“We replaced the Scrum Master role with the Agile Delivery Lead role”

Are you serious? — Episode 55

Willem-Jan Ageling
Jun 30 · 7 min read

I have been approached by quite a few people who wish to know how I see the Agile Delivery Lead role at Capital One. It apparently replaced the Scrum Master role and there’s some buzz around this in the Agile community. Below is the article in which Capital One brings this forward.

I have my doubts about it. This article reflects my view on it. I will display snippets of the article and then discuss them.

The situation at Capital One

The first thing that struck me is this:

“Our teams choose what’s best for them and the software they deliver, so we practice Scrum, Kanban, XP and other flavors of Agile — it’s how we deliver software quickly and efficiently.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

I will not start the debate about how Scrum, Kanban and XP can be combined. I believe this is not the point. The point is that Capital One allows the teams to choose their own (Agile) approach. Which is brilliant. However only Scrum has a Scrum Master. Why would this role exist when a team doesn’t Scrum?

“For a long time, Capital One has maintained a culture where Scrum Masters — as originally described in the Scrum Guide and Agile Manifesto — are part of the software development team package. In recent years, we’ve determined that this no longer meets the needs of our Software Delivery Teams.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

Capital One had a rule that the Scrum Master role was part of a team, regardless if the team practiced Scrum or not. It’s interesting that they saw it as necessary to have this kind of role for non-Scrum teams. And I can imagine that they found that the title didn’t fit for these teams.

“Today, our teams need more than just facilitators. They need someone who can run the puck, keep the engineers focused on writing code, and help ensure we’re constantly doing the right thing.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

It’s a strange simplification to state that Scrum Masters are facilitators only. I can now list all the things that a Scrum Master should do, but that is quoting the Scrum Guide. However a Scrum Master should certainly do everything that’s been brought forward by Capital One here.

“Traditionally, there’s been no onus on Scrum Master to be technically adept. But, in a world that is becoming more and more technical, where we’re constantly raising the bar for our engineers, why not empower our Scrum Masters to become more technical as a means to truly help teams deliver?” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

Here we probably touch the core of the article. Capital One wants Scrum Masters to step up and be more technically adept.

“With that said, Capital One is on a journey to transform their Agile community to one more fit for a technology organization. Specifically, one that fosters a more innovative, well-managed, and engineering-focused culture.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

Now it becomes clear why Capital One wants more technically adept Scrum Masters. They wish to see them not only focusing on promoting and supporting Scrum (or Agility). They also wish to see them having a leading role concerning technological innovations. The Scrum Master not only needs to focus on improving the way the team organises itself to deliver an increment. Now this person also needs to be the guide on technical improvements.

“From the adoption of CICD and DevOps, to containerization and serverless technologies in the cloud, change is all around us. But it seems the Scrum Master role has seen little to no change, and that’s not very Agile!” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

This is a clarification of the viewpoint, but it also contains a false notion that the Scrum Master role hasn’t changed. Not true: the Scrum Master role has changed a lot since 2001:

“As alluded to previously, the Scrum Master role is just that; a role on an Agile team. It has been 18 years since the Agile Manifesto was published; today many teams are no longer doing the same kind of work they were back then. Beyond writing code, these teams are now expected to support an application’s entire pipeline from configuring the infrastructure, building the application from scratch, deploying it to production, and supporting it until the day it’s retired. Many of these responsibilities are new, certainly newer than the Agile Manifesto.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

Again there’s a statement that the Scrum Master role hasn’t changed for 18 years. This is simply untrue. And the same can be said about Scrum: this framework has seen drastic changes too. Practices as CI/CD and developments like DevOps fit perfectly in Scrum.

Now follow a couple of paragraphs emphasising the topic more, but with no new insights. Then we see what the ADL is about:

“So what does an ADL do, you ask? Well, while Scrum Masters typically focus on upholding the values of Scrum, facilitating meetings and discussions, and removing blockers, you could say that the ADL does all this, while also focusing on a teams’ delivery.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

Indeed, as was said before. And then:

“Engineers have a lot on their plate, so ADLs set out to keep them focused on writing software by helping to handle ancillary technical tasks beyond coding. This can involve anything from onboarding applications to various tools used for well-managed software delivery, taking the lead on application architecture review processes, preparing various documentation, and even seeking out new opportunities regarding production support and what we call YBYO (you build it, you own it).” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

Wow. That’s a lot of stuff for one person. Here’s my main gripe:

Why does this need to be on the plate of one person? Why can’t you have someone focus on Agility and someone else on technical delivery improvements? Why would someone have to master two different expert areas?

Is this a cost-cutting measure sold as an innovation? I’m inclined to say so.

Then again we see a couple of benefits of having a person that is not coding on a daily basis being a second set of eyes. And then:

“Also, by removing “Scrum” from the job title you’re removing the impression of a mandate to abide by Scrum. So if a team wants to move to Kanban, XP, or some other Agile method, our ADLs should be able to help.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

This could also be established by calling them ‘Agile Coach’. Then they would still be focusing on Agility without having to wear two entirely different hats.

The article ends with:

“At the end of the day, the goal is to lead engineering teams toward delivering value for our customers. If it means digging in and getting their hands dirty to get something done, then so be it. Agile and Scrum isn’t a one-size-fits-all process, and at Capital One we get that.” — Rebranding the Scrum Master Role in Tech Orgs

I’m not convinced. I understand the need for someone focusing on technical delivery improvements if you choose to remove this responsibility from the teams. But Capital One puts this on top of the work of the Scrum Master. If these people had a full time job already I wonder how their weeks are now.

And oh… Where’s the Product Owner in this picture? When the Agile Delivery Lead focuses on delivering value, what is then the role of the Product Owner as the value maximiser?

Conclusion

Capital One found that the role of Scrum Master no longer fitted in their organisation. They inspected this role, came to the conclusion that they needed to change things and then they adapted. It’s awesome how they constantly seek to improve.

However the article “Rebranding the Scrum Master role in Tech Orgs” also suggests that the Scrum Master role — and Scrum — haven’t changed in 18 years and are no longer fit for purpose. I don’t believe that. All practices that have been brought forward in that article work perfectly with Scrum. Hence these arguments fall flat in relation to changing the Scrum Master role.

What also strikes me as odd is how two totally different focus areas — focus on Agility vs focus on technical delivery improvements — are to be merged into one person because:

  • where do you find these unicorns?
  • will they really be able to be as strong in both areas?
  • will they be able to focus on both areas?
  • will they have a private life while doing two jobs?

This is why I argue that:

It is perfect that companies experiment with what works best for them. If this means that they exchange the Scrum Master for a different role and it works: perfect! But don’t try to sell it as something that can be copy/pasted by others without having your facts straight.

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!


Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

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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