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Who is the Professional Scrum Master

June 10, 2015




The Scrum Master role can easily be misunderstood as it is harder to grasp by reading the theory hence people often compare the Scrum Master role to Project Manager or Technical Leader. Scrum has been around for more than 20 years but yet people still found it challenging to understand the role of Scrum Master. Many people say that he is a process manager but then many people are wondering how is that different to Project Manager? This confusion also becomes chronic because there are many people and institutions in our industry who does not really understand the underlying values of Scrum have turned Scrum into a prescriptive methodology rather than a framework for discovery. These people and institutions label the Scrum Master as Agile Project Manager to provide assurance to people that the role of Project Manager is still there but the role is more hip and sexy as it has got the word 'Agile' in front of it.

To understand the role of a Scrum Master it is often easier to see the model in person rather than reading about it from books or articles on the internet. It happens with me. But if you do not have any opportunity to see a great Scrum Master as a role model in your professional life, I hope this article will help you understand the attributes and behaviours of a Professional Scrum Master.

Scrum Master primary job is to place himself in service consciously, with self-awareness and for the benefit of his customers. Scrum Guide lists Scrum Master customers to be:

  1. The Development Team

  2. The Product Owner

  3. The Organisation where he belongs

  4. From this point forward I will be using “customers” to represent these 3 people whom the Scrum Master is serving.


Many people think that the Scrum Master role is like a ‘servant’ or ‘butler’ because the Scrum Master is often described as servant leader by some people. Because of that misunderstanding people often ask Scrum Master to gather requirements and often ask Scrum Master to remind the Development Team about the Daily Scrum and updating the burndown chart. This is one of the reason I found why many managers resist to be a Scrum Master. To put oneself in service does not mean being subservient or being “lesser than” the people one is serving. On the other hand, it is a form of commitment to attend to customer’s needs first above the Scrum Master needs. When executed genuinely, this is a noble thing. To stop further confusion, I will resist describing the Scrum Master as a servant leader in this article.


You cannot teach humans anything. You can only help them discover it within themselves.
— Galileo Galilei


1. Scrum Master is a Master

There is a reason why the Scrum Master is called a Scrum ‘Master’. Many people think the word “master” mean Subject Matter Expert (SME). This is how people come to think that the Scrum Master is just another word for Technical Leader or Project Manager — someone who solves all of the problems in the project.

The Master is about being. Mastery blends skill and experience with attention in the moment — less about the doing (i.e problem solving). The role of a Scrum Master is not about what he does but more about how he does it. Scrum mastery is about being present in the moment — listening to customers attentively as they speak, understand where they are currently at. He is energized, stay alerted, engaged and able to draw all of his skills when having conversation with his customers. His presence is comforting and provides safety. People feel safe around him because he leads people in a non-judgmental manner and does not rush into conclusion.

Scrum Master is a role model of change, he is like a mirror that reflects Agility and how working in an Agile environment looks like. People stand and look at him to see whether they are Agile or not. People look at him because of who he is not because of what he does. The quality of being of a Master is the quality of we often see in an “authentic leader” — someone who leads from the heart rather than leading using authority or political power. A bad Scrum Master is like a broken mirror and misrepresent Agility in the organisation. A bad Scrum Master can often be a self-service rather than service for others.

As he is the model of Agility, he models transition, learning and growth. He understands where his customers are — he understands that transitioning into Agility will be challenging and create resistance. Well any change that is disruptive will create resistance for that matter. Using his mastery, he is able to help his customers to see challenges in Agility in a safer context. He does not take shortcut and does not sugarcoat the traditional method and call it Agile but he genuinely and boldly advise his customers that the Agile journey is a long and a hard one. He is neutral and able to provide both success and failure stories on Agile transformation. Only by having empathy for his customers they will gain confidence in Agility. This is an art that requires mastery and this is what Scrum Master does best.

Hopefully this explains clearly what the word ‘master’ in Scrum Master is about.


2. Scrum Master is a partner

A partner will seek for mutual benefits, not seeking for an advantage for one’s personal gain. Scrum Master’s customers should feel safe being around the Scrum Master, especially when they feel anxious or overwhelmed. The Scrum Master meets his customers where they currently are and recognize that as a human being they will be better in the future. He embraces his customers with compassion and respect.

In the context of a team, the Scrum Master is not in charge with the project execution, the project scope and the timeline. The development team is in full control with the project. The development team is also in charge on how they want to go with their learning path to be a great team. Only when Scrum Master does this the development team will be independent, take ownership of the project and be able to self-generate solution.

As a partner, the Scrum Master is committed to serving his customers growth. He walks with his customers at every step along the learning path including through tough times and failures. He has the patience eventhough his customer take small steps at slower pace. He is committed to celebrate and support his customer’s growth even at a cost his customers feel no longer need him anymore.

As a partner the Scrum Master is always present in the background and provides assurance to his customers that he is always there when they need his support the most. As a partner the Scrum Master provides peace, safety and comfort to his customers. Not only the Scrum Master is present in the moment, he is also invisibly present.


3. Scrum Master is a shepherd

A good Scrum Master do not live under the belief that he has the answers to the problems his customer is facing. He does not believe that what he knows is the only thing that his customers should listen to. He resists in appearing more knowledgable than his customers, eventhough he may already have similar experience in the situation his customers are currently facing. In fact a good Scrum Master belief that his customers already know the answers better than he does. His job is to provide guidance for his customers to form their own solution and sets of action. He is not attached to having all of his advise accepted by his customers.

As a shepherd, the Scrum Master provides guidance and impetus to his customers just like a shepherd who guides his flock. He provides guidance (not a whiplash) to his customers using the Scrum framework and Agile values. He does this by asking artful questions that invokes new perspectives and lead his customers to self-discovery. He guides his customers by enocuraging them to take an action and providing options for courses of action. He is able to draw his personal experience but he is not the one to decide which course of action his customer should go with.

A good Scrum Master is there to cultivate the answer from his customers, let them discover the answer themselves. He does not just tell his customers to start writing requirements in User Stories because everyone in the whole universe is doing it. He offers options on how his customers can grow and keeps encouraging them to try new behaviours and new techniques that will improve their process and their work but it is his customers who decide when to do it and how to do it. Only by putting them at choice they will be committed with Agility.


4. Scrum Master is a teacher

There are many styles of teaching, but in this context think of the Socratic methods of teaching that ask questions to discover new knowledge. As a teacher, the Scrum Master sharpens the knowledge that his customers already know by providing new distinctions and new insights. He challenges and stimulates his customers current way of thinking to take them to a new heights.

There are times when Scrum Master need to drive in a more directive fashion when his customers are not able to self-discover the answers themselves. This is sometimes necessary but a good Scrum Master knows the perfect timing when he should provide the answer. If he provides the answers too soon, he undermines his customer’s ownership to the problem they are facing and discount their opportunity to think independently.

A good Scrum Master is compassionate and respectful towards the people he is teaching. He believes that every human being are naturally good. He believes that fundamentally every human being has the capacity to grow and change. He has the patience and provide space for people to develop their own realistic assessment according to their own unique capabilities. He doesn’t rush people towards his personal agenda and doesn’t judge people who solve a problem at a slower pace than the majority of the people. He believes that every human being are unique hence need to be treated uniquely. As a teacher, he has the capability to bring the best ouf of people.

The Scrum Master need to watch out not overuse the teacher aspect to prove his competence in front of his customers. The Scrum Master ultimate goal is to help his customers develop their own ways to find answers, not rely on the Scrum Master for answers as it is insidious.


5. Scrum Master is a manager

Scrum Master is a manager is a different sense. Just like the teacher role, this role can also be overused when the Scrum Master does not really understand about his ultimate goal and what is expected of him.

This article by fellow Gunther Verheyen perfectly describes Scrum Master is a manager:

Contrary to the traditional idea of a ‘manager’, a Scrum Master has no formal power over the people in the Development Team, or their tasks. But a Scrum Master does manage (via) the Scrum process. Within an organization a Scrum Master is accountable for maximizing how people, teams, departments and the organization utilize Scrum. A Scrum Master is accountable for the way Scrum is understood and enacted. This is a true management job, with accountability, sphere and responsibility, but it is an aspect of being a Scrum Master that is frequently overlooked and ignored.

A Scrum Master indeed is a manager, albeit not in the traditional sense. It is clear that a Scrum Master does not manage budget, people, work and tasks. Product Owners manage investments. Teams manage themselves. However, self-organization as promoted through Scrum does require goals and boundaries. A Scrum Master manages the boundaries that Scrum provides to augment self-organization; time-boxing to limit risk, focused efforts, cross-functional collaboration, releasable results, validated learning.

Scrum Master as a manager does not manage the project per se or even manage the Development Team, Scrum Master manages these:

  • strategies for transitioning organisation towards Agility, including coaching and teaching his customers.

  • strategies for increasing organisation's Agility.

  • impediments and risks that is preventing the organisation to move towards Agility and to move faster.

  • resistance from the people inside the organisation -- these need to be managed well.

  • flow of work and process at corporate/strategic level.

  • knowledge generated by the people inside the organisation.

  • These are the attributes that makes Professional Scrum Master different to traditional manager. Scrum Master work at strategic level rather than tactical level. Not having these attributes and not providing an ethical service would be a disservice. We simply call it Unprofessional Scrum Master.



This figure explains clearly the expected benefits from Scrum Masters:


Scrum Master personal assessment

This new role is challenging. It may take several years to finally understand what the Scrum Master role is really about. It take several more years to become great at it. To help you understand better about the role of Scrum Master, try asking yourself these questions to assess whether you are still managing using traditional approach or managing using Scrum framework.

  1. As a Scrum Master are you in charge for the project or are you letting the team to be in charge?

  2. As a Scrum Master do you coordinate the work between teams and team members or do you coach and empower them to self-coordinate with each other?

  3. As a Scrum Master are you held responsible for the project or do you empower the team to be responsible for it?

  4. As a Scrum Master do you make all of the decision to problems found in the project do you guide the team towards their own decision which they will have full ownership with?

  5. As a Scrum Master do you rush your customers with your own personal agenda or do you give them space to create their own learning agenda and to learn at their own pace?

  6. As a Scrum Master do you provide a safe environment where your customers can make mistakes and fail?

  7. As a Scrum Master are you still being measured to have the project on-budget, on-schedule and on-time by the upper management?

  8. As a Scrum Master do you always put your customer first before anything else or do you always put yourself first?

  9. As a Scrum Master do you put yourself at the center of attention or do you put the team at the center of attention when the project is successful?

  10. As a Scrum Master do you let the whole Development Team take all the credit or do you take all the credit when the project is successful?

Who the Scrum Master is not

I often find myself explaining who the Scrum Master really is to people to be difficult because people can not resist mapping the Scrum Master role to existing role or function in their organisation. Sometimes I found it easier to explain who the Scrum Master is by explaining who the Scrum Master is not. Let's see who the Scrum Master is not.

A shift of focus

  • Scrum Master is not a Subject Matter Expert (SME) or a Technical Leader or a Solution Architect hence

    • does not direct the team with his own technical solution; 

    • does not provide the team with technical architecture;

    • is not always heard by the Development Team;

    • and does not assign tasks to the Development Team members.

  • Scrum Master is not a Project Manager or even a Program Manager in a traditional sense hence

    • does not plan the project;

    • does not control the project;

    • does not ask for status updates from the Development Team;

    • does not report the Velocity (or any kind of report) of the Development Team to the upper management;

    • and does not manage the project scope, budget, people and timeline.

  • Scrum Master is not the team secretary or personal assistant hence does not do the team’s chore — e.g:

    • updating the burndown chart;

    • remind the team about the daily scrum;

    • record the Development Team velocity (or any kind of metric);

    • schedule the Scrum events for the team.

  • Scrum Master is not a Business Analyst or a proxy who gathers, clarify and writes requirements from the Product Owner for the development team.

  • Scrum Master requires mastery and distinct skills, it takes years of practice and endurance to become a Master, hence there is no such thing as Junior Scrum Master as it is an oxymoron.

There are many fundamental differences between a traditional manager and a Scrum Master as a manager. Our society has been putting Project Manager as the person accountable for the project's success. Scrum Master is responsible to push the accountability back to the Development Team, let them take ownership of the project and entire development process. A Scrum Master who takes credit for the team's success, call it as his own success and boast about it is not a genuine Scrum Master. Someone whose responsibility is to cultivate the solution from his customers and guide them to the sets of action should not take credit from his customers. It takes great humility to be a genuine Professional Scrum Master who does not boast about himself.

Changing to the new behaviours may take many years and may be challenging for many of you. The society may not see a value in Scrum Master, they may see Scrum Master as  weak role who does not have any control over anyone in the organisation. A great Scrum Master cares about the life of his customers. He represents Agility in the organisation. He brings back humanity back into workplace. A great Scrum Master is invisibly present and always ready at service.  And all of this this is a noble thing.

Hopefully this article help you to understand what is expected from a Professional Scrum Master. But if you still find the term and the role of Scrum Master is difficult to understand, please feel free to ping me.

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