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Scrum Master: Position or Role?

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A couple months ago I attended a local Agile user’s group meeting and sat in on the Scrum Master Birds of a Feather session. I created a bit of a stir when I first asked, “How many of you have full time Scrum Masters?” All the other organizations represented turned out to have full time Scrum Masters. So, I then asked my second question, “What do they do?” I guess I had asked the question in a way that implied that full time Scrum Masters was strange, because I was greeted by several moments of complete silence. Most of the people, other than those from my own organization, looked at me like I had three heads. Finally, they indulged the obviously under-educated member of the group, namely me, with explanations directly from The Scrum Guide as to what a Scrum Master does. I shocked them further when I said that we had moved beyond the need to have full time Scrum Masters. I didn’t bother telling them that we actually never had full time Scrum Masters.

The Scrum Guide generally describes the Scrum Master role as one of teaching, coaching, facilitating, and removing impediments. And when a Scrum team is new, these things take time. A team new to Scrum tries to follow Scrum by the book and needs someone that can do a lot of teaching, coaching, facilitating and removing impediments. But what happens when the delivery team matures? Teaching lessens. Coaching lessens, though there is still need for coaching around constant improvement. Facilitating is still necessary, though this takes up very little time. And impediments lessen as the team learns to deal with them on their own. If one of the team members’ full time job is teaching, coaching, facilitating, and removing impediments and all these things have lessened to where that person is only needed ten to twenty-five percent of their time, what do they do the rest of their time?

For us, we took the following path. We started with Scrum, though I wouldn’t say strictly by the book. We came from a world where we had project managers running multiple projects, thus working with multiple project teams. Our first step was to train our project managers in Agile. Several of them took advanced courses. A couple even became certified Scrum Masters and Agile Project Managers from the Project Management Institute. Thus, our project managers (PM) became our first Scrum Masters. Due to resourcing constraints (we had more teams than PM’s) and possibly due to a little foresight, we did not immediately dedicate a Scrum Master to a single team. Yes, that’s right, we violated one of the Scrum rules right from the start. Each of our PM’s generally had two teams they worked with as the Scrum Master. This kept them busy, but did not overwhelm them. Their role, as you might guess, was to teach and coach the teams in Scrum, to facilitate the Scrum ceremonies, and to remove team identified impediments. And this worked for the first nine months to a year.

Fortunately for us, our Scrum teams matured. It became apparent to me that our set up with using PM’s for Scrum Masters was starting to become a problem when during employee one to ones I kept getting asked just what value the PMs (notice they were not referred to as Scrum Masters by the team) were adding to their team. The delivery team members felt like they were being over-managed by multiple people. They had their own functional managers and they had Scrum Masters who were not really part of the delivery team.

We made our first change in the structure. Each team was allowed to select their own Scrum Master from among the delivery team members. The Scrum Master would still be responsible as a full time delivery team member, but they would also facilitate the Scrum ceremonies and be the first point of contact for impediments to the team. What did we do with the PM’s? At first we left them as PM’s – doing some project management stuff such as cross-team coordination. But we also left them as Agile coaches. And coaching became something a delivery team asked for, not something that we imposed on them. This worked well. Those teams that were more mature in their Agile approach and understanding didn’t feel over-managed. Those teams still coming up to speed had someone they could go to for coaching.

One more minor transformation occurred as we continued to mature. We elevated the PM’s to program managers rather than project managers. They now became responsible for cross-team initiatives. These are projects that transcend products and have tasks / stories in multiple delivery teams. We also rearranged our management reporting where we went from functional managers / supervisors to delivery team managers / supervisors, a role we call the delivery manager. And it is the delivery manager that is now responsible for the Agile coaching and mentoring. We’re still working the kinks out of this model, but the teams are delivering well, so it seems to be working.

For us, Scrum Masters started as positions and evolved to roles as we became more Agile mature. We took the responsibilities of a Scrum Master and divided out the coaching / teaching parts from the facilitation / impediment removing parts. This works well for us allowing the teams to feel self-managed and allowing them to mature at a sustainable pace, as coaching has become something asked for rather than imposed upon them. It also allows more team members to experience the role, as many of the teams will rotate Scrum Master at set time periods. And we’ve found that any type of delivery team member can be a Scrum Master. We have business analysts, developers, and QA testers all being Scrum Masters. We’ve also found that even the coaching / teaching is staying within the delivery teams with the Scrum Masters, as the ones that gravitate to that role are the ones interesting in learning Agile principles and imparting that learning upon their teams.

Finally, the bottom line that makes management happy is that we have less people doing the same amount of work. We have sixteen delivery teams. Without the need for dedicated Scrum Masters, we’ve saved the need to have sixteen more people and with a fixed budget, that really breaks down to being able to have sixteen delivery teams, rather than only having thirteen teams because we’d need those extra people to fill a position that’s really a role.

My concern and the reason for this article, is really a warning to all of you out there beginning your Agile journey. If you hire a slew of full time Scrum Masters, which is happening at least here in St. Louis, you need to have a contingent plan as to what you’ll do with them as your delivery teams mature. And at least here, most of the Scrum Masters being hired are coming out of a project management background. Nothing wrong with that, but again, be prepared to answer the question, “Okay, now what do we do with all these PM type people that used to be Scrum Masters?”

About the Author

Brian Lawrence is currently an IT Director at TriZetto Provider Solutions in St. Louis, MO, where he is responsible for several Agile and Kanban product development teams, as well as application architecture. He has been a process junky since the days of Edward Yourdan. During his career he’s taken development organizations through several methodology transformations, including Rational Unified Process, Essential Unified Process, and Agile. He loves process improvement and looking at ways of developing software better, faster, and cheaper. His current passion is looking at ways to manage within an Agile environment.

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Community comments

  • agree 95%

    by Tom Murton,

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    Great article, I have said for a while now that Scrum Master can be a job if its multiple teams but more often its just a role that someone else takes on, its good that you highlight team maturity as the better a team gets the less its needed; good example is impediments, I often see that its bad for the SM to clear these, a team member who notices one often knows more about it and the SM ends up becoming the man in the middle, sometimes a bit more 'power' might be needed and if you have development managers they can easily step in here.

    I can still see the need for an SM, potentially across multiple teams to help with things like planning and retros and sometimes its easier done if not a direct team member (devs, qa etc) but I agree this could be done by someone who is actually also an Agile coach who takes on the SM role as well.

    I do notice that even mature teams often sway off the agreed approach (everyone does scrum differently) and sometimes need a little nudge back onto the path agreed (by agreed I mean the process the team agreed).

    Definitely an article that should get people thinking though!

  • Certainly it is a role

    by tushar jain,

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    Scrum Master is certainly is a role and I should say full time role. A successful SM is one who over time make himself not required in team. I have put same thought at my blog .

  • You nailed it.

    by Kathy Consigli,

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    At least to our way of thinking. From the stony silence (and arrogance) you received when you broached the topic with your local Agile group to your concluding points: however Agile is implemented, it needs to fit well with the team's structure and needs—and yes, expect those needs to change over time.

    Companies, organizations, projects, and teams are unique. Size, project scope, and team talent varies. One size—one dogmatic Agile approach—can’t fit all, even if it’s a good place to start.

    In our experience, the definition and expectations of the Scrum Master role in a work environment shape the type of challenges faced when implementing an Agile approach. It helps if everyone is clear about the Scrum Master’s functional role within the team and relative to the rest of the organization.

    Is the Scrum Master the Scrum dogma enforcer? An Agile approach coach? A mentor in Scrum methodology? What flavour, strict ‘orthodox’ or ‘reformed’? Where's the team (and management) on the learning curve? Couldn’t agree more that top down mandates don’t optimize teamwork, promote efficiency, or enhance morale. Because when a project stalls, the “I followed every Scrum rule in the book” isn’t a valid management defense or excuse for not delivering a superior product, on time, on budget—and without beating up the team.

    Does the Scrum Master work with the product owner to establish priorities from a BUSINESS perspective, or is that handled by the Dev Lead that has a deep understanding of the individual project under discussion? If you do rotate the Scrum Master role, you may need to separate out that function.

    A team may find the natural progression of Agile in their company not only evolves the job of Scrum Master into a rotating role that anyone can do, for some experienced teams, that role becomes that of a scribe: the primary responsibilities are to run rituals (sprint planning, daily standups, and retrospective meetings), record changes in task status, and identify impediments and solutions that need to be escalated outside team. The individual that handles the escalations may or may not be the Scrum Master.

    Having lived in these trenches, this is exactly why we built the NextWave ScrumMaster™ Agile project management tool. Our work tools have to be flexible. We need to be able to use them as it makes sense in our individual situations.

    Thanks for the article, I'm reposting.

  • Very good points

    by Brian Wallace,

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    Very informative article. I am currently using the traditional project management for my project. However, due to the client side requirement, I need to plan the upcoming project using Scrum. I want to know and learn more about Scrum. I have been advised to undergo Scrum training and become scrum certified to implement Scrum. Is it required?

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