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What's in a Name? Job Titles vs. Accountabilities in Scrum with PST Sam Falco

May 15, 2024

In this episode of the Community Podcast, Dave West and PST Sam Falco discuss the confusion surrounding Scrum Master job titles and Accountabilities, emphasizing the need to broaden one's perspective beyond the team level to understand the organization's strategic goals. They discuss the roles and accountabilities of Product Owners and Scrum Masters in agile development, highlighting the importance of a Product Owner with a clear vision for improvement and the ability to validate that vision through increments, as well as the Scrum Master's role in facilitating the Scrum framework and ensuring effective Product Ownership.




Dave West  0:20  
Hello and welcome to the community podcast. I'm your host, Dave West CEO Today's podcast is focused on a really thorny issue in a thorny topic on the topic of job titles, how they help how they hinder the progress, progress of agility, and Scrum and organizations. It's a topic that I'm often brought in to debate and discuss with senior leaders and HR leaders. So I'm very glad that it's not just me talking about this topic, because it's it's hard. And we're very lucky that we're joined by Sam Falco professional scrum trainer. Welcome to the podcast, Sam.

Sam Falco  1:01  
Thanks, Dave. It's a real pleasure to be here. Great.

Dave West  1:04  
So before we jump into this awful leave for the topic, perhaps you would share with our listeners something about you and when you're talking to us from Sam. Certainly

Sam Falco  1:14  
Well, I live in St. Petersburg, Florida, which is where I am now, when I am not practicing Scrum. Well, it's not true. When I'm not practicing Scrum. I'm still practicing Scrum. I write crime fiction as a hobby. And I use Scrum to discover the story as I build it. And every two weeks I meet with my critique group and they are my stakeholders. And that is my sprint review.

Dave West  1:40  
Wow says that sounds that sounds like a podcast on its own. Right. Maybe we could lean into that some other time. But, but today isn't that isn't what we're going to be talking about. We're going to be talking about job titles. Okay, so let's get going. Sure. 2020 As you well know, there was a massive year on so many levels, obviously a global pandemic. And also the scrum guide got updated. And in that update, Ken and Jeff and others ultimately updated it to change. The roles to accountabilities scrum master product owner developer, in historically been described as these roles. And they were now changed to accountabilities really, to scratch this itch about job titles, and how we were describing it in the framework now 2020 or years ago, there still seems to be an issue that that hasn't really addressed. So, Sam, what have you what have you seen? Or what are you seeing?

Sam Falco  2:50  
Well, this subject came up early in my career when I had been functioning as a scrum master on the team. But my job title had nothing to do with Scrum Master. I was a team lead was the job title. But I had been asked to serve as the scrum master. And when I started looking for work after that company ended that product line and laid us off. One of the things I kept hearing was, well, you don't have scrum master in your job description, are in your job title. And I would say but right down here, I talk about that I've done these things. And people were expecting it to be right there in the job title. And they wanted a number with the scrum master one a scrum master two. And I thought it was very peculiar that this Yes, it was a roll according to Scrum, but that it would become a job title. That often got conflated with all sorts of other activities. And now in 2024, after so many of my colleagues and I have gone through layoffs or reductions in force, seeing them struggle to differentiate themselves. Because this job title Scrum Master has accreted all of these other responsibilities and tasks that may not have anything to do with the accountability that we expect the scrum master to fulfill. Does that make sense? Yeah,

Dave West  4:14  
I mean, it's a double edged sword, isn't it? Because because the job title had been created, organizations like ultimately made a lot of hay, because people said, Oh, well, we need to train all our Scrum Masters and we need to certify them at cetera because we have a job title. However, ultimately, the idea the accountabilities need to be fulfilled by whoever has the right power or authority and skills to do that thing in that situation. And sometimes it might be a team leader as you found in your first and sometimes it might not be and then it becomes more complicated when you move but between organization In jobs, so, hang on a minute, that is the problem, right? The world has not changed. They still look for job titles, they still look for levels, seniority, etc. So I guess the world is still challenged in that regard. So what does maybe we should just level set? What does it what is a scrum master, then what does the accountability really mean?

Sam Falco  5:26  
So, the easiest thing to do is to quote or paraphrase the scrum guide, we are responsible for the effectiveness of the scrum team. And we also serve the organization as a whole in helping them understand how to use Scrum, to deliver product effectively. Not Scrum, for scrum sake, but scrum as a tool to accomplish the objectives of the organization.

Dave West  5:55  
So, so hang on a minute, that sounds like a manager type role, because there's no way I can be responsible for the effectiveness of my team without some accountability for that team. And there's no way I can influence an organization unless I have some level of seniority. So as a scrum master manager, then

Sam Falco  6:16  
I would not say no, I would not say yes to that will quibble with your statement that there's no way of someone without managerial authority can influence those things. There certainly are ways to do it. Could a manager be a scrum master, the whole way I became a scrum master in the first place was my manager was sent off to scrum master training and came back and said, I don't think a manager should be scrum master and asked if I would be willing to try it out sort of like here, put this hat on and it fit. Now that manager actually could have been a spectacular Scrum Master. I knew him for years, he had the right mindset. So it really depends on what you mean by manager and what you mean by scrum master. However, I do think that a scrum master who is not a manager can certainly influence can certainly guide and certainly lead if they dare to frequently, I think too many people get pegged into this small role. Job Title, Scrum Master that in the HR guideline says you serve the team, and they get stuck there. But if you dare to step outside of that, and ask questions, and listen to the concerns of other people in the organization, you can certainly build the authority, the political capital, so to speak, to be able to effect change beyond the team level.

Dave West  7:45  
And and that's, that's a crucial accountability capability. I don't know what the right word is that a scrum master, whoever's acting that accountability needs to be able to fulfill because the success, the effectiveness of that team is fundamentally reduced by on two Domecq by two things, one, the environment in which that team operates. And secondly, the value that team is delivered with, you know, through the product and the product increment. So that means they have to be able to do that to be effective. But that's not what I see in many of the descriptions of Scrum Master on you know, indeed, or LinkedIn or whatever.

Sam Falco  8:27  
Absolutely, you see far too many things that say the scrum master will run the daily, and it's always daily standup, run these things. And, you know, make sure that the demo, and you just cringe if you really understand Scrum, and to see these terms thrown about, but often very, very constrained. I was at an organization that had that sort of, here's what you do you work only on the team and I, I have always been sort of a stir of trouble. And I don't color within the lines very well. And so when the team ran into a problem that they absolutely could not solve themselves. I went outside and I started asking around, why is this happening? Why do we have this problem which predates me? And people keep raising as an issue? And the answer is just that's the way it works. But it doesn't work. And what do we need to do to solve it? And in this case, it was a particular environment would go down with almost predictable regularity just frapp out for a day or two where no one could get any work done. And I said, this is this is crazy. This has always had been happening. So what happened to make it happen? No one knew. And so I just wandered around two teams and started talking to their Scrum Masters, their product owners, and said who would like to solve This and essentially assembled a little team of people who were willing to carve out some time from their weeks to look at, when did this start happening? Why did this start happening? How can we fix it again, and get it working. And so, as a result of me just refusing to stay in my little lane, this problem did get solved. I didn't remove that impediment. But to echo the language of the scrum guide, I caused the impediment to be removed by refusing to accept that the status quo was acceptable.

Dave West  10:37  
And I think that example is incredibly compelling, Sam, because ultimately, wouldn't it be great if every organization was full of people whose sole whose not sole job but their mission in life as well, as you know, helping the team be successful was to help the organization be bit more successful? And how the decisions that are being made to be more easily implemented inside the organization? I think that sounds great. Alright, so scrum master, sort of got a handle on that. So tell me a little bit about product owner, you know, their accountabilities? What do they really mean? Again, I see lots of things on Indeed, or whatever that describe product owners. It, you know, it's not, it's not quite the product owner, I would expect.

Sam Falco  11:25  
Yes. Too often, it's just another phrase for project manager really project not products, that they are often executing on a roadmap given to them by someone else, there are simply order takers, where as we want to encourage our product owner, so really, the word owner is in that countability name for a reason you you own it, you are the one making the decisions, and you're held accountable to it. The last job I was at, I had a new product owner, relatively new, he had been product owner for another team for a bit and was coming to our team. And he was really gung ho to try this whole empirical approach to Scrum. And he, he and I worked together quite extensively. And he was very happy to not just tell the team, here's what you need to do. But talk to his stakeholders find out what's important to you explain to them, this is the thing we're going to be working on. Now. I can't please all of you all at once, but I can please one of you right now. And then you get the next slot. It's the most important thing. And help them understand that asking for the moon doesn't help. But let's talk about what we can do right now. And then turning around and coming to the team and saying to the team, here's where we need to go. What do you think? What do you think is a good first step and having them help craft those sprint goals rather than previously they had been dictated to this is this is where we're going, this is what we're going to do. And the first time this product owner asked them, What do you think there was just crickets? Dead Silence, as no one knew how to answer it. And finally, one of the developers said, we're waiting for you to tell us and he said, Well, we're not going to. So I've got a bit of afield from your question, by giving illustrating rather than the answering but a product owner that has the vision for how to improve the product and bring out something marvelous into the world and communicate that to the developers in such a way that allows the developers to then take ownership of building product relevant, instructing them what they need to do.

Dave West  13:38  
So it's about value. It's about vision. It's about you know, being able to validate that vision as quickly as possible through those increments. The three V's I guess, a crucial to that, again, not something that we see over and over again, it tends to be more that order taker, kind of a job description is described. So alright, so coming back to scrum master, something that you said and I really just want to scratch this itch a little bit. There's a lot of very high profile, anti scrum master posts on social media at the moment. So what is happening with the job market around scrum master? Are they are they drying up? Now? You know, We obviously see people coming to our website and actually, there's just as many scrum master people come to our website, though they haven't disappeared. That hasn't been a sort of like a call as it were, but what what are you seeing in terms of that, that that job market and the implications to the to the to the role or to those those accountabilities?

Sam Falco  14:54  
To a certain extent, I think, and I will caveat all of them I'm about to say with with I have very a limited ability to see the wider marketplace. But what I have seen is large enterprises have not gotten the value they wanted out of Scrum for one reason or another. Often because they had a misunderstanding of what scrum was going to give them. And because they crippled their Scrum Masters by confining them to a team role, and too few people have the sheer ordinariness that someone like me to go outside that, that well, why do we need someone who can interview just run events and schedule things? I had a director at a company I worked for about, oh, eight or nine years ago say, Well, what does a scrum master even do you just you're just a party planner, right. And I had to go outside and breathe deeply, very much for a few minutes to calm down before I could go in and explain now that's not my job. But what I'm also seeing when because I was laid off at the end of last year, although I trained them, keeping my eyes open. So I get a lot of interest from small companies and midsize companies who understand that they cannot just wing it, they don't have the inertia that a large enterprise has that they can keep moving, and they'll keep moving. They need something else. And so they are more willing to ask, What can a scrum master do for me? And do I need a scrum master and not in a negative sort of sneering way but don't even Scrum Master? What how's that going to help me and are willing to listen to the answer? That's,

Dave West  16:47  
that's interesting that smaller organizations could you'd think the opposite, wouldn't you? In some ways, you know, you think that smaller organizations, it's easier to make changes. It's easy to meet, everybody can take this accountability. But actually, it's sometimes really good to have a catalyst. I'll tell you a Insider story here. We have a scrum master. They're not a professional scrum trainer. They're not one of us. We have had SCRUM masters that were professional scrum trainers. And that was awesome. But we decided to go a different route. And the last time and and the reason why is to have a different perspective, somebody that had been practicing professional Scrum, that wasn't part of our big ecosystem, somebody completely new, who literally, you know, some of those things that we didn't even notice we were doing, but we were doing were like, brought out and made transparent. And that transparency has led to continue, you know, a significant improvement in our organization, in terms of the effectiveness of the people that are delivering product. And it's funny, and we are you know, relatively small group of people, we you know, we have three or four scrum team Scrum teams working at any one moment. So it's really interesting. So I guess the summary is that this even so, maybe the demise of the scrum master is a bit more marketing hype or social media hype than then then that's really the case. And maybe it's been over, over talked about. I

Sam Falco  18:22  
think it has been over talked about, I think there's a couple of factors. One is people like to stir up controversy. So they post these Agile is dead. Scrum is dead articles on LinkedIn, which are regurgitation of things I've been seeing since I first encountered scrum in 2008. And I'm sure existed before that. But another aspect of it is that circling back to where we started with the difference between a job title and the accountability is that being a scrum master might be hidden in a job title. Because the organization has this technical program manager job title. And then when you look at it, you say, wait a minute, they're looking for a scrum master. And even sometimes, it says scrum master in there. It'll say Scrum, when you think about what the accountabilities of the scrum master are and you look at the jobless posting, and you say, ah, what they want is a scrum master or product owner as well. Oh, this, this project manager. But look, I'm seeing language about product and I'm seeing language about making decisions about the direction of the product or they want a product owner. Does that help? Yeah,

Dave West  19:34  
I guess. And, and, you know, part of me is happy if those accountabilities are sort of succeeded into other jobs or other families of jobs. I think it's it's crucial. It's like, you don't have to explicitly tell you don't look for an object oriented software developer nowadays, right. But when I was in the early 90s, when I started that was a thing. You know, now either Look for a developer and one of the line items is, you know, yes, they're gonna, of course, they're gonna know. I mean, everybody talks objects now it's become sort of mainstream. So one of the things I think that I'm seeing is those accountabilities, those responsibilities, those capabilities are now manifest in other places. The thing that worries me though, is that they're being undervalued in terms of the the change the best SCRUM masters that I've ever seen, actually, did have the title of Scrum Master. And the reason why they had the title scrum master was because that was the catalyst of change. That's everybody knew, Oh, my God, this person is coming along, and they're changing everything, or certainly driving change into the organization to improve. But maybe this is the future of management, maybe this is management three dot O. And, and, and that's okay. So product owner, though, you know, what about that in the job market? You know, I'm actually seeing a lot of product owner. job postings, I'm seeing a lot of interest in product ownership. For instance, you know, organizations like McKinsey, BCG, explicitly have called out this, this key, I don't want to call it roll. I don't want to call it accountable this thing. As part of digital transformation, and becoming more digital, are you seeing the same Sam,

Sam Falco  21:32  
I'm seeing a lot of the talk. And so here's here's where I struggle, where when someone says a term that I think I know what they mean, that I need to stop and find out the map is not the territory is a familiar phrase for many people. And just because they say product owner doesn't mean they mean, the product owner as it is in Scrum. And so when you see that language, or you hear that language, you have to be careful and start asking questions about what does that look like? What does that mean? And in some instances, I have seen people talk about, we want to do product discovery, but what they really mean is they're going to analyze this to death for several months or longer, they're going to hand a massive product backlog to a scrum team and say here digest this, which is not necessarily effective, say the least.

Dave West  22:36  
Yeah. And ultimately, the constraint is where that product owner lives inside in a value stream around delivering product, right? You know, and you know, in some organizations as a project, a program manager or product manager, that's basically defining the backlogs and then handing it over to a product owner to work with the team to implement. And then there's some situations where, you know, there's, that's, that really is an empowered person that takes ownership of some part of a, you know, business process or actually a whole product. And, and that's like, so it really depends. So, So context is everything, Sam, is that what you're saying?

Sam Falco  23:22  
I think context is everything being open to hearing what other people are saying, and not assuming that you have the same understanding, just because you're using the same words in much the same way that teams who are handed a requirement implement something entirely different than what the requester wanted. If they don't have the conversation, we can certainly get ourselves into trouble by just assuming that ah, we said the same thing. So we mean the same thing. Yeah.

Dave West  23:55  
And I think that so I guess words of advice to anybody listening that's currently maybe going for a product owner job applying, ask a few more questions about what they think a product owner is the hiring manager or the you know, interviewers? Because I that might, that might highlight the fact that it isn't the job that you think it should be. And that's an interesting can uncover an interesting set of challenges. Yes.

Sam Falco  24:26  
And I think other questions you might ask are, how do you know the products that you're delivering now are valuable? How are you measuring that? And they may not know they may not have those answers, and that's, that is not necessarily a red flag. But you want to follow that up with here are some things that I might do or are you open to? How are you open to measuring that value? If you hear language that says, Well, we know it's valuable because the executives who sponsored this saves valuable Well, that's, that's definitely a red flag. If you hear well, we're making the assumption, but we hadn't really considered that well, then you've got a an opening to have a deeper conversation.

Dave West  25:14  
Yeah, the validation element of the three V's of product ownership is something that many organizations aren't particularly good at, even dare I say, isn't, you know, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying. But it is, it is hard to really validate every time I uncover data, it, it highlights the fact that there's so much more to uncover. But

Sam Falco  25:42  
it can be painful, and someone may not be expecting that. I don't want to veer off too far off topic. But when I have worked with some leaders to sort of map out how do we know the value, they quickly have gotten frustrated? Because I'm asking them questions they don't have the answer to and they're used to having the answers because that's how they got in their position. And so there's then it's not resistance in the sense that you hear about in the consulting world, but just sort of mental block against going any farther. They're protecting their their self image. And so again, as a product owner, you have to be able to work with folks to understand that sort of thing saying with a scrum master. So we got more listening more listening is really important, and eliciting the kinds of conversations you want to have saying in an interview, or once you get in Laurel.

Dave West  26:40  
Excellent. Well, we could talk about this all day, and probably longer, which is a little worrying for anybody that's sitting next to us. But it's been a super interesting conversation. You know, in terms of some takeaways that I you know, that accountabilities aren't job titles, however, they often influence job titles. So even if people aren't advertising for scrum master or product owner, or even if they are made sure you look at exactly the detail, the devil is in the detail. Context is everything, the demise of the scrum master is a much hyped thing, and isn't isn't the reality, from what from what we're seeing. However, in larger organizations, maybe the job title is disappearing, which then you have to ask where are those accountabilities going to be covered, are they going to be covered, it sounds like a set of accountability that every organization needs. And then ultimately, you know, concentrate on, if you're a scrum master, concentrate on helping the team, the organization, the product owner, deliver the most, the most effective possible. And if you're a product owner, think about value. Think about vision value, and validation over and over again, I think to add some

Sam Falco  28:01  
just that I think that the actual essay, the focus really should not start with T. Let's start with the organization, the team only exists to deliver something for the organization. So if you're focused on making the team effective, you have to have your eyes much broader than the team to understand what the organization needs and why this team exists in the organization in the first place. And I think that gets lost, we get so focused on the tactical team level stuff, we forget that there's an entire strategic battle to

Dave West  28:37  
take be fine. Yeah, and then that's an interesting point, though, obviously, if you're applying for a position, they may not realize that so, yes, you know, it could be a fruitless journey that you're on, or it could be an opportunity to educate them, and an opportunity to influence them from the inside out. Sam, thank you so much for spending the time I and I know it's lovely weather at the moment in Florida. So I'm glad that you came in out of the garden to talk to us. I'm in the Northeast. So you know, that's where else would I be? But I really do appreciate your insights.

Sam Falco  29:18  
lovely to be here.

Dave West  29:21  
So everybody, thanks for listening today's podcast Community podcasts. How is your host Dave West, I was fortunate enough to get one of our professional scrum trainers, Sam Falco, here to talk a little bit about that thorny topic of job titles, accountabilities and how they hinder or maybe help the progress of Agile and Scrum. If you liked what you heard today. Please subscribe, share with your friends and of course, come back and listen to some more. I am very lucky because I get the opportunity to have a variety of guests and talk to them. Listen to them. Hopefully. I and they can be talking about anything in the areas of professional Scrum Product product thinking and of course, agility. Thank you everybody scrum


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