Defend the Scrum Master role

Polling all Scrum apologists: Can you help me defend the value of the Scrum Master / Iteration Manager role?

Maybe it’s their [bad] experiences, or maybe it’s their culture, but I’ve been confronted on several occasions by developers who are convinced the Scrum Master doesn’t add value to the team. After all, they say, the SM doesn’t actually do anything. Really?? Where does this particular mindset come from? I just hope this doesn’t go viral, but I have been seeing this attitude in more and more places. Help!? Looking for a collaborative defense here, before I spout all my thoughts on the value the SM adds to solution development and delivery.

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10 thoughts on “Defend the Scrum Master role

  1. In my view this is simply a healthy questioning of roles.
    On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked why I (as a tester) am even needed anymore when my developers are using TDD and have 100% code coverage.
    At first I was offended, but then I chose to look at it as a healthy self evaluation.

    In my view, the role is important whoever does it. I don’t particularly like scrum as a specific discipline and 100% hate scrum certification or any other kind of agile certification.
    I do like XP and I do believe the team should be focusing on its internal workings and optimizing its ability to deliver- whatever that role is, and however it is done- it is important. Defended? No.
    It’s impact and value explored and re-articulated- sure.

  2. Hi Jim, I saw your post through LinkedIn and thought I would share my thoughts since I often have to defend or help grow this role. I think one major problems is the thought that this person is only a “teacher” of scrum or process. Once the team understands it, often both the team and the SM wonder “What does the SM do now?” Companies unfamiliar with how to grow these people falter. However, if they can start to see value in the coaching, mentoring and team dynamics aspects of the “how we do our work” aspects, then great value comes from this role. In some places I call these folks “Teams Coaches”, especially since they often use Kanban as well. But success often only comes with there is someone to guide them through the growth of the role beyond the idea of meeting and process facilitator.

  3. Hi Jim, this is a tough question.
    It also can be a dangerous question because sometimes it can be directly targeted against the person holding the Scrum Master Role.

    The Scrum Master services the Product Owner, the Development Team and also the Organization, training them or helping them to adopt Scrum and improving the way they work, alone or together. That is quite a summary of its role. Regarding to that, it seems clear that a good Scrum Master shall have more-than-average relational skills to do that. It is a management role. Failing in making understand its everyday value can be related to lack of relational skills.

    Is there still lots of impediments to overcome? Surely it means lots of work for the Scrum Master that will not be perceived as too little by the development team.

    But what happens when everyone in the organization is well aware of Scrum, when the developers are all well trained and using Scrum for years?
    There are always ways to improve the technical skills or tools of a team, and this is a path that a Scrum Master with a heavy technical background can take.
    There are always ways to improve your coaching. Furthermore the Scrum Master could also be one of the developers and also execute the work of the Sprint Backlog.

    If not, we can ask ourself: is the project environment still complex and chaotic ?
    Answering no to that question will be a clue in our understanding of how Scrum has transform that organization to promote it to a new level where everything is simple and crystal clear.
    There is value in delivering fast high-quality softwares, and that value can transform many things in an organization and its business area, sometimes decreasing the need for Scrum if no new challenge arise.
    But I guess that new challenges will emerge soon because of the steedfast evolution of the market out there!

  4. I see guarding the team from outside interference as a valuable asset. Or helping the team members by removing things that are slowing them down. Maybe the case is that with a well performing Scrum Master the team is able to concentrate on their work so well that they don’t even notice the Scrum Master’s work. 😉

  5. Most of the developers I have worked with have the same opinion about Project Managers and this is carried forward even when they have SM working with them. A traditional Project Manager with command and control mindset has little to offer to developers except to grind them down to reach end goal (which is ever moving). I think if SM works with the developers to realize the decentralized control and their technical excellence; SM will be recognized by scrum team and product owner.

  6. Hi Jim,
    Without knowing the specific complaints and the team history how can one defend the issue. The teams may be totally accurate in their views that their specific Scrum Master were not value added role models. By defending the unknown I would possibly adding fuel to the fire of “Bad Scrum”. Please remember that a key principle of Scrum is the use of empirical data, without that data we are potentially being part of the issue instead being part of the solution. A key Lean or kanban paradigm is to do or to observe so one truly see what is happening.

    • Thanks Paul. I’ve now found over 50 respondants across several groups and no one yet blinked at lack of specifics. I offered this up as general as it was presented to me, but I do understand your POV. I too wanted specifics, but then stepped back to consider the wider perspective – supporting the value of the Scrum Master, first to the Scrum team, the business customers and users, and then also to management, project/program/portfolio management, HR – the organizaton at large.
      Thanks for the guidance to empericism, as such is Scrum. I think the value of the Scrum roles can be emperically defended. Nothing was specifically addressed to anyone in particular.

  7. Scrum Master is a role, you may not be needing a dedicated person for this role. Make an active/senior/old team player (dev/tester) the scrum master. That should help the team realize the need of the scrum master.
    Its common case for a developer to also be a scrum master.

  8. I think of the SM role as largely a coach who trains and coaches a willing Priduct Owner, management team and Dev. Team to self-sufficiency as a self-organizing, self-managing team.

    What is the difference between the organizing and managing part? A convenient and clear metaphor is a ball team.

    When the ball is in play, the team is self-organizing around where the ball is, the two teams’ players are each moment and their in-the-moment expectations of where they are going to be.

    When planning plays, practicing skills, planning practicing plays, choosing a team roster, etc. they are self-managing,

    The metaphor isn’t perfect, but what metaphor is? Here, it’s the distinction between planning work and doing work.

    Once a team has gelled and the new habits are ingrained, what does the team need a ScrumMaster for? Won’t the team members hold themselves to a high standard of their commitment so they win the game?

    Maybe, with enough maturity — including bringing new team members up to speed.

    But then, why do sports teams need a coach or a bunch for different specialities? They are in a competitive context and the pros are at the edge of their potential. Do our teams work at that level of tuning? Is the physical extreme of pro sports that different from our knowledge-work context?

    I’ll leave those as thinking exercises for the reader.

    And finally, there’s the managing of the impediment backlog . Note that the Scrum literature says the ScrumMaster is responsible for removing the impediments. But, to the extent that requires discretionary authority over money or people, the SM can only manage the backlog and take the issues to those with that authority.

    So, taking that into account, what fraction of a FTE is required of a SM for a well gelled, mature team?

  9. The fact that the Team are questioning the role ‘may’ mean that you are actually performing it perfectly (note that it also may mean the complete opposite). The role is a ‘servant leader’ position, with the aim to empower the Team to solve their own problems, manage their own work items (in the sprint) and strive to ever improve. It is a role where you are not front and centre, but driving the Team from behind the scenes. The wins are the Team’s, not yours. You mention that the Team and the Business now understand SCRUM and therefore don’t need a SM. If that is true, then it shows that again, you have done the job really well. But is it actually true? What would happen if you took 2 months off and left everyone to carry on without you? What would be the picture on your return?

    In the SCRUM framework, the mantra is Transparency, Inspection and Adaption. This is the second key part of the SM role – constantly challenging the Team, inspecting the Process and adapting to ensure high performing, impediment free teams. This could be anything from inefficiencies in the SP sessions, how deployments are done, coding standards etc. Is there a better way to do X, why do some PBIs not make it to ‘Done’, why is the dev environment not replicating production etc etc.

    If you have no impediments and the Team is as highly performing as it ever will be, then pat yourself on the back, wish the Team good luck and move on to where you can aid other dysfunctional Teams/Businesses.

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