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.