Scrum answered: Scrum Master

This episode of Scrum answered series is dedicated to the Scrum Master role.

Can I tell the team what to do?

A safe answer would be: no, you can’t. You can teach the team how Scrum works, what are Agile principles, what is the purpose of each Scrum element, what kind of values sit behind, but you should not order or dictate what they should do. Even if – after you explain to the team Agile principle or value – the team decides not to follow, you should allow them to do so.

Preventing the team from failing by telling them exactly what to do or how to behave can be a short-term remedy, but in long term it will slow down their learning process.

Having safe environment in which the team can make their own bad choices is one of the key points of inspect & adapt loop. What you should do is provide such environment and facilitate learning process. You can advise, share your own experience, help to understand what is happening, analyse data with the team, plan experiments to verify assumptions, but you definitely should not micromanage.

What should I do? It is organization that stops us…

First, you should not blame the organization.

As a Scrum Master you should work on three areas – Development Team, Product Owner and organization.

The third one is many times forgotten and treated as something given to the team. The truth is that organization and environment in which the team operates is also in your, Scrum Master, scope of responsibility. In cases where organization becomes a blocker for team’s effort, you should add a task to your To Do list and try to change it.

Unfortunately, it is common that companies implement Scrum inside development teams but forgot to change environment to support it. Scrum Master is a person who should point that out and push for more agility inside the whole organization. Mostly because no matter what framework the team picks to work with (Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming or any other), organizational boundaries can ruin the whole effort. Team experience will be like driving in a sports car inside traffic jam. It is your role to make sure that the team will be able to use 100% of their car.

Am I responsible for removing all impediments?

I’ve heard many Scrum Masters saying that their main responsibility is to remove impediments. But have you ever asked yourself what an impediment actually is? Let’s assume that a computer of one of the developers is down. Is it an impediment? Is it something you should take care of? I like to think that impediments are problems which are impossible to be resolved by the Dev Team members. In this case then, anyone (including Dev Team member) can go to IT helpdesk and ask for support or a new computer. Whenever a problem can be resolved by the Development Team, it is not an impediment – it is just a problem, an obstacle or an issue. As a Scrum Master you should facilitate such situations rather than work on them on your own. Moving on with the example, let’s assume that IT helpdesk responds that the computer will be ready in two days and by then the developer has no equipment to work on. That’s the impediment and something you should take care of. I had once such situation and I resolved it by giving my own laptop to the developer.

It is important to keep balance between helping the team and doing work for them.

The more problems they resolve on their own, the more experience they gain, and more self-organization is in place. The more work you take on your shoulders, the more dependent (from you) Dev Team will be.

How many teams good Scrum Master can handle?

A good Scrum Master – probably two teams. A great one, only one. For more details see Scrum Master dilemma.

Can I be Scrum Master and Dev Team Member simultaneously?

Yes, you can. But there will be a price paid in your objectiveness. For more details see Scrum Master dilemma.

What the Scrum Master actually does?

Once I’ve heard that Scrum Master should use three objects in his work:

  • A club – to smash people whenever they do not follow Scrum Values and core Scrum rules;
  • A mirror – to make the team look in it;
  • A pop-corn – to eat while observing the team;

It sounds funny, but these three items catch the core of the Scrum Masters role – passion in spreading Scrum and Agile practices inside the team and organization, ability to objectively observe and give feedback – so that the Team can better see how they really act or behave, and readiness to have time for everyone whenever they need. I strongly encourage you to read a really good description of a one day of life of a Scrum Master here.

Being Project Manager, can I also serve my team as a Scrum Master?

This is like asking: can I be both Dev Team member and Scrum Master, or Dev Team member and Product Owner?  Of course, you can, the question is are you ready to pay the price?

Project Manager and Scrum Master mostly have different goals and focus.

PM is focused on a project, while SM is focused on people doing the project.

There will also be different expectations towards these two roles – one will be assessed by the project success, and another by team and organization progress towards agility. PM’s responsibility is time limited to the project timeline, while SM responsibility is much broader, because it is linked with people development. Those can be the same (especially when the team is only formed for the duration of the project) but it’s not always the case.

I believe that PM position is much closer to Product Owner role than to a Scrum Master. Ultimately it is PM who is responsible for an outcome of the project, same the Product Owner is responsible for the value delivered. Most important things managed by PM like budget, scope and time are in Scrum in hands of Product Owner. It is PO’s responsibility to manage costs of the project and verify whether delivered value is worth money spent and whether delivered product hits the market in proper time.

If you want to implement Scrum within your organization, you should also replace old roles with new ones. There is no need to have PM in Scrum, this role was divided among Product Owner and Scrum Master and most of the PM tasks are on PO right now.

There still is a place for Managers, even in Agile organisations, but their role is different – instead of ordering people what to do, they just support people and remove organization boundaries which block teams from being more efficient.

You need to change your mindset to become a valuable Manager in Agile organization though. Start with changing your approach, and instead of adding new Scrum Master responsibilities to the PM role, switch role and become “just” a Scrum Master.

What is the difference between Scrum Master and Agile Coach?

Probably there will be as many answers to this question, as many organizations we have. There are some with extensive organizational hierarchy, having Junior Scrum Masters, ‘regular’ ones and Seniors, followed by the same three level Agile Coaches composition. There are also organizations with just a one position – Scrum Master. In most of the cases people believe that Agile Coach is something more than a Scrum Master.

My understanding is a bit different.

I believe that Scrum Master is a specialized Agile Coach, whose focus is Scrum framework.

As a Scrum Master you are responsible for working with your organization, so you need to have competencies of introducing changes on organizational level, understand roots of agility and its practices. Things that many people assigned to the Agile Coach role. On the other hand, you need to have deep understanding of Scrum framework, which is not required from an Agile Coach.

Some organizations assign Scrum Masters to two or three teams. Such Scrum Master have no time to work with organization (see Scrum Master dilemma), because he or she spends all his time on working with two or three Dev Teams and two or three Product Owners. If there is a need for implementing changes in organization then, there is no one who can take care of that. Next step then is to employ Agile Coach, who can drive such organizational changes. In such approach Scrum Masters responsibility becomes limited, because they are no longer responsible for the organization. They become only “team Scrum Masters” whose role is to support and implement changes lead by Agile Coaches.

Second approach, the one I prefer, is to have one Scrum Master per team. This leaves enough time for them to work with organization and apply agility outside of the Dev Team. In such organization there won’t be a need to have Agile Coaches, because it will be Scrum Masters who will drive organizational changes.

Any more questions? Please ask them in comments below.

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