The Liberators
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The Liberators

As a Servant-Leader, the Scrum Master sometimes has to make very difficult decisions

Myth: The Scrum Master can’t remove people from the Scrum Team

Lets start with a case …

What does the Scrum Guide say?

  • The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide within the team and the broader the organization;
  • Acting as a Servant-Leader, the Scrum Master helps to create an environment where the Scrum Team can work effectively with Scrum;
  • The Scrum Master is responsible for the removal of impediments that hinder the progress of a Development Team. Many things can become impediments, from broken laptops to team conflicts and from disruptions to missing skills. But a Scrum Master should concern him- or herself primarily with those impediments that endanger the Sprint Goal and transcend the ability of the Development Team to solve on their own. More broadly speaking, the Scrum Master tries to remove or resolve things that get in the way of the team’s ability to work effectively with Scrum (and by extension, the entire organization).

“Can members of the Scrum Team become impediments?”

Can people be impediments?

  • A developer that plays everything close the chest, not revealing what he is working on, how things are going or how other people can help. Whatever this developer is working on, no-one really knows. For obvious reasons, this developer does not see the value in Daily Scrums, and never attends;
  • A developer that frequently spends her evenings unilaterally throwing away entire chunks of code written by the team, replacing it with code that she feels is superior to what the team has produced — despite increasing frustration in the Development Team;
  • A developer that uses every opportunity he has to air his grievances with Scrum, starting heated debates during the various Scrum Events and distracting people from the matters at hand against their will (‘here we go again….’);
  • A developer that uses her seniority to aggressively criticize the work of others on an ongoing basis, making people generally feel unsafe and insecure when she is in the room;
  • The situation has been going on for a while, without the prospect of improvement;
  • The atmosphere in the team is increasingly tense. People are stressed and increasingly hostile. Some may even be reporting in sick, unwilling to endure the stressful work environment;
  • The Development Team is well-aware of the situation and doesn’t like it one bit. There have been many conversations about the situation during Sprint Retrospectives. But the will to take action fails to materialize. The team is afraid to act, feels that it isn’t their responsibility or doesn’t have the courage to take a dramatic decision such as removing someone from the team;
  • The Scrum Master has had a number of conversations with the member in question to help them become aware of the effect they’re having on the team;

“Is it ethical for a Scrum Master to do nothing and wait for the team to make the decision themselves?”

An impact on trust?

  • Having difficult conversations without fear of retaliation;
  • Being critical or skeptical of something without fear of retaliation or being made fun of;
  • Making mistakes without getting blamed or punished;
  • Relying on others in the team to help you when you get stuck;
  • Being able to ‘lovingly fight’ (have a heated debate without repercussions on the relationships between the people involved);
  • Admitting that you don’t know something, or are afraid of it, without having to worry about repercussions;
  • Relying on that what people say is what they really think (e.g. no facades);

“Rather than decreasing trust, removal can be a powerful signal to help restore trust.”

Why not delegate the decision to HR or management?

“It’s also good to keep in mind that a person is not being fired from the company, but removed from a team.”

So, how do you remove someone from the team?

  • Make very sure that there have been plenty of opportunities for the team and the individual to improve the dynamics, but without results;
  • Be honest about the reasons for removing someone from the team;
  • Don’t remove people from the team with everyone present. Take the person in question aside and announce the decision. Be friendly, empathic but firm and resolute. Take sufficient time to give the person the opportunity to respond and ask whatever is on their mind;
  • Make sure that you involve the necessary people and departments in the decision (like HR, management), while staying in control of the decision that you are making as a Scrum Master;
  • Don’t make it personal and don’t use personal reasons to make the case. Stick to what is observably true or (at least) shared by the majority in the team;
  • Decide together how to proceed from here. Depending on the situation, a member may wish to leave right away. But they may also prefer to finish the current Sprint. In any case, make sure to follow-up with the person a couple of days after the decision;
  • When the decision has been made, share it with the Development Team. Give them the opportunity to respond and reflect on what happened. This may be a moment for relief, but also for a difficult conversation about how this can be prevented in the future;
  • Removing someone from a team is difficult — especially for the person being removed. Be exceptionally respectful and empathic;
  • Don’t brag to others about how you removed someone from the team, or how you stepped up and did something difficult. Treat the person you removed, and the situation in which this was needed, with the utmost respect. Removing someone from a team is not something to be proud of.

What about the Product Owner?

  • The Product Owner is unwilling or unable to be sufficiently available for the Development Team to clarify requirements and determine what needs to be built;
  • The Product Owner has no mandate or entirely lacks product vision to make any kind of decision about the product, making it very difficult to rapidly inspect and adapt;
  • The Product Owner is creating an atmosphere that unconducive of Scrum, e.g. with a strong focus on commitments and control.

Some other thoughts

  • Other than removing an individual from the team, a Scrum Master can also decide to disband the entire Scrum Team and start over. This can be helpful when there is a persistent and unhealthy dynamic between a group of people — a reality that sometimes happens;
  • When starting a new team, you can make specific work agreements about how to deal with scenarios like this. What happens when an unhealthy dynamic threatens a team?
  • Obviously, there is great value building skills to prevent conflicts from escalating to the point where a Scrum Master has to step in;


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Christiaan Verwijs

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Passionate developer, organizational psychologist, and Scrum Master.