The ScrumMaster is the most controversial position in agile. Is a ScrumMaster a natural leader within the team or is the role a profession in itself? Here, Mariya Breyter takes a look at what a ScrumMaster actually does and writes that it is a state of mind based on a strong commitment to agile values and a dedication to the team and its success.
The Scrum Guide defines team roles very clearly. We all know that the product owner envisions products that deliver value and team members write and validate code, but what does a ScrumMaster do? According to the Scrum Guide, a ScrumMaster ensures that Scrum is enacted. But, isn't this what every team member does on a self-organizing team? What does “servant leadership” mean to a Scrum team, and why does the team even need a designated “servant” or a proclaimed “leader?”
The ScrumMaster is the most controversial role in agile. Is a ScrumMaster a natural leader within the team or is the role a profession in itself? Is it the basis for a career or a simply a stepping stone? This is not a simple question to ask, and I believe that this is a question every ScrumMaster asked him- or herself at a specific point of time as their teams became more self-organized and mature in their agile implementation. Am I still bringing value? Am I expendable? As one of my colleagues presented it in a ScrumMaster paradox, “if I am a good ScrumMaster, I will become obsolete soon.” Does it mean that the better a ScrumMaster is, the more likely this ScrumMaster is to no longer be needed by his or her own team?
Let’s attempt to answer this question in three logical steps:
- What is the ScrumMaster’s role on a team?
- Is ScrumMaster a role or a title?
- Is the ScrumMaster job a stepping stone or a career in itself?
What does it mean to ensure that Scrum is enacted? I am sure you’ve seen this role being interpreted as a combination of facilitating meetings, managing the Scrum process, and removing impediments. A more detailed description of a ScrumMaster role is provided by the Scrum Alliance in which a ScrumMaster is perceived as being a “facilitative team leader who ensures that the team adheres to its chosen process and removes blocking issues.”
According to Mike Cohn, “The ScrumMaster is responsible for ensuring that the Scrum team adheres to Scrum values, practices, and rules. The ScrumMaster helps the Scrum team and the organization adopt Scrum. The ScrumMaster teaches the Scrum team by coaching and by leading it to be more productive and produce higher quality products. The ScrumMaster helps team members understand and use self-organization and cross-functionality, and also helps them do their best in an organizational environment that may not yet be optimized for complex product development. When the ScrumMaster helps make these changes, this is called “removing impediments.” The ScrumMaster’s role is one of a servant-leader for the Scrum team.
For me, most importantly, the ScrumMaster role is about orchestrating a team’s work. The ScrumMaster’s responsibility should not fall on facilitating ceremonies (I encourage ScrumMasters to delegate this responsibility to the team members), removing impediments (regarding self-organizing teams, team members do a marvelous job removing all sorts of obstacles and coordinating cross-team dependencies), and minimizing distractions to the team members (for empowered co-located teams, this stops being an issue once your agile implementation matures to a state in which there is shared process understanding, focus, and common goals). So, why do teams need a ScrumMaster then?
My team of internal agile coaches runs our agile implementation as Scrum. Our product owner defines a roadmap, and every sprint we work on is a subset of user stories aligned with the roadmap and prioritized by the product owner. Recently, my colleague was working on a story involving a “ScrumMaster elevator pitch.” If someone within the company who is new to agile asks you “What does it mean to be a ScrumMaster?” during a three-minute elevator ride, what would you tell this person? We brainstormed on this topic as a team and found out that describing tasks or positioning the ScrumMaster as someone being responsible for the process did not resonate with people. We then moved to using analogies, with the one we chose relating to the idea of a race-car mechanic; someone who ensures that the race car operates smoothly and efficiently so that the team performs at its best. This person is someone in the background, yet highly reliable, knowledgeable, and respected by the team and stakeholders.
Another analogy that I like is the idea of an orchestra conductor, but this analogy is more suitable to a less mature team that needs someone to suggest direction and set up rhythm, while the race-car mechanic is the one in the background giving the team all of its pre-requisites for success. If there is no mechanic, the race car will start experiencing issues and will eventually halt to a stop. This provides an answer to the question whether a great team still needs a ScrumMaster. It does, the same way as a great race car still needs a mechanic to keep it going.
Is a ScrumMaster a Title or a Role?
This question is the most controversial one and the one that I personally do not have a good answer to, yet. As a hiring manager, I asked the following question repeatedly to myself and to recruitment professionals: What is the most important factor when you hire a ScrumMaster? Is it the people skills, the ability to lead by example, or one’s previous experience or technical skills?
What I found out is that similar to agile, values come first and the rest (experience, technical knowledge, familiarity with specific agile tools) come next.
The values that I find important for ScrumMasters are being honest, fair, open, never finger pointing, always analyzing and suggesting ideas, listening well, being respectful to team members, and having open communication targeting the right group of stakeholders—not too large, which leads to unnecessary escalations, and not too small, which can lead to team members feeling excluded; it has to be just right. A ScrumMaster makes judgment calls in case of uncertainty, and has a quiet and confident demeanor. All of these values that are hard to quantify make someone a good ScrumMaster. Of course, having knowledge of agile principles and techniques, exposure to successful agile implementations, prior coaching and mentorship experience, and possessing technical knowledge are all important, but they can be acquired. Values and instincts cannot.
So, my answer to hiring managers is straightforward. In my perception, the ScrumMaster is not a role that any stakeholder can play. At work, we have a standard job description for a ScrumMaster that lists pre-requisites for knowledge, skills, and experience, but the most important part during the ScrumMaster interview process are the scenarios or situational questions that I ask. I do so to learn if these potential ScrumMasters are able to better understand how they make decisions, respond to difficult situations, resolve conflicts, and motivate and inspire their teams.
I have also witnessed multiple examples of successful teams that did not have a separate title for a ScrumMaster. In those cases, one of the team members would become a designated part-time ScrumMaster. I’ve seen a business analyst, development lead, or one of the cross-functional team members being labeled a ScrumMaster on a team. In these cases, the team perceives the ScrumMaster as one of the cross-functional team members, and the other team members eagerly relate with this person. In all successful cases, the ScrumMaster is a natural leader on the team, an effective communicator, and is respected by the team members for being knowledgeable and fair.
Is the ScrumMaster a Stepping Stone in One’s Career or a Career in Itself?
This question, so seemingly simple, raised a lot of concerns from the ScrumMasters I have dealt with throughout my coaching experience. If you work for a startup, you may be less concerned with your career progression. If you are a successful ScrumMaster working in a corporate environment and your colleagues are progressing up a corporate ladder, you may ask yourself some questions like the following: What is my next step? If I have been a ScrumMaster for three or five years, does that mean I am not making a good career decision? What should be my next career move?
Many practitioners think that the ScrumMaster is a role, so prefixes such as “junior” or “senior” are not applicable. There is no such thing as a “senior leader” or a “junior leader.” While this logic may sound appealing, I disagree.
If you are a permanent company employee in a corporate setting, titles matter. Titles reflect the level of experience, complexity of the job, and perceived employee contribution to a company’s success. Companies differ in the way they define ScrumMaster career progression. Some companies use titles to designate levels of ScrumMaster maturity (e.g. labels like junior ScrumMaster, senior ScrumMaster, or agile coach) or complement titles by departmental levels (labels like manager, lead, director, etc.), but in each case, it is important to have a known and communicated career path within organization.
In this case, the career path should have a set of clearly defined and well-documented requirements associated with each title based on experience, skills, certifications, role, the number of teams, coaching and mentorship responsibilities, and a number of other criteria that fit company’s existing structure, title designations, and staff hierarchy. Once there is transparency and a shared understanding of the levels, ScrumMasters can see their title as a career and not as a stepping stone to their next, more exciting assignment.
Having a defined career path for a ScrumMaster does not mean that a ScrumMaster is expected to move in this pre-defined direction. Nowadays, most advanced companies support their employees in so-called “lattice” career advancement versus “ladder” career advancement, as defined in The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work by Cathleen Benko and Molly Anderson. According to this book, the word “ladder” refers to a traditional (vertical) career progression, which relies on titles and hierarchies; however, the career landscape is changing. As organizations become flatter, work becomes increasingly virtual, collaborative, and dispersed. Careers zig and zag. As a result, a “lattice” (horizontal) career model is better suited for today’s global business in which employees do not need a vertical progression to be defined anymore. This includes moving to different roles within the same organization, learning new skills, and mastering adjacent (and in some cases, totally new) areas of responsibility. Many of the ScrumMasters I know moved into product ownership, product development, and even into executive roles within their companies.
Why, you will ask? Because the qualities I described in this article as being important for a ScrumMaster are the ones that define a successful business professional, from a C-level executive to a successful entrepreneur or an agile team member. A ScrumMaster is more than a role or a title, it is a state of mind based on a strong commitment to agile values and dedication to the team and its success.