Do You Need a Scrum Master? Why They May Be Holding Your Team Back

The Scrum Master - a mainstay in Agile culture, particularly Scrum. Heralded by consulting firms, conferred certificates by training academies - here's why you don't need a Scrum Master and why if you have one, they are hurting your agile efforts.

Are you really looking for project management?

Oftentimes, organizations optimizing for agility will repurpose their project management staff to Scrum Master roles. A project manager owns scope, people, and schedule. The "one throat to choke" suggested by Scrum would suggest that a project manager would make a great fit for a scrum master, but instead it runs counter to the idea that agility requires the abandonment of bureaucracy. Repurposing the project management organization to "run" the agile teams simply removes the agency from the teams to deliver value, instead focusing on productivity metrics (like story points).

The original goal of the scrum master role was to be a coach, ensuring that teams were having the right discussions around value and impediments to delivery. Good scrum masters/scrum coaches would often work with 3 or more teams in larger organizations. If your organization is assigning a scrum master per team - re-evaluate that person's role and responsibility to the team.

Some questions to ask about your full-time scrum master:

  • Are they the official meeting scheduler?
  • Do they spend their days tracking down documentation, keeping Jira updated, or chasing down product owners to get stories written?
  • Do they have deliverables to the organization outside of the deliverables of the team for the next milestone (sprint, deployment, etc.)?

If the answer is "yes" to these questions, try removing the scrum master title from the person's role for a while. Good agile teams need the room to self-organize so that they can build the confidence and independence to delivery on business objectives.

Are you really looking for a development/engineering manager?

Even the most productive self-organizing teams have a leader. Their technical titles may vary - senior developer, engineering lead, architect...but those titles don't matter. Servant leadership - leaders that are there to work for their teams and ensure their success, is a core pattern of agility.

Managers are not necessarily leaders. Management ascribes to more administrative functions. How are individuals performing? Are processes being followed? Are policies being strictly adhered to? While every organization needs some level of management, management has no role in agility. Taking an engineering lead who has responsibilities to ensuring software is developed correctly and provide feedback to HR on what degree of merit raises, bonuses, or promotions individual team members may have earned and adding on top of that the role of scrum coach is dangerous. Suddenly the coach has arbitrage authority that can distract the team from achieving the goals they had committed to pursue. Politics becomes a real risk as the coach's suggestions can be misconstrued as mandate.

Some questions to ask about your scrum coach/engineering lead:

  • Are you asking the leadership of the team to be accountable for the team's results independently of the team's mutual goals?
  • Does the engineering lead actively participate in delivering software, or do they spend most of their time auditing team deliverables?
  • Is the engineering lead focusing their time on the work their team needs to do, or are they responsible for "looking ahead" while the team is responsible for "looking down?"

If you have leadership that is more focused on management, then you are likely creating bottlenecks to delivering value faster. Teams that have to work through single points of failure for things like testing, code reviews, requirements gathering, etc. are more likely to run into trouble than teams that participate wholly in those exercises. If you are looking for a person to have singular responsibility for getting a team producing better work, consider the potential unintended consequences that having a single point of responsibility can have on your team's delivery speed.

Good agile coaches can be scrum masters, but not all scrum masters are agile coaches. An agile coach should be able to work with your whole organization (not just technology!) to identify ways that value can be delivered more effectively through better collaboration and communication. Bureaucracy is an agile anti-pattern, and if you have designated scrum masters that are effectively operational managers or process enforcement officers - your organization can realize better results if those people are removed out of the way of your agile teams. Likewise, even though there is always the allure of installing a "single throat to choke" - having people in pure management roles can also detract from agility efforts. To get the best results for your team, step back and let the natural leaders help their colleagues make their teams successful. As an executive or leader, your job is to do likewise for them.

Ryan Norris Ryan Norris

Ryan is the former Chief Product Officer at Medullan, CTO at Be the Partner, and CTO and General Manager at Vitals. He currently works as a fractional CTO offering strategy as a service to growth-stage companies in health care and education.

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