The Market Nerfed the Scrum Master — And Made It a Failing Role
When you ask people what comes to mind first when they think about Scrum, they often mention the Scrum Master. Many believe the Scrum Master embodies the framework. Without a Scrum Master, there’d be no Scrum.
It also shows when you look at the number of people who have a Scrum Master certification. Around a million of them are Certified Scrum Master or Professional Scrum Master. This is more than four times higher than the number of people with Product Owner certifications. Granted, the Product Owner accountability wasn’t as completely new as the Scrum Master. There was less to discover. Still, 1 million certified Scrum Master is a lot.
For those with a vested interest in Scrum, this seems like a great situation. After all, Scrum Masters should have an important position. They should be accountable for establishing Scrum and the effectiveness of the Scrum Team.
But the situation isn’t that great. Scrum Masters rarely have any punch in a Scrum Team. Let alone beyond the Scrum Team. What’s worse, many Scrum Masters don’t have the liberty to focus on value creation. They are supposed to maximise the team’s productivity. As a result, the Scrum Master is a paper tiger. It looks impressive, but it has nothing to show for.
What has become of the Scrum Master? In this article, I will uncover the most problematic issues.
Bad examples from Scrum Master job postings
When you search for Scrum Master job offers, you quickly stumble upon peculiar expectations. Here’s a list of things I found most striking:
- Develop Capacity Planning and Reporting for multiple teams.
- Manage each project’s scope and timeline.
- Facilitate Scrum meetings, including Stand-up (instead of Daily Scrum, this says something), Sprint Planning, Backlog Grooming (I hate this word…), Retrospectives. As the only responsibility next to doing admin!
- Do Jira administration for the Scrum Team.
- Remove impediments for the Scrum Team.
- Guide development teams to higher scrum maturity.
- Supporting effective SAFe iteration and Program Increment execution.
- Perform a part-time role as Scrum Master, next to a developer role.
These examples all show a terrible misunderstanding of the Scrum Master accountability.
Scrum Master misunderstandings
These job posting examples are truly terrifying. They show how most organisations view the Scrum Master:
- The Scrum Master doesn’t look beyond her own team. She should not aim to resolve impediments that would lead to changes on the organisation level.
- The Scrum Master is expected to be the team’s project manager. She has to make sure the team delivers according to plan.
- The Scrum Master is the team’s admin. She needs to keep Jira up-to-date and create KPI reports regularly.
- The Scrum Master is a pawn in the SAFe adoption of the organisation.
- The Scrum Master’s primary role is that of a developer or tester. She does Scrum Mastering on the side.
Negative impact on the Scrum Teams and the organisation
When an organisation expects the above-mentioned behaviour from their Scrum Masters, this is a serious issue. It hints at the fact that they don’t have any understanding of what it means to work with Scrum.
They apparently continue to believe in the false notion of predictability: despite the fact that their product environment is complex, they still want to see the teams deliver their work according to their planning.
Instead of focusing on goals to achieve, teams have to plan to complete a set of User Stories. Scrum Teams achieve success by delivering according to plan. Scrum Masters may be the team’s coach, but they focus on ways to maximize output. This is not what a Scrum Master should do.
Curiously, what organisations also expect a Scrum Master to do is to resolve the issues of the team. By being this impediment remover continuously, however, she will prevent the team from growing as a self-managing team.
Teams should learn to address the issues themselves. This is what self-management is about. A Scrum Master should guide the team to be self-managing. This includes helping them to remove impediments. But not to remove the impediments herself all the time.
Ill-equipped Scrum Masters
But often junior staff or project managers without agile prior experience are appointed Scrum Masters. Then people expect them to perform on their own after a few days’ training. This is doomed to fail. It will take years for them to be able to help the organization.
A Scrum Master should help the team AND the organisation to understand what it means to work in a complex environment. She should teach the organisation about empiricism and how Scrum builds upon it. But as long as the Scrum Master isn’t experienced to do so, she will be ineffective.
The Scrum Master accountability is often a job on the side. But this is showing an underestimation of this important role. The Scrum Master should be a change agent, leading the way. But she should get the opportunity to do so.
The Scrum Master is often overcommitted, but underpowered.
Call to action
The Scrum Master is an important accountability. She is an inspiration and guide to improve and adjust the effectiveness of the team. Her responsibilities involve coaching, teaching, leading by example and helping. This is by no means limited to the team. It’s vital that the Scrum Master has an impact on the complete organisation.
A Scrum Team that works in isolation can’t be successful. It needs its stakeholders to be involved to create high-value products. It also needs the organisation to adopt changes that help the team remove barriers to be effective.
Scrum Masters should be change agents. And this should be an expert or even a managerial position. After all, they are leaders who serve. They are responsible for organisational transformations to create the highest value in complex environments.
It has always baffled me how traditional (project) managers, focused on output and delivery targets, have more prestige in an organisation than Scrum Masters. These are people that often hold on to the status quo. While Scrum Masters challenge the status quo for the good of the company.
Scrum Masters ought to be the new leaders. Why do they still often coexist with traditional managers and project managers? When you decide to adopt Scrum, you supposedly acknowledge the complexity of your product environment.
This calls for changes. Also on leadership levels. Teams should be self-managing. Product Owner should manage to maximise the product value. Scrum Master need to help them to be effective. This may be all you need.
Let’s start to view the Scrum Master in a different way and leave behind the false perception we still see ever so often. Let’s liberate the Scrum Master and embrace Scrum!