Skip to main content

Is your Manager ready to be the Scrum Master?

November 22, 2023

There’s been a slow moving shift in the industry towards eschewing full time traditional Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches in favour of having line managers (Engineering Managers, Delivery Managers, etc) take on the Scrum Master Accountability.

I’ve talked a bit about this here

The trend has accelerated recently as companies have had to make tough decisions around overall head counts. In many cases, companies have laid off entire teams of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches.

Capital One has made a statement shedding light on this shift:

“The Agile role in our Tech organization was critical to our earlier transformation phases but as our organization matured, the natural next step is to integrate agile delivery processes directly into our core engineering practices"

This progressive thinking has been crystalized in a recent post from Ryan Ripley, which I can highly recommend as a clear headed and nuanced, yet assertive declaration as to why this shift is so important.

A key alignment between the Scrum Master accountability and the Manager role is found in the Scrum Guide:

The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. 

If the Scrum Master is NOT the Manager, there is an inherent conflict over this. If Managers aren't responsible for their team's effectiveness, it raises questions about their own value.

The devil is in the details, though. While I fully embrace and even encourage this shift, companies will need some clarity around when, how, or even if this change is appropriate for them.

Are your managers capable?

This is an obvious first question to ask yourself. The Scrum Master accountability comes with precise requirements. They involve serving the Scrum Team, the Product Owner and the organization in several ways. Are your Managers equipped to do this? Are they willing and able to act as true leaders on the team, forgoing traditional tactics like micro-managing individuals?

Scrum is explicit about the Scrum Master accountability. From the Scrum Guide:

The Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the team members in self-management and cross-functionality;
  • Helping the Scrum Team focus on creating high-value Increments that meet the Definition of Done;
  • Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress; and,
  • Ensuring that all Scrum events take place and are positive, productive, and kept within the timebox.

The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including:

  • Helping find techniques for effective Product Goal definition and Product Backlog management;
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items;
  • Helping establish empirical product planning for a complex environment; and,
  • Facilitating stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed.

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:

  • Leading, training, and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Planning and advising Scrum implementations within the organization;
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact an empirical approach for complex work; and,
  • Removing barriers between stakeholders and Scrum Teams.

This is of course not an exhaustive list, but it provides a baseline to assess if Managers can adopt the Scrum Master accountability successfully. If they can check most of these boxes with some confidence, you are probably in good shape.

The good news is, none of these items require specific personality traits. Any manager interested in becoming a true leader can gain the knowledge and skills required to do these things effectively.


What if they're not ready?

If there is some distance between where the managers are today, and what is described above, a company should still go the traditional route of having dedicated Scrum Masters and/or Agile Coaches. This may be necessary for a while, and seasoned agilists can do a lot to level up your managers. In this case, I recommend using contract professionals with extensive experience.

For specific knowledge or skills gaps, there are resources like books and training. An internal Scrum Community of Practice group can also be invaluable here.

Again, we are talking about knowledge and skills that can be acquired.


Great Scrum Masters make for Great Managers

As someone who left a Director role to become a Scrum Master over a decade ago, I can tell you with confidence that everything I’ve learned as a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, Trainer and Consultant would make me a more effective manager if I were ever to go back to that role.

Over the last 5-10 years, more and more managers have been exposed to agile ways of working and many have already recognized the value of being a true leader.

There is an entire class of managers out there who are probably already capable of taking on the Scrum Master accountability. And the authority that the organization has vested in them, when harnessed appropriately, only stands to improve their odds of building effective Scrum Teams.

If your managers aren’t there yet, that’s ok. But it’s time to start thinking about what it will take to successfully make this transition.


💻 Matt's upcoming Public Class schedule can be found 👉 here

🖥 Find out about Private Agile and Scrum training for your team or organization 👉 here

What did you think about this post?