The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization … Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization”
(The Scrum Guide)
As we discuss in the Scrum Guide and Professional Scrum Master classes, Scrum Masters should be able and be positioned to facilitate, coach, teach, mentor, point north, take action or even actively do nothing.
That’s the theory at least. In reality, most SMs fall into two categories:
- The Disempowered - acting as Scribes/secretaries/clerks for their teams - accountable for the Scrum mechanics but not to the team’s effectiveness, definitely not able to coach/influence the ecosystem around the team - because of their abilities/experience and/or how they are perceived/positioned.
- Traditional managers with a new name - people managers, project managers, tech leads, team leads - who continue to manage/lead how they’ve always done it. They are considered the team‘s focal point. They feel the full burden of delivery and results on their shoulders. They often resort to heroism and command and control - whether because that's their comfort zone or because they feel they are expected to.
Problematic implementation of the Scrum Master accountability can really interfere with the journey towards agility, empiricism, and self-management. Leaders need to figure out how to create effective Scrum Mastery / Leadership in their organization. Here are some considerations to think about:
- Who will have the accountability - The Scrum Guide describes Scrum Master as an Accountability which means that it's not necessarily a distinct job title, and even if so the actual job title might not be “Scrum Master”. Designing how to map the Scrum Master accountability is a crucial step in implementing Scrum. The conversations around it are usually tough and revealing.
- One specific question that leaders should consider - should Scrum Mastery be an accountability of leaders/managers? Many agile practitioners will warn that this will interfere with the team’s ability to self-manage. On the other hand - the Scrum Master accountability describes a “Leader who serves” and is a key leadership accountability in an agile organization.
- Measurement - By putting the right measures in place, a leader can clearly define the outcomes they are looking for. Is the Scrum Master accountable for the delivery of value? Effectiveness of the Team? What else? Deciding the right measures is often difficult and can become political, especially so for enabling accountabilities such as the Scrum Master.
- Reporting Structure - Setting the Scrum Master up for success means figuring out a reporting structure that enables the Scrum Master to be honest and open with minimal risk of repercussion. For example, If the person owning the Scrum Master accountability reports to the Product Owner, it might make it hard for them to be honest and open about their challenges. If they report to the same people as the Developers, there might be a lack of understanding of their role. A Scrum Master that’s outside the Scrum Team’s reporting structure coming in as either an internal or external “consultant” provides certain benefits but carries certain disadvantages.
- Where Scrum Masters come from - Often organizations naturally think that Project Managers should be the place Scrum Masters are recruited from. Project Management is a different, somewhat overlapping set of skills that may or may not house good Scrum Masters. Leaders should understand the Scrum Master accountability and open a wide aperture to find the right people for the role wherever they are in the organization. Sometimes, the right Scrum Master for the job is found by looking at the mirror...
- Employment Status - Each situation is different, but deciding whether the Scrum Master is better served as an external contractor or an internal employee requires some level of thought and choice. Both approaches have merit. Think of the courage the Scrum Master might have to “speak to power”. The openness people in the organization and team would have to listen to their ideas. The commitment the Scrum Master would have to the team and the organization. The respect they would garner from the Product Owner, Developers, Leaders, and Stakeholders. And how much they will be able to focus on helping the Team.
- Career path - Scrum Master isn’t necessarily a career path. It’s an accountability that requires certain competency. Having said that, Leaders looking to find great Scrum Masters for their teams need to figure out as well as provide transparency to how taking on the Scrum Master accountability would support people’s career growth.
- Creating an open/transparent relationship between the Scrum Master and the Leader - Leaders need to partner with Scrum Masters on addressing systemic impediments that limit the organization’s potential. Scrum Masters should feel safe providing feedback about the Leader’s own behavior and organizational choices.
- Teams Supported - Depending on the maturity of the teams, the complexity of the problems they are solving, or the constraints of the situation the Leader must decide on how many Scrum Teams the Scrum Master supports. Leaders in many cases face the tradeoff between having a few passionate and effective Scrum Masters covering multiple teams, versus having a Scrum Master for each team that is also a Developer on that team and sees Scrum Mastery as their secondary accountability. Again, no clear choices here, but aim to have Scrum Masters who are passionate about Scrum Mastery and see it as a key part of their career journey.
There’s no one right answer or best practice for any of these considerations. Leaders need to apply empiricism to figure out these sorts of complex dilemmas. This means trying out a certain pattern, inspecting its impact, and amplifying or pivoting away as needed. These “experiments” involve human beings, making them even more complex and sensitive.
Having said that, An emerging pattern I’m seeing more and more often is implementing the Scrum Master as an accountability of people managers/leaders - in alignment with a mindset/culture of “leaders who serve”. This is often complemented by a small set of experienced professional scrum masters / agile coaches that provide enablement/support and on-demand deeper scrum mastery when needed. This setup meets the organization and people where they are while providing a “north star” for how leadership in the organization should look like and supporting the journey.
Are Scrum Masters here set up for success? Are they “leaders who serve”? Which of the Professional Scrum Master choices/stances can they choose from? Are they a core aspect of our organization's approach to leadership/management? Are they an afterthought to get a higher score on an agile maturity assessment or some RFP? Are they respected, and appreciated by the people they serve? Are they in high demand?
To sum up - Implementing the Scrum Master accountability effectively is hard. It ties straight into the creation of servant leadership and a self-management/empowering culture in which business agility thrives. As agile practitioners we should have some empathy to why organizations and leaders are struggling with this. As leaders we should engage the agile community inside our organization and beyond it to work on figuring this out.