Networking is powerful and inspiring. Every week I exchange with people from all over the world. It fascinates me to learn from different perspectives. A couple of days ago, I received a message from a hiring manager who was struggling to find Scrum Master candidates and asked for my help. Our conversation went like this:
Hiring Manager: “David, I wonder if you could help me identify why we are struggling to find candidates for our Scrum Master positions. As you’re quite active in this community, maybe you could give me some hints.”
Me: “Sure. What challenges do you have?”
Hiring Manager: “We receive too few applicants. And we need to speed up our process. Our current Scrum Master isn’t matching our expectations.”
Me: “I see. Please, help me understand your expectations.”
Hiring Manager: “Well, nothing special, just market standards. We expect a Scrum Master to help the team continuously increase velocity, plan releases, manage scope, budget, coach stakeholders, and so on.”
Me: “Hum. How long have you been working with Scrum?”
Hiring Manager: “We started the journey two years ago. Previously we were pretty much making a waterfall approach. Then we took our Project Managers, got them certified as Scrum Masters, and got our Business Analysts certified as Product Owners. Pretty simple. The beauty of Scrum is learning it all in two days of training. The implementation cost us little money, and we’re already up to speed.”
Me: “Thanks for sharing. I can understand why you don’t get candidates and why you’re unhappy with your Scrum Master. Unfortunately, my answer will not please you, but I can give you my perspective if you’re open to that.”
After this conversation, I wondered, “Do I have a deja vu? I’ve already been there, done that, and gotten several t-shirts.” I’ve been part of some Agile transformations and learned the hard way what leads to a transformation and what leads to more or less the same in a different way. And that’s what I felt after this conversation.
It astonishes me how companies misunderstand the role of Scrum Master. The first time I had a conversation like this was in 2014. Eight years later, I still find myself in similar exchanges. Why does that happen?
Companies do not want to do Scrum. They want to speed up the delivery process. All they want is more features.
Let me share what blocks companies from hiring outstanding Scrum Masters.
What’s Not a Scrum Master
Sadly, companies often have a flawed understanding of all Scrum roles. Also, they tend to perceive Scrum as a delivery process, which will ensure that teams will ultimately end up trapped in a feature factory anti-pattern. If you want to hire a great Scrum Master, you should first understand what this role is not.
The following are common misinterpretations of the Scrum Master role:
- Delivery Manager: Planning releases, time to market, scope, and related topics have nothing to do with a Scrum Master’s responsibilities.
- Speed Maximizer: Ensuring the Scrum team increases velocity is a massive anti-pattern. More speed will never guarantee more value. Bad Scrum teams focus on the output while great Scrum teams focus on the outcome.
- GateKeeper: Bridging communication between business and developers is another anti-pattern. Scrum Masters shouldn’t block stakeholders from talking to developers, but should instead coach when having relevant conversations to reach Sprint Goals and Product Goals.
- Project Manager: It’s not about keeping three constraints intact: time, scope, and budget. Scrum Masters are not responsible for any of these.
- Psychologist: Providing therapy for Scrum members isn’t the responsibility of Scrum Masters. Coaching teams to advance with Scrum should be the goal, not having therapy sessions with team members.
- Secretary: Doing administrative work for the Scrum team is totally unrelated to the Scrum Master role. Some developers think Scrum Masters are responsible for scheduling meetings, getting resources for the team, etc. That’s another faulty understanding of this role.
Until companies understand the Scrum Master role, they will limit their potential.
What’s a Scrum Master
To understand the Scrum Master role, let’s have a look at what the Scrum Guide says:
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. The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.
The definition seems straightforward, but people tend to interpret it the way they see fit. For example, “accountable for teams’ effectiveness” doesn’t mean increasing speed, but companies like it more this way. I am not dogmatic about how companies implement Scrum, but the essence should remain unchangeable. Here are the characteristics I look for in great Scrum Masters:
- Meet the team one step ahead of them: Each Scrum team has a different maturity level. Experienced Scrum Masters strive to understand where the team is, then help them advance step by step.
- Ask questions instead of giving answers: Unexperienced Scrum Masters try to solve the Scrum team’s problems for them. Meanwhile, experienced Scrum Masters will ask questions that help the team figure out how to address their issues.
- Strong communication: I have never seen any Scrum Master succeed via dogmatism. Great Scrum Masters know how to escape the curse of knowledge; they empathize with their audience and find suitable forms of communication to help them evolve their Scrum knowledge and be open to trying different things. It’s unhelpful being dogmatic and assertive on how Scrum works.
- Great observer: To help the Scrum team advance, the Scrum Master should read the atmosphere and name the conflicts. The Scrum Master should help the Scrum team see what they do not notice and then make sure that they address their conflicts to become a stronger team.
Great Scrum Master can help ordinary teams become high-performing ones.
Why Companies Fail to Hire Scrum Masters
Coming back to the story I started this article with: Companies fail to hire Scrum Masters because they are actually not searching for Scrum Masters; they are not even doing Scrum. When the hiring manager told me how they implemented Scrum, it became obvious they treated it solely as a delivery framework; they missed the mark.
You cannot benefit from Scrum if you are unwilling to change your old patterns. Let me help you understand what I mean by old patterns versus Agile mindset:
- Micromanaging vs. empower teams
- Delivering on time vs. creating value
- Setting a plan vs. embracing the unknown
- Avoiding failure vs. increasing learning
Most companies I know want to benefit from what Scrum promises, but long for fast results. They want to be Agile and create value sooner. However, they are reluctant to make the necessary changes to get to the promised land. It’s like a cousin of mine who dreamed of being a football player but didn’t want to do what it takes to evolve into a professional. The journey was too painful for him, so he decided to play it only for fun. That’s what I think companies are doing; they plan Scrum only for fun.
If you want to get where most companies don’t get, you should do what they don’t do.
What I miss is companies doing a reality check. Sometimes I wonder if hiring managers are honest with themselves. When they say they are Agile and master Scrum, are they really serious about it? Reality can hurt if we take a closer look at it, yet it can help us evolve. I don’t expect all companies to master Agile, but I expect them to be realistic with their situation.
The beauty of being honest is that this can attract suitable candidates. Let me reveal how my conversation with the hiring manager unfolded.
Hiring Manager: “Yes, David. Please share your perspective with us. I need guidance.”
David: “I will try to make it short. Based on what you shared, you have low maturity with Scrum. You’re adapting the framework to what you are used to. Your Scrum Masters are Project Managers. And your expectations from Scrum Masters are unrelated to the role itself.”
Hiring Manager: “Hum. It seems we got it all wrong. I thought it was too easy to be true. What should we do?”
David: “Well, I cannot tell you what you should do, but I can tell you many Scrum Masters would love to take on this challenge if you’re open to change. Many professionals would be highly motivated to help you with this transformation, but only if they’d be empowered to do it.”
Hiring Manager: “That’s the challenge. Management wants results, and we implemented Scrum to ensure we deliver more.”
David: “More output doesn’t mean more money in the bank. I know management cares about financial results, but it’s about finding the right thing to do instead of doing more things nobody cares about. It’s simple: if you want to be Agile, you need to be open to a transformational journey. It will take a while, but you won’t regret it once you get there.”
Hiring Manager: “I guess I will need to be bold and start doing things differently.”
Scrum Masters cannot be accountable for output. Although they will indirectly contribute to it, that should not be their focus. A critical factor in getting a great Scrum Master is to empower them to do their job and give them space. Patience is key to success with Scrum.
The business pace is getting more frenetic every day , but we cannot forget that we are only human and things take time to happen. Slowing down is often better than speeding up. Consistency beats talent. Give the team space to evolve, and you will be surprised by what they can achieve. We have many examples in the world, like Leicester FC who surprised the world in 2017 when they won the Premier League; they didn’t have the best players, but they were the best team.
Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships - Michael Jordan