Renaming "Master" in "Scrum Master"?

Last post 09:51 am September 2, 2020
by Xander Ladage
34 replies
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04:45 pm June 30, 2020

Given the recent updates to terminology with respect to Black Lives Matter, such as GitHub abandoning the term "master" branch and some realtors removing the term "master" bedroom, are there plans to change the title of "Scrum Master"?

I know that in 2013, the Scrum Guide replaced "grooming" with "refinement." I was wondering if similar action was being considered for Scrum "Master."

07:48 pm June 30, 2020

I brought this up to a colleague of mine today for the same reason stated.  I threw out a few suggestions.... Scrum Architect, Scrum Leader, Scrum Champion.  It would be great to see similar action taken to remove "Master".

09:02 pm June 30, 2020

Thank you for your input and we will pass it forward to Ken and Jeff. Please remember as Ken and Jeff have always said, the role of Scrum Master is one of Scrum mastery and not in any way related to being the owner of the team as the team is self-organizing and self managed. Scrum Master  a role and not a job title taken from the ideas of the master carpenter which dates back thousands of years.  GitHub on the other hand literally used Master and Slave meaning that one controlled the other. 

That said, a lot of things are always being discussed and considered and your courage to bring this forward is greatly appreciated.  

 

 

 

10:17 pm June 30, 2020

Thanks, Eric and Victoria. I wonder if Scrum "Coach" might be suited to what Scrum Masters do. Definitely appreciate the original intent of the role and its name.

10:32 pm June 30, 2020

Scrum Coach is one of the many stances of the Scrum Master, but not all of them of course. Check out this white paper on the stances of the Scrum Master which may be helpful.  

11:59 pm June 30, 2020

I've seen this Tweet from W. Kamau Bell circulating recently:

Just so we're clear, white people, firing Aunt Jemima & giving us Juneteenth off are not the frontlines of defeating white supremacy & dismantling structural & instutional racism. Better schools, a just criminal justice system, access to healthcare was more what we were thinking.

I would think that renaming the Scrum Master role would fall into the same category as rebranding Aunt Jemima and making Juneteenth a holiday. Instead, ask yourself what you, your team, and your organization are or could be doing to promote equality, respect, tolerance, and justice. There's probably something more meaningful than renaming Scrum Master.

12:11 am July 1, 2020

Thanks for raising this Season- I came to this forum to post the same question. 

This terminology is giving pause to myself and a number of others I collaborate with. Even if the intent is not about being "master" of the team, if it's confusing or offensive to some, it's worth reconsidering. (Servant Leader is also a term that some are finding challenging.)

I'm reaching out to people of color that I collaborate with to get their take, happy to share any findings if it's helpful. 

An aside, I haven't found the term Scrum Master helpful for some time. Scrum Coach or Team Coach seem more skillful terms, especially if you take "Coach" to incorporate the skills of Facilitation, Coaching, Teaching, Mentoring as described by ACI's Agile Coach Competency Model, along with the other facets of that model. 

I also don't believe thinking of the Scrum Master role as being the manager of anything is particularly helpful, so personally I'd drop that as a 'stance' of the role.

06:00 am July 1, 2020

This was also raised previously on the forum here.

I'm well aware of the intent behind the word "Master", but even without the connotations of slavery, I've long found it to represent an embarrassing power-dynamic.

I'm sometimes embarrassed to tell people what I do because of how arrogant or self-important I think my job title and role make me sound. Whether one agrees the name should be changed or not, public opinion on the word "Master" exacerbates this problem.

I suspect there was a historic need to empower people in this role, and the word probably did help with that, but I'm not convinced that's still the case.
If organizations are serious about enacting Scrum, they will follow the Scrum Guide anyway, which already mandates the role very well; the specifics of its title aren't necessarily going to help with that; but if that title is perceived as racially insensitive, it would be a severe impediment.

Is it more helpful for transparency if every organization or individual separately renames the role, or should Ken and Jeff take control of the situation and lead with a new name that everyone can unite behind?

So far the best word I could think of as an alternative is Advocate. I am an advocate of Scrum, of transparency, inspection and adaptation. Promoter and Defender could also work. If we get into systems thinking, perhaps Cultivator would be an appropriate word.

And to encourage other proposals, I don't think we need to limit ourselves to having Scrum in the title. Perhaps it could be something like "Empiracy Advocate".

07:41 am July 1, 2020

I will put here a little different perspective. IMHO this is ridiculous to push for change words only for the sake of pushing for it. How do you come to an idea that one word, put out of its' context, should be changed because of "racism connotations"? Each word have a lot of meanings, take a look at this one: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/pl/dictionary/english/master

An oversimplified example of such behavior:

Should we force the tall, fair-haired, and light-eyed people to change their appearance because of connotation to the Nazi supreme race Aryan theory?

I advocate here for a little bit of reason, we shouldn't change things on mob hype, and only for the sake of change. We should respect each other (as humans), regardless of race, nationality, appearance, etc., but IMHO taking it to such extreme like changing individual words show no respect at all.

07:59 am July 1, 2020

GitHub.

In the UK, 'Git' is a derogatory term for a person. I wonder if they should look at changing that.

 

08:03 am July 1, 2020

I think the keyword here is RESPECT, and that goes both ways. We should not glue political, racial, religious, gender or any other meaning to words which are never intended in that way. Sure we need to respect these notions towards other persons, but vice versa, we should also respect these words, context etc in return.

The mere fact that a single word, can be "offensive" to some people, simply because they glue huge concepts to this mere ink in a dictionary, should not be a driver for change... This, in my view, simply makes the "problems" addressed much bigger that they are or should be. So, we are making the problem bigger instead of taking steps towards solving it.

In my opinion, changing the name of "white custard" to "cream custard" simply because it has the word "white" in it in a supermarket has nothing to do and is not helpful in anyway towards removing racism. The same holds for Scrum master, in my opinion. Respect its context as much as we respect someones race 

03:42 pm July 1, 2020

This is all excellent feedback. Thank you for the respectful discussion and resources.

06:14 pm July 1, 2020

So far the best word I could think of as an alternative is Advocate. I am an advocate of Scrum, of transparency, inspection and adaptation. Promoter and Defender could also work. If we get into systems thinking, perhaps Cultivator would be an appropriate word.

In my experience thus far, the word that gets closest to the truth is "alchemist". The Scrum Master role is empirical, not entirely scientific, and I am expected to transform the basest of materials into gold.

05:49 pm July 2, 2020

Ian, I would love to add "Scrum Alchemist" to my resume!

02:35 pm July 4, 2020

I find this like taking the name whole out of context... I do not understand the correlation of Master with racial issues in this context? The word master is clearly a person that masters the framework, a coach, a person that has a mastery or “expertise” on something. 
 

With this line of thinking why we do not rename the Master degrees from Universities? MSc titles should be renamed as well?

I do not understand the coherence here... 

 

08:50 am July 5, 2020

There is an inherent emotional aspect to this; whether it is a desire to protect something we've devoted our careers and free time to (and therefore are inherently incentivized to defend) or a desire to tackle a problem we acknowledge in society (whether we experience it directly or have heard about from others).
These matters are not mutually exclusive, and we should be aware that whatever disagreements emerge, many of them will be about the methods we choose, rather than the objective itself.

I also don't think it does any harm to challenge long held beliefs and assertions; particularly in a community such as ours which does not represent the full diversity of society.
I can reflect on the groups of Scrum Masters and agile professionals that I'm part of in the Netherlands. We are much less diverse than the people around us (notably by race, but also in terms of educational and social background).

Xander made the point about Respect. I agree we ought to respect both those who use the word in its original, well-intentioned way, and those who hear the word, and for whom it does not have the same meaning.

Communication, by definition, is shared. When words begin to change their meaning, it's not a smooth process. People explain the meaning behind the words they are using, and attempt to close the interpretative gap that way. There are miscommunications, and attempts to rectify them. Sometimes it's sufficient, sometimes it's not.

At a certain point, the term "Scrum Master" will reach someone, and they will not be taking it out of context. It won't be a wilful act on their part. They will be applying the best context they have. If that context is connected with something abhorrent, such as slavery, then trying to provide your intended meaning will take effort, and might not even be successful.

It's by no means guaranteed that society will shift en masse to view the word "Master" in that way, and maybe it's still possible to shift public opinion, so that we are almost universally understood when we use it.
But even if you successfully make the case about the slavery connotations, there are other unhelpful connotations to the word that have been entrenched in common usage for a long time.

Perhaps arguing about the intention behind a word is not a helpful battle to be having, and maybe not one we need to be drawn into. We can also try to find something that communicates the intended meaning much more transparently.

07:28 pm July 7, 2020

This got me thinking about how I should call my MasterBedroom now.
If we ever decide to change the name of ScrumMaster, my vote goes to ScrumWizard or ScrumSamurai.
All jokes aside, I don't think is a good idea as it would add more unnecessary complication. 
I still find a large percentage of Scrum Team using the term Backlog Grooming, and that was changed 3 years ago.

10:01 pm July 7, 2020

I wanted to observe a couple of things.

  • It seems like most, if not all of us, engaging in this conversation, are white. On what basis can we evaluate the impact of the terms we're discussing?
  • Changing terms/language alone will not eradicate systemic and institutional racism. And yet language and symbols are powerful. 
  • Language changes over time to accommodate shifts in cultural sensibilities. There are plenty of examples of this.

 

Personally, as I mentioned above, even before recent world events, I have disliked the term "Scrum Master" for some time. I have not found it helpful, and continually have had to explain what is, and what is not, intended by the word "master". 

 

 

11:59 pm July 8, 2020

Titles are changing in the HR world. Companies who force Scrum Masters to play the role of a Project Manager should just call them that. Others can call them Facilitators or Concierge. But not Coach. Unless they hold the right credential, training and experience to understand what is Coach is.

02:36 pm July 27, 2020

>Scrum Master  a role and not a job title taken from the ideas of the master carpenter which dates back thousands of years.  GitHub on the other hand literally used Master and Slave meaning that one controlled the other. 

This is not quite accurate; the "master" in "scrum master" is a noun. The "master" in "master carpenter" is an adjective--just like the "master" in "master branch" in the GitHub model.

One source of definitions for "master" used in various parts of speech is here: https://www.google.com/search?q=master+definition&oq=master+definition&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l7.6148j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

11:55 am July 28, 2020

The word "Master" in Scrum Master should be replaced with something better.

Organizations choosing not to respond to #BLM in a productive way will cause negative perceptions ranging from being perceived as tone-deaf (best case); indifferent to institutional bias; or racist (worst case).

A good explanation of the tone-deaf point was recently posted on Facebook by Doug Williford of NYC: '...If a co-worker comes to me upset and says 'My father just died,' a response of 'Everyone’s parents die,' would be truthful, but hurtful and cruel in the moment. So when a friend speaks up in a time of obvious pain and hurt and says 'Black lives matter,' a response of 'All lives matter,' is truthful. But it’s hurtful and cruel in the moment."

2020 is unique. It is a time to lead, rather than seem indifferent. Organizations are beginning to step up. In Cybersecurity, Mitre.org recently deprecated the terms whitelist / blacklist in favor of allow-list / deny-list. To understand why, network packets originating from addresses on the special "white list" are assumed "good" and allowed to pass through a firewall. But packets originating from addresses on the "black list" are assumed bad and are automatically denied entry. For longer than any of us has been alive, society has forced people of color to stomach sleights such as these. Whenever it has been done so unconsciously is the precise definition of institutional bias.

Despite the original earnest intent for "Master" in Scrum Master to inspire mastery of the craft of building better software, those intentions are now opaque. Of course, a Scrum Master is intended to act as a servant-leader. But intentions cannot be proven nor do they even matter.

Consider a trial for vehicular homicide while driving drunk. Of course, the driver didn't intend to kill anyone. Yet someone died. Intentions have no bearing on the verdict. Now consider a team with a white Scrum Master. Every day, the members will hear their leader referred to as their Scrum "Master" – unless we make a change. As Agile practitioners, "We value responding to change over following a plan."

The #BLM protests that approx. 96 Black men per 100,000 are killed by police per year vs. ~39 white men per 100,000 per year. Discounting that disparity out of hand is perceived as just another facet of institutional racism. Obviously, replacing a word does not preclude us from doing more, as that alone is unlikely to help much with respect to police brutality.  

Nevertheless, "Master" needs to go.

08:00 pm August 4, 2020

Those kind of debate in 2020 blow my mind

 

If Master stands for Mastery, than Master is fine

Replacing boss by leader doesn't change the job, the way you act in that role is what matter the most

I think there is bigger problem to solve than trying to change every word ...

 

My opinion

 

12:03 pm August 5, 2020

Every day, the members will hear their leader referred to as their Scrum "Master" – unless we make a change. As Agile practitioners, "We value responding to change over following a plan."

How about leading by example on the contrary and coaching them on Agile principles and their foundations for a change, instead of throwing things overboard...

2020 is not unique, except for people publicly trying to make themselves feel better by giving themselves a self image of "caring"  and "contributing" and "making a change" on a subject most of the time not even remotely related to them. And maybe in the confusion hoping to get the feeling they belong and fit in to the masses.

You want to make a change with real impact? Buy 10 loafs of bread, go to a God forsaken part of town, and divide it among the colored homeless people...

Just my over-generalized view of what I see happening around me...

09:29 pm August 25, 2020

I find it interesting how many people that are change drivers in their org are not considering improvements in their own career field.

Feedback coming from black Americans that we're finally listening to is that the US was not made for them, and continues to not welcome them. Why can't we accept the responsibility in creating that welcoming environment, even if, the full meaning of Scrum Master is not the intention.

 

There's no virtue signaling when the actual goal is continued psychological safety. Put another way, if this change makes just one person feel more safe and valued in your team, is it worth it?

08:38 am August 26, 2020

@Derick Grey - i.e if changing word commitment used in Scrum Values, to similar word attentiveness (but not meaning quite the same) makes just one person feel safer in your team, is it worth it?

Push back is rather rooted in the poor foundation of claims behind this change request, than in being stubborn just to maintain the status quo.

10:05 am August 26, 2020

@Derick Grey - i.e if changing word commitment used in Scrum Values, to similar word attentiveness (but not meaning quite the same) makes just one person feel safer in your team, is it worth it?

@Piotr Górajek Do you have evidence of that word causing a lack of safety? If so, that in itself would be a worthy subject of its own, but it shouldn't serve as a distraction to the original point that was raised here about the use of "Master".

Safety is one valid reason to abandon terminology, but it is not the only one. The Scrum Guide has been inspected and adapted over the years, to address problems with words. Indeed, the word commit, albeit not in the context you mentioned, was replaced with forecast.

We might not all agree on this, but there are contributions from a number of people whom I believe are trying to either improve something they see as flawed, or protect the integrity of something they believe is having a positive impact.
However, some of the comments are not coming across with that tone.
Whether we like it or not, by participating on this forum we are representing our profession. As such, I'd encourage everyone to keep this debate as respectful and transparent as we can.

Rather than citing non-specific "poor foundations", can I invite you to specify exactly what those are, and engage in a clearer counter argument?

10:37 am August 26, 2020

Based on pure logic this is a made-up issue, on the other hand, feelings are not based on logic. If it really hurts the feelings of Scrum practitioners, then there is no reason to insist on keeping the title Scrum Master. However, it would be nice to know whether it is a problem or we are just making it one now.

Anyway, 'Scrum Master' is one of the typical horrible agile expressions. Do you know the joke when two scrum masters are having a chat: "Have you been grooming with the chickens today?" - "No, I had to swarm with the pigs under the information radiator."

Scrum Wizard will be a problem for the same reason as Master (KKK), Scrum Captain too (slave trade ships), Scrum Samurai is obviously cultural appropriation, the Scrum Alchemist has antisemitic reminiscences... I hope we will not end up with something like an Agile Clown...

11:55 am August 26, 2020

@Simon Mayer Do I have evidence of that word (commitment) causing a lack of safety? Of course not. Do you have evidence that the word "Master" in the "Scrum Master" title cause it either? IMO my example is exactly as such ridiculous statement as this pushing for the word "master" to change and replace in every possible place, disregarding the context of its usage, only for the sake of pushing for it. Maybe we should erase this word entirely from the English Dictionary?

To add to your link about the change from "commit" to "forecast", I would add also link to Ken's blog post:
https://kenschwaber.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/empiricism-the-act-of-maki…

Here is a solid foundation for that change of wording, to put it shortly - it too often results in treating selected PBI as set in stone that must be delivered, which was reflected in quality trade-offs and distraction from the Sprint Goal, which should be in focus. And besides that this word was changed in one part, the commitment still remains part of Scrum and is used as a word. Why it wasn't removed from all places? Isn't that because it won't make sense in other contexts?

That is why I wrote a "poor foundation". I do not want to be disrespectful here, IMHO this is exactly the reason why there is a push back. The movement for changing words all over the place only because in one context it has a racial connotation, and still being blind on other meanings, usage, and context of those words at the same time, is at best poor foundation for such movement, and it is taken to the extreme.

Almost every word has a lot of meanings, that create fuzziness which is clarified by other words around that make together a sentence and a paragraph. Even the f* words can be used to harm someone or to encourage someone, based on other words and context in which it is used.

I wrote a while ago on this topic also above, and while time passes, I still do not see it differently when I reflect on that. To put another source to check, search for why the Infosec community disagrees with changing the 'black hat' term due to racial stereotyping.

04:47 pm August 26, 2020

@Piotr Górajek I commend you for your latest post. It's a clear and valid argument, and put in a way that helps move the debate forward.

@Simon Mayer Do I have evidence of that word (commitment) causing a lack of safety? Of course not. Do you have evidence that the word "Master" in the "Scrum Master" title cause it either?

I don't have strong evidence in this area, and so I haven't offered it. I feel my posts on here have addressed the use of the word from two angles. I haven't made the case from a perspective of safety, nor have I particularly argued around the slavery connotations of the word "Master".
I believe I've offered two pragmatic arguments, and I've tried to do it in a way that offers nuance which may support the same outcome (a change of terminology), whilst trying not to steer the conversation solely around the points I raise.
I feel what I'm adding is relevant, but ought not to mask a more serious discussion around race, diversity and inclusion.

The two main arguments I have tried to convey are that:

  1. The term is already problematic and causes conversations that are more of a hindrance than a help.
    I feel it comes across as pretentious, and I believe if someone does not already have respect for Scrum, such a term is more likely going to be associated with a nerd who brandishes the Scrum Guide than a professional who is focused on solving problems, and uses Scrum to do so.
     
  2. The debate is happening anyway. Terminology is being challenged and organizations are responding to it. The way we engage with these concerns is important. We can double down on our suppositions of the right meaning of the word, assume particular intentions of those raising their concerns, and beat them back with dictionaries, which can make us seem like a closed group who will never respond to change, and can prevent the emergence of alternative perspectives.
    Or we can attempt to understand suggestions and concerns, acknowledge that as a group we are not diverse enough to have all perspectives, conduct conversation in a way that maximizes the chance of participation from others, scrutinize the points that people make, and remain open to the possibility that things will need to change. Surely by having such a robust, but respectful and open debate, we provide the best opportunity for an empirical decision to be made.
02:27 pm August 27, 2020

Can I suggest we go to the home of where the terminology "Scrum" came from - i.e. Rugby.

The key role in a Rugby Scrum is the "Scrum-Half" for example. Here is a good place to look for some other rugby roles:

https://www.ruck.co.uk/rugby-positions-roles-beginners/

Just a thought. We borrow from this beautiful and complex game (if not the most complex of all games), maybe let's go back to it for a proper alternative...

05:46 pm August 28, 2020

Can I suggest we go to the home of where the terminology "Scrum" came from - i.e. Rugby.

The key role in a Rugby Scrum is the "Scrum-Half" for example. Here is a good place to look for some other rugby roles:

https://www.ruck.co.uk/rugby-positions-roles-beginners/

Just a thought. We borrow from this beautiful and complex game (if not the most complex of all games), maybe let's go back to it for a proper alternative...

Sorry, but if someone starts calling me a Scrum Hooker instead of a Scrum Master I'm not only going to be offended, but probably initiate some fisticuffs!

01:56 pm August 29, 2020

René Gysenbergs actually yes I agree! This was just a suggestion! Scrum Champion might be another decent option.

10:58 am September 1, 2020

I'd like to add to the discussion this article written by Shaun Morris.

It was mentioned before that this is a role without much representation by people of color and minorities in general, I think Morris's point of view can be enlightening since he is an experienced Scrum Master and also a minority.

10:36 pm September 1, 2020

Camilla, that is such a great article. Thank you for sharing it!

09:51 am September 2, 2020

Scrum Champion might be another decent option.

Champion my defenition holds two concepts: "competition" and "being first". Both would not fit my personal understanding and delivery of Scrum. Neither would I promote competition, let alone me stating myself holding first place.

It was mentioned before that this is a role without much representation by people of color and minorities in general

First of all, is there any data validating this? How can one state colored people or under represented in scrum?
Next to that, if we assume roughly 20% of the world population is "black", would it not be logical if roughly the same amount could be found in Scrum, or any other context, and thus not being related to suppression but mere statistics?
Also, allowing the assumption, the question is; is it Scrum's fault (or Scrum's terminology) that colored people are underrepresented? Is anything within the Scrum context hindering colored people from becoming a SM or doing Scrum in general?
And to take this one step further in the light of the article you mention: the assumption is made that systematic racism is present in tech development and Scrum, and the assumption is made that it can be solved by maybe renaming some terminology, but are those valid assumptions?