Have you ever dealt with a skeptic in your organization who does not think that scrum masters bring value to the team? Who thinks that all that scrum masters should do is schedule and facilitate ceremonies, and everything else that scrum masters do - removing impediments, protecting the team from distractions, improving the process - the members of cross-functional teams would do without any problem. He views scrum masters as creating more work for team members in order to justify their own existence.
I know this is not the case. Without the scrum masters, team members will have to spend hours removing impediments, fighting with external distractions, and implementing improved processes on their teams. However, this is hard to quantify, unless we remove a scrum master from a team and measure their productivity before and after. But if we don't want to be that radical, what can we do?
The more I have been thinking about it and trying to quantify Scrum Master value, the more I realized that the best scrum masters are not those who are highly visible and vocal but those who are most supportive of their teams, who encourage continuous improvement, and make their contribution to the team almost seamless. This is similar to the race car mechanic who's not visible during the race but plays crucial role in the team success.
This thought did not help me with coming up with the proof of the Scrum Master value and an explanation that it won't be right to have team members protect themselves or remove impediments, such as coordination of development and deployment activities with other teams, changing priorities, and changes in team composition. So I posted the question onlinkedin forum for certified scrum masters (got several great ideas and a lot of encouragement) and did some research. What I found is fascinating! I truly believe that this is what defines a great Scrum Master:
Tao Te Ching Written by Lao-tzu Ch 17
When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.
If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say, "Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!"
Credit goes to Jeff O.
While this is so true, it is hard to prove the value of something that is not always visible and never is obvious. To understand the value that scrum master brings to the team, a good starting point is the checklist of things the ScrumMaster can look at and work on. Michael James from Danube has an excellent Scrum Master Checklist available for download. Another great Scrum Master checklist was put together by Bernd Schiffer who citesScrum Master manifesto in response to a common misconception that Scrum Master is not a full-time job: "We believe the Scrum Master is a full-time position for one person on one Scrum team ."
I would argue that the team won't achieve hyperproductivity without a scrum masters described in this checklist whose value is well defined by Bob Hartman. Both Bob Hartman and Michael James speak of intangible things - influence, sense of purpose, commitment - which translate into tangible outcomes which can be measured. Similarly, Len Lagestee speaks of "transformational leadership" - the role that scrum masters play on their teams supporting their path to greatness and about a leadership code of a Scrum Master.
This type of value is not easy to quantify. I like comparison of a scrum master with a football coach standing on the side-lines during the game. A football coach doesn’t play a position but they are constantly looking at how the team are interacting with each other. They know if the defensive line is being held too high and how the team aren’t working together to achieve a common vision. After the game the coach helps the team look at their performance for strengths and weaknesses, they’ll identify actions for potential changes and implement them incrementally. Although a football team may be able to play one or two games without a coach, other teams will eventually overtake them in ability and effectiveness.
This is not a question that has an easy answer. Working with multiple clients, I got multiple requests to hire Scrum Masters who can code in Java or to explain Agile to a Tech Lead in one day so that he add responsibilities of a Scrum Master to his technical and managerial duties. This will keep happening and Scrum Master responsibilities will continue to be questioned, but this situation will also produce amazing leaders who do not concentrate on titles and who are organic leaders - and servants - on their teams and organizations.
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 theScrum 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 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.
There are multiple descriptions of a ScrumMaster role, my personal favorite being Ken Schwaber's. When I assumed my responsibility of an Agile Coach, I was asked to draft a role description for a ScrumMaster. I used my own experience, multiple scrum sources including The Scrum Guide, and numerous job descriptions I found on the internet. Below (in blue) is the result:
Summary of role: A ScrumMaster is a team leader focused on bringing continuous improvement to the Agile Team and the Agile Community of Knowledge. The ScrumMaster helps the Scrum team and the organization adopt Scrum. The ScrumMaster is accountable for the ability of the team to deliver the sprint goal / deliverables. The ScrumMaster is responsible for ensuring that the Scrum team adheres to Scrum values, practices, and rules.
Responsibilities: A ScrumMaster:
1. Creates a motivational, transparent, collaborative, fun, open, and trustful environment where a Scrum team can work efficiently and the business can deliver high-quality products quickly;
2. Prevents team distractions, identifies and leads the impediments-solving process, and escalates risks and issues if necessary;
3. Organizes and facilitates (or works with a designated team member to conduct) effective product backlog grooming, sprint and release planning sessions, daily stand-ups, sprint reviews (demos), and retrospectives;
4. Creates and maintains an electronic repository for the team’s historic information and collaboration space on ongoing topics including but not limited to sprint summaries (demo decks), links to document repositories, impediment log, and the list of retrospective action items and their status;
5. Garners respect from the team and leads the team towards hyper-productivity; promotes self-management and self-improvement to grow team efficiency and velocity; monitors team’s velocity and suggests corrective actions at a Retrospective, if relevant;
6. Maintains metrics related to velocity and other metrics as agreed with the product owner and advised by the Agile Coach;
7. Promotes self-organization and cross-functionality within the team; relinquishes command and control style to involve the team in decision making ; promotes effective conflict resolution on the team and outside of the team;
8. Regularly attends and actively contributes to Scrum of Scrums and to the Agile community;
9. Reports non-resolved impediments to the Impediment Removal Team (IRT) and participates in resolution;
10. Assists the team in making appropriate commitments and supports the team in standing up for their estimates; responsible for working with the team to ensure that their team is realistic in their commitments;
11. Creates, updates, and leverages quality information radiators including but not limited to release and sprint burndown charts, task board, working agreement, and other relevant artifacts to create transparency around the team's velocity and progress against its current sprint or release;
12. Enables the team to focus on high-priority items and increases team accountability for the deliverables by removing impediments, scheduling all ceremonies and facilitating them effectively (or partnering with other team members to ensure effective facilitation), and following up on the action items agreed upon by the team;
13. Coaches the team on how to be more productive and produce higher quality products by ensuring the health of the process and adhering to Scrum principles;
14. Facilitates the involvement of shared, fractional, and cross-team resources with the Scrum team; reports cross-team dependencies in a cross-team dependency list and updates the status regularly at Scrum of Scrums and in the appropriate repository; respects other teams and successfully collaborates on shared goals;
15. Promotes open and transparent communication and alignment with other functional areas, including Finance and Operations; acts as a liaison with other departments within the organization;
16. Ensures that all deployment activities are in compliance with the established process; and coordinates deployment activities and resources with other teams as applicable;
17. Helps surface whether the product backlog is not "execution ready" for release planning or sprint planning;
18. Assists the Product Owner with product backlog maintenance and Roadmap creation; ensures that there is a Roadmap and release plan available to every team member.
19. Leads the Scrum team and its adoption of Scrum by communicating Agile principles and sharing team success in efficient sprint review meetings.
20. Understands the values, practices, and rules of Scrum and other methodologies and proactively seeks out opportunities to grow this understanding by attending internal and external trainings, reading relevant materials, or achieving professional certifications; educates others on the team and throughout the company;
Skills: A ScrumMaster:
As you can see, this role description is a combination of ScrumMaster role expectations in Scrum and organization-specific policies and rules, such as information repositories, mandate for having Product Roadmaps, and operational procedures. There are also pain points that are obvious from here, such as Product Backlog quality and residual command-and control management style.
Let me ask you a question: what do you think is the level of Agile maturity of an organization where this role description has been created?
Transformation agent with experience in business transformation including transition to Agile (Scrum, kanban, lean) and building scaled Agile and Lean organizations. Passionate about motivating people and building great teams.