What’s Wrong With The Scrum Master Role?

When I first engage an organization, I talk with people at different levels of the organization about their agile transformation. Many times, when that transformation has just been at the team level, a lot of pressure is placed on the Scrum Master. Unfortunately, a lot of companies do a disservice to their Scrum Masters through one of three ways: they don’t staff the role properly, they don’t help people in the role grow, or they expect far too much of them.

Scrum Master Role Not Staffed Properly

I see a lot of managers staffing the Scrum Master role without understanding what the role is. They think a Scrum Master is a meeting facilitator or a Project Manager who dictates work to the team. Either approach is a recipe for disaster on multiple levels.

Newly Minted Scrum Master
Newly Minted Scrum Master

First, if management thinks that the Scrum Master is just a facilitator then they downplay greatly the role that we, as an agile community, expect that person to play. If you want someone to just schedule meetings, that sounds like a great job for an intern. If you want a Scrum Master, you have to understand that it’s a lot more than that. It requires time and commitment to perform the responsibilities.

Another anti-pattern, especially with new-to-agile companies, is the practice of rotating the Scrum Master role among team members. While this isn’t a horrible idea if the team is advanced enough, this usually causes problems with the team’s performance (in terms of velocity because that person isn’t contributing to the sprint’s work) and with the role not being done properly. Many things “fall through the cracks” when a team member assumes the role of Scrum Mater but they’re unable to assume all of the responsibilities. A Scrum Master is far more than many companies think.

To address this, companies should have full-time Scrum Masters. Without that, you’ll be lucky to achieve a norming state with your team, let alone a high-performing one. Give your Scrum Masters the chance to really work with the teams. I know you’ll be surprised with the results.

Scrum Masters Don’t or Can’t Grow in the Role

When companies rotate the position among team members, no one team member is going to excel in the role. They don’t have the instruction (generally) and they don’t have the time to devote to the other activities a Scrum Master should address. Instead, they just make sure that everyone shows up for meetings and that’s it. As a result, the team stagnates and fails to make improvements. And the person who was the Scrum Master happily passes it off to the next person and the cycle starts anew.

Even if you have someone dedicated to being a Scrum Master, oftentimes they’re asked to work with more than two teams. Because managers don’t understand the role (see above), they think it should be easy to deal with four or even six teams. And this really forces those Scrum Masters to be facilitators. And not even good facilitators.

Great Scrum Masters work with one or two teams, help those teams understand Scrum and help the team achieve their own greatness. They learn from others in their company and their community, they get a coach themselves, and they work every day to improve their coaching skills. The key here is to give them the resources they need to go beyond facilitator so they can really become a coach.

Scrum Masters Should Do Everything

In my view, this issue stems not just from companies but from the agile community as a whole. When we train Scrum Masters as a CSM or PSM or whatnot we give them the bare minimum of understanding about agile and Scrum. We then oftentimes expect them to be awesome coaches and change agents in their organizations, something for which they were completely unprepared. And we have done them a disservice by not helping them make that leap.

Clarify the Responsibilities and Expectations

The first thing is to make sure that people understand what the role really entails. I’ve spoken with many Scrum Masters who thought that their role was just to facilitate meetings. When I give them a taste of what we need them to do in their organizations, there’s oftentimes some gasping, some anger, and some sense of betrayal.

I know that most CSM and PSM teachers are good about giving people at least an introduction to this, but “knowing” and “doing it with support” are different things. As a result, when things go south with a team – such as reverting back to intra-sprint waterfall, for instance – they’re ill-prepared to overcome those challenges. Toss in the expectation that they should help a whole organization adopt agile and it’s generally going to fail. And then we get attitudes of “agile sucks”.

Coaches and Change Agents

Agile Coach
Agile Coach

The instruction provided for new Scrum Masters is insufficient to make them good coaches and good change agents. If you need those in your organization, I would strongly recommend you bring in some outside help or hire some people to fill that role. With an outside firm, you can have them coach the agilists in your organization until they can “fly” on their own. It should be a time-boxed engagement. But don’t expect that just because you sent someone to a two-day CSM class that they’re going to be able to help your organization achieve a Teal organization level. If you’re looking to do anything like that, you’re going to need to enlist some outside help.

Basic SM Certification Test
Basic SM Certification Test

Also, that two-day class is not going to make your Scrum Master a great coach. That will require coaching. If you’re a Scrum Master, find local agile groups to work with. In Denver, we have a fantastic Scrum Masters Guild where you can connect with other Scrum Masters and learn the techniques that are going to help you and your teams excel. It takes time and it takes effort. And it’s not something you can learn in two days.

@ Velocity

We recognize that being a Scrum Master is a hard job. It’s the second-hardest job in Scrum, in my opinion. And it doesn’t happen overnight. And while I don’t think you need to be technical to be a Scrum Master, you do need to possess some skills and attitudes to help you succeed. As a result, we’ve created a Scrum Master Guild internally and we have a weekly Agile Community of Practice meeting where we talk about all things agile. The idea is to give people in these roles some other avenues to explore when they run into issues. And they can always ask the agile coaching staff if they get really stuck.

Closing Thoughts

Scrum Master is a difficult role. Being a Scrum Master takes the right blend of skills, talent, and personality. You need to allow teams to find their own path but keep them from wandering too far afield. You need to be patient but persistent. And you need to coach and guide, but also be a servant-leader. All of these things make Scrum Mastering a challenging but rewarding role.

There’s nothing really wrong with Scrum Masters. Rather, there’s usually something wrong with our perceptions of the role and the people we ask to fill it. It’s our expectation versus the reality of the role that causes the friction. And only by understanding the role and making the right staffing, networking, and educational choices can we align those expectations and recognize how great Scrum Masters can be.

Feliz entrenamiento, mis amigos! (Happy coaching, my friends!)

Have questions?

Bill DeVoe