Good Scrum Master/Bad Scrum Master

David Pereira
David Pereira
Product Leader, Content Creator, Speaker
Posted on
Aug 22, 2022
Updated on
Apr 23, 2023
Table of Content

What does it take to become a Scrum Master? I would say it takes a lot of thick skin, experience, and humility to master this role. However, the market’s definition of ‘fit’ for Scrum Masters scares me.

Most companies won’t hire someone who is not Scrum Master-certified. And the certificate itself is a massive trap: Anyone can get certified without understanding how to be a Scrum Master. For example, Scrum Alliance will certify you as a Scrum Master after a two-day training session, and will give you the badge after scoring 85% on an online exam. Does that mean you’re ready to do the job? Many companies would say yes, and I’d say no.

Certificates may help you understand Scrum’s basics, but won’t prepare you for the job.

Unfortunately, a flawed perception of a Scrum Master’s role will ensure many companies will never surpass a pointless version of Scrum. The challenge is that such companies are the ones that particularly need Scrum Masters because they need help making the shift to a truly Agile world. If luck isn’t on their side, they will end up hiring a Scrum Master not who is ready for the job, and relying on luck is a bad business strategy.

Let me share common Scrum Masters traps and what it takes to succeed in this role.

Bad Scrum Masters

If you’d ask ten companies what a Scrum Master is, you’d probably get ten different answers. And if you’d ask ten employees of the same company, you’d potentially get ten different answers, too. That makes it incredibly hard to find Scrum Masters because these people should master the role and help the organization understand what Scrum is and how to excel in it.

What puzzles me is how people get into the role of a Scrum Master. Some common ways are:

  • Project Manager: As companies move to Agile frameworks, fewer positions are left for Project Managers, who in turn feel a need to find an alternative career path. Scrum Master generally becomes an exciting option. 
  • Certification: People realize the high number of open positions for Scrum Masters and get certified in hopes of getting a job. And believe me, they will get a place because companies like badges.
  • Fresh from college: Some companies perceive the Scrum Master as a junior position for their teams, as they run “well” and just need someone to keep the Scrum events and facilitate retrospectives. This is a job that inexperienced people could do, and companies will welcome fresh meat straight from college.

Before I share my thoughts about it, let’s look at the Scrum Guide and understand what the Scrum Master is:

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.

I wonder how someone inexperienced will be able to live up to these expectations. How can you help someone understand something you have never practiced? How can you convince stubborn stakeholders to get accustomed to new ways of working? 

I think I don’t need to state the obvious, but just in case:

Getting the wrong Scrum Master ensures no meaningful change will happen. And Scrum teams won’t go farther than feature factory teams.

Good Scrum Masters

I’ve had a few chances to work with outstanding Scrum Masters, and I could understand their impact on the company. Before working with such professionals, I had a different image of Scrum Masters; I thought they would help teams grow and benefit from Scrum. Although this understanding is correct, the role goes beyond that. 

Good Scrum Masters can help companies transform their work and help stakeholders be open to different approaches. In short, they pave the way for a transformation to happen. This is critical when you want to enable companies to become Agile, but it is also highly demanding, stressful, and complex.

I must be honest—It took me years to understand the importance of Scrum Masters. I used to think most teams wouldn’t need someone to facilitate sessions and schedule meetings. Well, I obviously missed the point. I want to share some examples of what true Scrum Masters can do:

  • Buy-in from Leadership: Good Scrum Masters know how to understand companies’ leadership and find the right words to get their support. They meet the leadership team where they are and show how Scrum can help the organization grow.
  • Business Stakeholder: Scrum Masters continuously coach stakeholders to learn how to collaborate with Scrum teams, help them see what’s helpful and what’s not. When Scrum Masters dominate the art of giving and receiving feedback, they help stakeholders and teams grow together.
  • Product Owner: There’s a natural tension between Product Owners and Scrum Masters: one wants the team to deliver more, and the other wants a sustainable balance. Great Scrum Masters can help Product Owners build psychological safety within Scrum teams, ultimately generating outstanding results. On top of that, when they learn how to become partners in crime, everybody wins.
  • Solving Conflicts: Helping teams grow is demanding. It goes beyond doing what they want; it’s about solving unspoken conflicts. Scrum Masters must identify what keeps teams from growing and find meaningful ways of helping them progress. Solving conflicts isn’t just essential, it’s mandatory when you wish to unlock the teams’ potential.
  • Agile Journey: There’s no shortcut to becoming Agile. It’s a journey. It will take years to be a truly Agile organization. Real Scrum Masters know that and take leaders, stakeholders, and Scrum teams on a journey. They meet them just a step ahead and help them move, one foot after the other, towards true agility.

Becoming a true Scrum Master takes years. Give yourself time for that. One of the secrets is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. To stand out as a Scrum Master, you must master the art of helping people reflect and understand. It’s not about giving answers or directions—it’s about finding powerful questions to ask.

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” ― Claude Levi-Strauss

Final Thoughts

Scrum Master is a complex job, and almost everyone misunderstands it. People will be resistant to this role. They may think it’s unnecessary and pointless, and it’s precisely at that point that they need you the most.

I would even dare say Scrum Master is a despised role. People won’t welcome you with open arms. On the contrary: they will ignore you and try to push you away from them. Overcoming resistance is mandatory if you want to thrive wearing this hat.

Before you sign up for a Scrum Master role, you better know what it takes to succeed. I genuinely admire people who take up this responsibility, and I’m glad I met great ones during my journey. My tip for those longing for a Scrum Master role: 

Understanding the job goes way beyond Scrum. It’s about transforming how people think and drastically adapting their mental models.

Get a mentor who has already led teams on Agile transformation and learn from them. If possible, work with them and get hands-on practice. This will help you develop the skills required to overcome the inevitable traps.

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

About the author

David Pereira
Product Leader, Content Creator, Speaker

Product Leader with 15+ years of experience. Currently located in Munich, Germany and striving to help companies create value faster. I'm a Partner at Value Rebels and Interim Chief Product Officer at omoqo. My passion is helping product teams overcome their challenges and deliver REAL value faster. Almost every product team is trapped somehow, untrapping them is what drives me.

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