In this post I will share my learnings on when it makes sense to have a dedicated Scrum Master and when it doesn’t.
Scrum is by far the most used agile framework in the world. It’s pretty simple to understand, though challenging to implement properly. Over the last years, I’ve worked for many companies and participated in several interviews, but one thing was clear:
Companies often transform Scrum into something slightly different from its original intent.
Executives have a hard time understanding what Scrum is about. Many people perceive Scrum as a set of roles, events, and artifacts. They miss the mindset behind doing Scrum. If organizations do Scrum with the traditional waterfall mindset, Scrum will be nothing more than a flawed process.
One pattern I identified was working with Scrum without a dedicated Scrum Master. Although it may seem odd at first glance, it might make sense depending on your scenario and team seniority.
Does it make sense to have a dedicated Scrum Master?
Before we can understand if it makes sense to have a dedicated Scrum Master or not, we should clarify what a Scrum Master is.
Now and then, I read wanted ads for the position of Scrum Master, and they often have nothing to do with the role itself; this strikes me as odd. Even companies willing to hire a Scrum Master don’t comprehend the meaning of the role. A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon this ad for the Scrum Master position at a major German company:
- In your role as a Scrum Master, you organize a Scrum Team with a strong focus on customer success, you will continuously develop your skills and increase your knowledge regarding business processes and technology.
- You represent the scrum team and organize scrum related sessions.
- You support a holistic testing approach including automated and manual tests.
- You ensure quality with appropriate KPIs and follow-up activities like root cause analysis.
- You contribute as a Single Point of Contact in cross-functional teams for Release Management, Test Management, and other teams like cutover or hyper care.
- You plan, manage, and maintain the scope, timelines, and respective progress for the increments in your role.
When I read this ad, I wondered: is the Scrum Master now responsible for the scope and timeline? Is the Scrum Master accountable for quality? Should the Scrum Master also set KPIs? From my understanding, these are not the responsibilities of a Scrum Master.
Until companies understand what Scrum is about, they will not succeed with Scrum.
To better understand the Scrum Master role, let’s look at what the Scrum Guide says about the role of the Scrum Master. In bold is the essential part.
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.
As you can see, the Scrum Master is accountable for helping the team and organization understand and benefit from Scrum. However, the Scrum Master is a role, and it doesn’t mean a dedicated person must play it. That’s why the organization can decide which strategy to follow.
Immature teams and organizations should beg for a Scrum Master
Many teams believe they don’t need a Scrum Master because they perceive themselves as a self-organizing team. Such teams think they have already reached their highest potential. Therefore, a Scrum Master seems incapable of adding value to them.
I’ve heard harsh statements from Product Owners and developers during my journey. Some examples are:
- Scrum Master is the most useless role ever.
- We don’t need a babysitter to take care of us.
- Our Scrum Master only slows us down.
Such claims come from immature teams; they over evaluate themselves and become arrogant. From my experience, when Scrum Teams have such an attitude, they potentially need a dedicated Scrum Master. Allow me to share with you what I’ve experienced with such teams.
Executives define unrealistic roadmaps. As a result, business stakeholders pressure developers to deliver more features. Without proper arguments, developers bow to the pressure and rush to provide those features. Given the pressure, developers cut corners and then got surprised with bugs. Suddenly they become firefighters; every day is a new fire to take care of.
The Scrum Team is now trapped; they look like a dog chasing its tail.
Sprint after Sprint, the Scrum Team does not become a better version of itself. They have no time to stop and reflect because they have a lot on their plate. They feel like they are in a vicious circle. Scrum’s pillars slowly drift away; at some point in time, nobody remembers what inspection, adaption, and transparency mean. Still, the team believes they are doing Scrum.
Stakeholders are disappointed because they don’t get what they need. Executives are annoyed because business goals seem unachievable. They are clueless as to what is happening within the team. Yet, these people do not put any effort into collaborating with the developers. They don’t go to the Sprint Review. They don’t provide feedback. But they still think they are doing Scrum.
Such teams need a dedicated Scrum Master. The reasons are simple: the team lacks the maturity to function autonomously. Also, stakeholders misunderstand how to benefit from Scrum. Instead of collaborating, they treat the team as a service provider. In such situations, the person wearing the Scrum Master hat would have a massive challenge ahead of them. From my experience, overcoming such challenges is a full time job, and I therefore cannot see a shared Scrum Master working well. With low maturity, focus is critical to identify the necessary measures to evolve with Agile.
In mature teams a Scrum Master is "nice to have"
Imagine a situation where the organization was born with an Agile mindset. The CEO had a clear vision and then hired people to go on a mission. The Scrum Team has worked together for years now; they have a profitable product on the market. Sprint after Sprint, the team reaches their Sprint Goal and creates value for their users and business.
My question for you is, would this team need a dedicated Scrum Master?
In a scenario where both the organization and team are mature, a dedicated Scrum Master becomes optional. Remember that Scrum Master isn’t strictly a person but a role, and someone else from the team could take this responsibility. Believe it or not, I’ve seen that play out quite well. Here are some examples:
Rotative Scrum Master
Every second Sprint, a new team member plays the role of Scrum Master. This person has to live the Scrum Master accountabilities entirely in combination with their other responsibilities, e.g., development or product ownership.
Product Owner and Scrum Master together
This is a challenging combination, and it requires substantial maturity from the person. In general, there’s a conflict of interest from both roles: Product Owners long for more outcomes, while Scrum Masters focus on balance. Yet, this combination can work if the person is senior enough to separate both worlds.
Developer and Scrum Master together
An experienced developer can be a great Scrum Master. This combination tends to work well because the conflict of interests is negligible compared to the Product Owner.
I want to emphasize that when a person takes on combined roles, it requires a high level of seniority. Also, the environment needs to contribute to agility. Otherwise, that person will quickly become overwhelmed, and Scrum will plunge.
In my opinion, it’s optional to have a dedicated Scrum Master. However, this decision needs to be mindfully done. A poor decision will lead to a suboptimal version of Scrum.
It requires tremendous effort, time, and mindset changing to reach what Scrum promises. That’s why an honest maturity evaluation will help you understand whether you need a dedicated Scrum Master or not.
Scrum isn’t about following the rules, it’s about creating value sooner. High-performing teams use Scrum to help them evolve as a team and create value. They don’t get obsessed with rules and dogmas; they get obsessed with making progress.
How to become a Scrum Master
Officially becoming a Scrum Master is not overly difficult. There’s an array of different courses you can take that will give you the certification of Scrum Master based on an exam of Scrum principles and key terms. However, these tests are not what ‘makes you a Scrum Master.’ Your experience leading teams in the field, facing real-world problems and challenges is what will really make you a Scrum Master. This is why getting experience is vital, not only attaining a certification; you will learn best by doing!
What is Scrum Master certification?
A Scrum Master certification is the result of taking a Scrum Master course and passing through the necessary grades. The certification is a sign that you understand the basic principles and the underlying concepts of Scrum. This acts as a positive signal when applying for Scrum Master positions, and can often help you achieve a higher salary. The exams are time-sensitive, and will require you to attain a minimum score of ~85% within the given time to formally pass the exam. Taking the exam can also come at a cost, ranging from $50-2,000 depending on the certifier.
There are many Scrum certifications to choose from, including courses on: Scrum.org, Scaled Agile, Project Management Institute, Scrum Inc, Scrum Alliance and Coursera.
What is difference between Scrum Master and Business Analyst?
A Scrum Master’s role is to coach the team to work with the Scrum framework as best as possible. This means to teach the Scrum team how to become autonomous, self-managing and self-governing. A Business Analyst’s role is to focus on supporting and validating the business as a whole. This means to scope the business-area, identify solutions, propose solutions and validate solutions.
The difference between the two roles is that jurisdiction of a Business Analyst ends with the Scrum Team - they do not tell the Scrum Team how to work or what to work on. Similarly, a Scrum Master will not dictate the direction the company should go in, or find solutions to problems. The Scrum Master stays with the Scrum Team teaching them how to adapt and work by themselves on tasks given to them by the Product Owner.
What are two behaviors of an effective Scrum Master?
Effective scrum masters help the team with solving conflicts. The team will always face conflicts, this is the nature of dealing with motivated and passionate people. However, an effective Scrum Master will always find the best path forward if there is an issue. They will do this by listening carefully to all parties involved, and assist the group in finding the best solution for itself.
A second behavior of an effective Scrum Master is spending time coaching the team. Effective Scrum Masters always will coach their team to correctly use the Agile principles, so that they can work for themselves without constant oversight and micro-management. Scrum Masters should always keep the Agile principles in the minds of their team members, and use teachable moments as best they can.
When estimating stories what is the Scrum Master's key responsibility?
When estimating stories, the Scrum Master’s responsibility is to help break down the story into manageable chunks for the team. They will do this by engaging in root cause analysis - essentially asking “why” until you get to the root of the task.
Can Product Owner be Scrum Master?
Because a Product Owner shares similar responsibilities with a Scrum Master, it’s reasonable to assume that the two positions can be absorbed by one person. However, the expert opinion is that the Product Owner should remain focused on the needs of the business and customers while the Scrum Master stays with the Scrum to coach them on the agile process.
If the Scrum Master and Product Owner are one in the same, a conflict of interest may arise as they try to hold on to both roles. The conflict can come from the different motivations of the two roles, for example the Product Owner might want to push for features that are beneficial for the stakeholders despite not being what the team has decided is best. Failure to listen to the team in this case can disrupt the Scrum process and impede the team from creating value.
Furthermore, the Scrum Master requires a different set of skills to the Product Owner. The Scrum Master needs a deep knowledge of Agile processes and how they can be best applied to help the team achieve its goals. Whereas the Product Owner needs to have a holistic understanding of the business and what features will be most beneficial to the end-customer.
How long does it take to become a Scrum Master?
Formal Scrum Master certifications usually take anywhere up to 2 days to complete, including the course then the subsequent exam. However, the experience needed to become a true Scrum Master can take years to collect. You’ll need to be in a wide range of situations to master all of the techniques and tools that a Scrum Master needs. In reality, a Scrum Master always looks to improve their own processes and ways of working so in effect they are never truly ‘finished’ becoming a Scrum Master.
Does a Scrum Master write code?
Not necessarily, but they can. The Scrum Master is a role given to the person who will assist the team in working with the Scrum principles to produce value. Understanding the principles of Scrum like the back of your hand does not require a knowledge of coding. Behaviors that would work as a developer actually won’t work as a Scrum Master so it’s usually a good idea for a Scrum Master not to be involved in the code of a project.
How does Scrum Master remove impediments
The steps a Scrum Master takes to remove impediments (blockers) are frame-worked, but can be used to fit any situation or impediment. The Scrum Master should rely on these questions to ask when faced with a impediment:
- Is there a true impediment here that needs outside support to fix, or can the team find a solution by themselves?
- Is the impediment worth removing?
- Is there an underlying problem that caused the impediment to occur?
These questions will help the Scrum Master gauge how involved to be in the reaction to the impediment but also if the impediment is the surface level problem to a deeper issue within the team.
Once understood, the Scrum Master should act quickly - don’t wait for a Scrum Event or meeting to talk about an impediment, get started identifying and fixing the problem ASAP. When deliberating whether or not this problem classifies as “impediment” ask yourself the following: ‘Does it hinder the team from reaching the sprint goal?’ If the answer is yes, it’s an impediment and should be handled quickly. If the answer is no, your role is to guide the team to create a solution for themselves. As a Scrum Master you should also talk with the Product Owner to align about impediments because the root of many problems can often come from the lines of communication between stakeholders and the team. It’s also advisable to keep track of your impediments on your Scrum Board so everyone can visualize the rate and status of impediments. Keeping track of them also makes them easier to bring up in retrospective or review meetings.