Why Organizations Tend to Diminish the Scrum Master Role

Tristan Libersat
Jun 11, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As a Scrum Master, it can be difficult sometimes to explain what you do:

  • A management role who is not the team’s manager?
  • Someone whose main goal is for the team not to need her anymore?
  • A servant-leader for both the team and the organization?
  • A Lean change agent focused on removing impediments?
  • A team-builder?
  • A coach, trainer, mentor, facilitator, leader, master of Scrum?
  • An expert in Lean and Agile techniques?
  • A lifelong learner who helps others in their journey?
  • A person able to understand how value flows end-to-end, with business, management, and development perspectives?…

I could continue this list all day long but I’ll just stop here to ask you a question: do Scrum Masters in your organization look like this? Maybe I should rephrase it: do they get enough support to act like this?

I feel like the role is often devaluated in organizations. Scrum Masters don’t always have the authority to lead change. They are only seen as team facilitators and metrics gatherers, in other words, they are merely junior project managers. Needless to say, this is a big problem! I think there is one reason to this fact: becoming a (great) Scrum Master is a (life) long journey and it requires the help and willingness of the entire organization to invest in its people.

Organizations that transitioned their former project managers into Scrum Masters may struggle to accept or recognize the same people don’t have the same role anymore. They may not accept or recognize they have to support them and help with the change effort. A two-day class with a certification at the end can get them started but that doesn’t mean they are ready to tackle everything. Doing Scrum is easy, there are few enough rules to get started quickly. However, what is really difficult is to deal with the impediments that will be brought to light over time. There may be conflicts, unadapted work environments, poor integration tools, or even bad interactions at the team level. Or there may be systemic issues like individualistic performance evaluations, fixed-scope contracts, siloed organizational structure, old hiring practices, or too few opportunities for employees to learn new things.

“Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team” — Scrum Guide (2017)

A junior Scrum Master, depending on her professional background, will definitely have trouble dealing with systemic issues (especially when they involve higher levels of the organization). They often require more experienced people or people with enough authority to cause change.

Think about it for a minute. What has been the response so far to this problem? We created different levels of “mastery”. We separated the Scrum Master from the Agile Coach. We considered the Scrum Master should stay at a team level (or team of teams), and the Agile Coach should deal with the bigger system (and fix broken Scrum Masters). But the truth is: in order to efficiently and sustainably change the system, you better be IN the system. As Christiaan Verwijs & Barry Overeem pointed out in this excellent article:

“Where Scrum Masters use an ‘inside-out’ approach, Agile Coaches use an ‘outside in’ approach […] Using an ‘outside in’ approach can definitely work, but it’s incredibly difficult […] [Agile Coaches] are not part of the team, lack the necessary support from management and don’t have the kind of extensive experience that is needed to drive change from ‘the outside in’.”

— Verwijs & Overeem in Myth: The Scrum Master is a Junior Agile Coach

Corporations prefer to buy expensive Agile Coaches/Consultants tasked to implement Scrum into the organization rather than developing change leaders from within. They want “superheroes” to save them when they should empower their “citizens” instead. Hear me well: I’m not saying Agile Coaches are not valuable, I’m one of them! They often are the starting point of a transformation. They experienced change in other contexts, so they are reassuring for leaders. But organizations need both. I believe this is a question of trust and timing. An Agile Coach may be trusted more at higher layers of the organization because of their experience in business agility transformation, but their actions would aim to make sure the organization is autonomous (short mission), whereas Scrum Masters may be trusted more by the operational layers (e.g. teams, middle management, etc.) and their mission would last longer as they are the foundation of the learning organization.

An Agile Coach is not enough for sustainability. Organizations have to invest in their Scrum Masters’ continuous learning. They have to give time for Scrum Masters to learn from others, to experiment, to read, to attend conferences or classes.

A junior Scrum Master will spend most of her time with the team, removing impediments, facilitating their events, coaching their interactions. As she learns and matures, she shifts towards a supportive stance and helps them use relevant and efficient techniques, removing their impediments themself. She will also gradually start to deal with the organization and systemic issues. As a Senior Scrum Master, she will be a real change agent and mentor not only for her team but also for the entire organization. This learning path takes (a lot of) time. Moreover, having been successful in one context doesn’t mean she can just apply the same techniques again in another one. Each context is different. Each time, the Scrum Master will have a lot to learn. And that’s what makes this job awesome!

Here is my message to organizations: business agility requires a continuous effort. If you can pay for an Agile Coach, good for you! But please don’t neglect your Scrum Masters. They need your support. They need enough authority to make an impact. And they will! Nothing can stop a team of united Scrum Masters ✊

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Tristan Libersat

Written by

Servant-Leader | Lifelong Learner | Agile Coach & Trainer | ♠Capgemini

Serious Scrum

Content by and for Scrum Practitioners.

Tristan Libersat

Written by

Servant-Leader | Lifelong Learner | Agile Coach & Trainer | ♠Capgemini

Serious Scrum

Content by and for Scrum Practitioners.

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