomy.

One Scrum Master who will say no to autonomy-draining external orders is worth a thousand who will only say yes.

The order-giver Scrum Master

A Scrum Master who tells the team what, when, and how to work saps the team of its autonomy.

When organizations form self-managing teams, many feel a loss of control. In an attempt to regain control, they place someone as the Scrum Master who can manage and drive the team. Sometimes this is a traditional project manager or a department manager.

As soon as a Scrum Master starts giving orders, team members shut down. They wait for someone to tell them what to do. They no longer need to think because the Scrum Master has the ownership, not them. At the end of the day, they are no longer a Scrum team, if they ever were.

If the lifeblood of Scrum is a self-managing team, an order-giving Scrum Master is not the answer.

Seek this instead

Autonomy does not come naturally to many Scrum Teams.

Many Scrum Team members come from traditional command-and-control environments. The habit of waiting to be told what, when, and how to do something is ingrained.

The Scrum Master you need will help the team unlearn this habit of waiting on instruction. Building problem-solving behavior is like any other muscle — strength comes from training. The best Scrum Masters avoid giving orders and, instead, help teams build autonomy.

Let the team decide is the mantra of the Scrum Masters you need.

The output-loving Scrum Master

Getting good at delivering output is not the goal of Scrum.

Scrum aims for adaptive generation of value. Yet many companies use Scrum for better, faster, and cheaper output. And they view the Scrum Master as the master of output.

An output-loving Scrum Master will deliver more features on time and within budget. But no customer uses a product because it was on time and budget. Customers use a product because it delights them and meets their needs.

More output, better output, and faster output do not guarantee awesome customer outcomes.

Scrum Masters who only drive output burn out teams and miss out on customer delight.

Seek this instead

Priceless Scrum Masters embrace customer outcomes as the driving force of their teams.

Getting good at output before getting good at outcomes is backward. The Scrum Master you need lets outcomes dictate the focus from the beginning. This Scrum Master blends the customer experience into the team ethos.

When Scrum Masters coach teams to let outcomes drive output, magic happens.

The watermelon-syndrome Scrum Master

Be very suspect of pristine, all green updates on product health in a Sprint Review.

An always green product with no problems is likely suffering from the watermelon-syndrome — green on the outside and red on the inside. This is a hold-over staple from waterfall projects. And some Scrum Masters have unfortunately mastered this art of smoke and mirrors.

The key to empiricism is transparency. Scrum Masters who prioritize optics over sharing the harsh reality impede transparency. Those of us who have been in software product development long enough know there is no such thing as a cakewalk.

When you hear something akin to these are not the droids you’re looking for, pay attention. Something strange is afoot.

Don’t get fooled by Scrum Masters who craft the illusion of perfection.

Seek this instead

The best strategy for reducing your product risk is to find problems as early as possible.

Avoid the master-of-ceremonies Scrum Master with green Sprints with red under the surface. Instead, opt for one who embraces red for the competitive advantage of the product.

Early modification to address problems is your secret product weapon. It allows you to gain the upper hand against complexity and uncertainty. You want Scrum Masters who shorten the time between problem discovery and transparency.

Find Scrum Masters who are not afraid to raise problems.

The policing Scrum Master

Appropriate application of the Scrum framework does not happen overnight.

Old habits, organizational constraints, and the status quo block the correct application of Scrum. Scrum shines a light on problems. It is up to the teams and the organizations supporting them to solve them.

A Scrum Master who calls out violations of the Scrum Guide slows down the pursuit of Scrum. Throwing penalty flags does not create a safe environment to improve. Rather, it induces behavior to hide problems and avoid change, which in turn, leads to stagnation and waste.

Scrum Masters expecting perfect Scrum will not get anything close.

Seek this instead

You need Scrum Masters who understand teams can’t flip a switch and execute perfect Scrum.

Effective Scrum Masters help teams use scientific thinking to solve problems and get better on their Scrum journey. Scientific thinking helps the team experiment to achieve their goals. An Improvement Kata¹ is a simple technique a Scrum Master can use with teams to do this:

  1. Set the goal
  2. Understand the current condition
  3. Determine the next target condition towards the goal
  4. Experiment daily to meet the next target condition
  5. Repeat with new target conditions and daily experiments until you meet the goal

Scrum is a journey a strong, supportive Scrum Master must nurture without a penalty flag.

The absent Scrum Master

A disconnected Scrum Master causes more harm than good.

Many times Scrum Masters become absent when organizations put them on more than one team. A Scrum Master can’t be available to many teams at once. And when one team has an issue, its Scrum Master is likely helping one of the other teams.

These split-focus Scrum Masters spend a fraction of their time with each team. This usually translates to attending only the Sprint Events of each team. And when Sprint Events of two teams conflict, they have to pick and choose which team gets focus.

Scrum Masters can’t coach the team or resolve impediments if they aren’t present during the work. And teams struggle to solve problems fast when they have to seek out the Scrum Master for help.

Absent Scrum Masters delay solving impediments, miss critical coaching moments, and interrupt team value flow.

Seek this instead

When teams are new, they thirst for the care of an experienced Scrum Master as their guide.

The early stages of a team are critical for establishing foundational behavior. Full engagement by a Scrum Master is critical during this crucial time. An experienced Scrum Master will have practice routines to jump-start a team.

Once teams have the Agile mindset flowing through them, a Scrum Master can give the team more space. Improving the organization or serving another established team can then be an option.

Apply an experienced Scrum Master full-throttle to one team to maximize impact.

The scaredy-cat Scrum Master

Practical and cautious don’t play nice with a continuous improvement mindset.

Practical is safe and comfortable. It works well with your status quo. Practical Scrum Masters do not rock the boat.

But when pursuing an Agile mindset, teams need to continuously modify their behavior to embrace change. Otherwise, teams snuggle into the comfort of the status quo, and stagnation sets in.

You don’t need Scrum Masters who are scared to push for better.

Seek this instead

You need Scrum Masters who are not satisfied with the existing situation.

A passionate Scrum Master is on an unending journey to strive for the pure ideal state of Agile and Scrum. Purist Scrum Masters will move your Agile journey forward. Their energy is infectious and their will is strong.

Scrum Masters are accountable to support teams on their journey to deliver value. To do this, they need to confront the long-held beliefs which run against the Agile mindset.

The right Scrum Master makes an impact by standing up and fighting for change.

Closing thoughts

This is a long list. It could be longer. The great Scrum Master is elusive.

But these nine mistakes with Scrum Masters are avoidable. It only takes focus and knowing what to sidestep.

The Scrum Master accountability demands careful consideration and focus.

Your teams deserve better. Your products deserve better. Your organization deserves better.

References

  1. Toyota Kata, by Mike Rother 2010

I help organizations simplify their Agile journey by building cultures to emerge better products. https://www.linkedin.com/in/todd-lankford-agile-coach/

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