The spectacular transformation of the Scrum Master role from early Scrum to now

Scrum then and now, part 2

Willem-Jan Ageling
Jan 6 · 6 min read

Scrum has been around for years. Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber presented it to the world in 1995. They based it on “The New New Product Development Game“ (1986) by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. Many things have remained the same since then, 1995. Other things have evolved. With this series I aim to show you how Scrum has evolved over the years. Through this I wish to achieve transparency on why certain ideas about Scrum materialised and help raise understanding on the current Scrum definition.

This article is about the evolution of the Scrum Master role. The radical adaptation of the role might surprise you.

1998 — The birth of the Scrum Master

The first mention (that I know) of the Scrum Master was in the 1998 paper SCRUM: An extension pattern language for hyperproductive software development (Mike Beedle, Martine Devos, Yonat Sharon, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber). I choose to not use this paper but the 2001 book as the starting point, because that book is more descriptive.

2001 — Agile Software Development with Scrum

In 2001 Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle published the book “Agile Software Development with Scrum”. This book describes the the turn of the millennium Scrum Master in detail. As mentioned I will use this book as the starting point and compare it with the latest version of the Scrum Guide (from 2017).

Scrum Master responsibility

The 2001 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

In the latest Scrum Guide there’s a similar statement, but it is more nuanced:

“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”. The Scrum Master evolved into a guide or a coach.

Driving force

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 (nowadays called Development 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 is the one that engages with management to improve processes.

Nothing that was Scrum related could happen without the consent of the Scrum Master.

The latest Scrum Guide has a drastically different viewpoint:

  • There is no mention on how Product Owners are assigned and Scrum Teams are formed;
  • The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner by “Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management” — SG;
  • The Sprint Planning “is created by the collaborative work of the entire Scrum Team.” — SG. The Scrum Master “ensures that the event takes place and that attendants understand its purpose. The Scrum Master teaches the Scrum Team to keep it within the time-box.” — SG;
  • The Scrum Master doesn’t have to attend the Daily Scrum;
  • The Development Team members themselves are having a keen eye on the progress towards the Sprint Goal and they themselves are identifying the impediments to move towards that Sprint Goal;
  • The Scrum Master still needs to remove impediments if requested;
  • The Scrum Master engages with the organisation to cause “change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team.” — SG.

Since 2001 many responsibilities are shifted to the entire Scrum Team. It is not only the Scrum Master but the team as a whole that is the driving force to make things happen. The Scrum Master’s main role is to help the Scrum Team to achieve their objectives.

Decision making

It will probably not surprise you that there has been an evolution on decision making too. This was how it was in 2001:

“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

Today the decision making is brought to the level of the Development Team. It’s the Development Team that is having the Daily Scrum so logically they are the ones the make decisions to optimise the chances to meet the Sprint Goal:

“Every day, the Development Team should understand how it intends to work together as a self-organizing team to accomplish the Sprint Goal and create the anticipated Increment by the end of the Sprint.” — SG

Paddy Corry remarked that this is about self-organisation of the Development Team. It transitions the role of Scrum Master from manager to coach.

Closing thoughts

The whole confusion about the Scrum Master role being similar to a Project Manager or Team Leader role is very explainable with “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 a enormous change as that of the Scrum Master. This is quite 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-organisation, allowing the Scrum Master to be a coach more than a Scrum manager.

The current Scrum Guide intentionally leaves room for different implementations of the Scrum Master role. 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 whole as a canvas. I’d argue the same can be said about the Scrum Master role specifically. It’s up to the individual Scrum Master to determine the how.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to bang that clap button. You can give up to 50 👏’s. Give it a try if you enjoy this article!

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Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

Thanks to Paddy Corry

Willem-Jan Ageling

Written by

Interested in ways to work better together. I love the discussion with open-minded people.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

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