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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Is a ScrumMaster of Any Value?

Is a ScrumMaster of Any Value? post image

Tobias Mayer, who I respect very much, recently put his thoughts about ScrumMasters into a blog post. The post that can be summarized best by its title: Delete [ScrumMasters]. The strongest point of the post goes as follows:

“I believe the concept of ScrumMaster has done more damage to our industry than it has aided in change. It has been a way for individuals and organizations to jump on the Agile band wagon, in a mostly painless way (discounting severe certification costs) and continue to do much as they were doing before.”

It isn’t a surprise for me that the post gained a lot of traction. Many experienced leaders in our community have quickly supported Tobias’ crusade.

I haven’t.

I agree with vast majority of what Tobias has written. I like the diagnosis he makes. I even believe we should be told such things by our thought-leaders. Yet I don’t jump on the bandwagon of spreading the epiphany: we don’t need ScrumMasters anymore.

One of stories that instantly pops into my head whenever I hear about the role of ScrumMaster is the one John Cieslik-Bridgen, who used to be a ScrumMaster at Lunar Logic, shared with me once:

“We were doing a “design your ideal team” exercise. In this exercise, I liked the fact that I wasn’t referred to as a ScrumMaster, rather ‘a John’, as in, “we’ll need ‘a John’”. I think the use of the word “coach” much better reflects what I try to do.”

On a side note: I’d love to have “a John” as a title on my business card someday. After all, many teams need a John.

By this point you may wonder, which part of Tobias’ post I haven’t understood, as the story is totally aligned with the article. Well, I have understood the post. John’s story, however, is just one side of the coin.

The other is that few organizations are mature enough to hire, or promote, a John. Conversely, many companies lose their Johns, these great coaches and counselors, because they don’t have a named place for them. What’s more, organizations often need some kind of framework to even allow a role of a John. This framework very often happens to be Scrum and the role is called ScrumMaster.

I don’t say it is a magic pill that solves every problem in an organization. I just say this step is often very helpful in moving to the next level for both the org and for a John.

And yes, I can think of other, arguably better, means to an end of organizational and personal improvement, but I find this one working surprisingly often. To quote Tobias once more: “Sorry guys, it’s what I see.”

I actually see much value if a John blossoms and eventually leaves the organization because it just scratches the surface and doesn’t really introduce agile values. At the end of the day we still have one more great guy on the job market.

While I agree with the argument that the ScrumMaster role is often abused and I don’t really like how it is defined, I still consider it one of the valuable options for organizations. The option that may end in preservation of status quo, but also in creating a space for people who will take the org to the next level.

Does it mean we should throw away the role as a whole? Well, in mature organizations, where there is a good understanding of the reasons that ScrumMasters were introduced and what they are supposed to do, I see no reason to cultivate the role or the title.

On the other hand I still see the ScrumMaster role as a tool that can create space for change agents (I hate this name too) and catalyze improvements. After all, would there be a John without a ScrumMaster first?

Have I just written a post in defense of the ScrumMaster role? Oh well…

in: software business

13 comments… add one

  • Matt Block September 13, 2012, 5:40 pm

    Great summary and response Pawel. Pretty much my thoughts exactly. Just because something is being abused and done incorrectly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We should find ways to do it correctly. Maybe we, as an agile coaching community, aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining this role and expressing the value it brings? I definitely agree that companies that are abusing this role very likely don’t understand the value of “a John” or have a good place in the organization for these valuable individuals.

  • mark neumann September 13, 2012, 9:57 pm

    The word “master” is relevant here. Why not scrum “coach”?

  • Andrej September 15, 2012, 3:00 am

    I think you missed the whole point of his post, he says that vast majority of scrum masters are doing it _wrong_ and it must be changed asap. I see his post as way to address the issue and get some attention to it. So I would suggest to look critically at existing scrum masters

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 15, 2012, 9:48 am

    @Mark – I agree that wording isn’t best when it comes to ScrumMasters but it is what it is. The name is meaningful for many people. At the same time what is a ScrumCoach? Can I get a coherent definition? Didn’t think so.

    Maybe it should have been ScrumCoach in the first place but we won’t change this – it’s already several years later.

    I choose not to complain about naming and try to make use of what we have, as I see value in it.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 15, 2012, 9:54 am

    @Andrej – Does removing or changing the name ScrumMaster automatically affects they way people fulfill the role? I mean, really? The definition of the role is kinda good. Given that people abuse it now, we can expect they will be doing it even if we adjust the definition or change its name and we’re back to square one.

    So while I agree that we should put more attention to people abusing or misusing Scrum (or specifically the ScrumMaster role) I don’t think deleting ScrumMasters really moves us forward in this pursuit.

    I haven’t missed the Tobias’ point. I just don’t agree on mean he proposes.

  • mark neumann September 15, 2012, 12:56 pm

    I apologize for my simplistic suggestion. Guess that term has always bugged me.
    Noun: 1) A man who has people working for him, esp. servants or slaves. … Synonyms: noun. lord – boss – teacher – owner – maestro

    I think most of the conversation agrees there is often a problem with the way the role is implemented. It does provide a possible safe haven for people whose jobs are threatened by self-forming teams or managers still held accountable by the larger organization for well defined deliverables on a well defined schedule.

    Maybe the discussion should be about why the role is being abused.

  • Tobias Mayer September 16, 2012, 10:53 am

    Thanks for the reference, but “Tobias’ crusade”? Hardly.

    In fact, the role name is of little interest to me. The point is, the role was designed to ‘shield the team’, ‘remove impediments’, ‘manage the process’, and ‘ensure that the team is fully functional and productive’. I argue that by placing a person in that role (call it what you will) is detrimental to personal responsibility, and thus to real change. This is not necessarily through any fault of the individual in that role, but through allowing the corporate curse of complacency and dependency to go unchallenged.

    The problem I see is too many people in the role of “leader” of one kind or another, and too many others mindlessly following. The ScrumMaster title is a great setup for this dysfunction. Sure, some work with it, or around it and do a great job, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confront the 95% bullshit implementations of Scrum. Starting with telling the truth about that role may help. But again, the name itself is just a red herring. I’ve been a ScrumMaster, happily, and I would be fine with being called that again. If the work I do is truly meaningful, the title is irrelevant.

    The key phrase in my Delete [Scrummasters] post was this:
    //If you are a ScrumMaster, evaluate your worth. Dig deeper into why you do what you do. Are you truly serving the goal of profound change? Are you rocking the system, making yourself vulnerable, or are you just putting on a new, cool hat while continuing to comply with the status quo?//

    Personal responsibility. Citizenship. I wrote more about that here: http://bit.ly/Sriv9g

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 16, 2012, 1:13 pm

    @Tobias – The crusade was just me trying to be funny. Wrote that with a tongue in my cheek.

    When I go through Scrum teams I know, one thing strikes me: those that were doing great had ScrumMasters who weren’t acting like leaders. At least not leaders you describe in the post about citizenship. They were more of helpers and advisers. Also the whole teams felt responsible for productivity or improvement.

    Maybe I am naive, or have too little experience with Scrum, but make me a ScrumMaster and I won’t tell people what to do or how to do it. Or take the responsibility out from the team, for that matter.

    By the way: it isn’t only the way I perceive the role of ScrumMaster; this is the way I perceive role of every leader.

    I guess our views are pretty aligned in terms of how good ScrumMasters, or leaders, should act. I’m with you when you’re critical about many Scrum implementations (I’d challenge the number 95% though).

    I still feel though, that even in orgs that are doing Scrum bad way, create an opportunity for some folks who would answer the question from your post the right way. I know too many guys who used Scrum, and ScrumMaster role particularly, to show their leadership talents (often outgrowing the org).

    Disclaimer: when I write about leadership, I don’t think about resigning or restraining from personal responsibility. Pretty much the opposite.

  • Sergei Sergejev September 17, 2012, 2:42 pm

    Nice write up, a detox for toxic, but still valid points by Tobias. I’d actually agree with Andrej and Tobias in that if some organisations can’t work with Scrum, then they should do whatever fits them best – will it be Kanban, waterfall or Scrumban. Key point is that people understand purpose and see value. Doing planning poker connected to hours and retrospective w/o action points is waste. Sometimes implementing Scrum in some teams is like teaching algebra to 1 year old – it’s not their time yet.

    Pushing a problem surfacing framework (which scrum is), putting a mirror (which a problem surfacing framework is) infront of a monster face without intending to fix problems and making monster look pretty is lots of pain. Been there, done that!

    And this is when Agile comes into conflict with Scrum. Pushing a process down the throat, top-down – is it people over process and tools or not? I think it’s not and I believe Agile values _are_ important. Don’t you? I believe effective Scrum needs good understanding and adherence to Agile values. But if we miss those, do command and control Scrum, have ScrumMasters who can’t protect the process and are vulnerable – it ain’t gonna work and will dissapoint everyone.

    Still, Scrum is awesome framework when done right. But we must not keep ourselves a hammer as only tool and treat everything as nails. I believe this is what Tobias ment – fake scrum and fake scrummaster – get over with them!

    I believe in such cases one should start visualising the real process, keep it as is for a while, do ScrumBan kind of thing and slowly, but stedily, go towards Scrum. E.g like mentioned in this post and comments http://agilemanagement.net/index.php/site/comments/thoughts_on_how_kanban_differs_from_scrum/

    As a ScrumMaster, I thank you for caring for our role in software development and hope my post is not violent :)

  • Andrej September 17, 2012, 11:59 pm

    “@Andrej – Does removing or changing the name ScrumMaster automatically affects they way people fulfill the role? I mean, really?”

    Yes, if they just make sure that some meetings are book in meeting rooms than i think such SMs must be removed because they do nothing and team itself can do this.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 18, 2012, 12:51 am

    @Sergei – I don’t consider Tobias’ points as toxic. Actually, as I’ve said, I agree with his diagnosis; I’m just not that radical.

    Anyway, what I see is we pretty much agree that misusing Scrum (or any other method if you ask me) is harmful.

    The point which we discuss is our perspective on a role of ScrumMaster. And, to be honest, I don’t defend the role as a whole. I’m not a fan of a way it was defined. At the same time I see it helps some people grow and, again in some cases, help orgs to become better. I’m not saying it is the best, or the only, way to do it. I just observe the fact that Scrum, being adopted so widely, often create the vacuum which is sometimes filled by these great folks we always need around.

    These guys would probably grow no matter the method, but reality is that often, from the org perspective, it is either Scrum or nothing. In this case, I (usually) take my chances and go with Scrum.

  • Robert December 11, 2012, 3:16 am

    Scrum is rubbish.

  • Mark Wilson January 15, 2013, 3:42 am

    If the objective is to get ScrumMaster certified in two day training to enhance the career opportunity, it is not going to serve the purpose and hence the increase failures. The focus should be to mastery the Scrum concepts and process so that he can mold it according to the situation. Found this Scrumstudy blog interesting. You may find it interesting too.: http://scrumstudy.com/blog/?p=175

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