Scrum master: 5 signs you need to rethink the role

Leaders can inadvertently hold back scrum masters – or empower them to be true coaches, mentors, teachers, trainers, and change agents. Here's how to set up for agile success
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Scrum is a simple framework – in fact, The Scrum Guide is only 17 pages long. You can read it in less than an hour and get a good feel for the three roles, five events, three artifacts, and a handful of rules that make scrum work.

It’s the application of scrum that leads to complexity. People, teams, organizations, market shifts, suppliers, best practices, and human dynamics often seem to work counter to the scrum framework. Within this conflict is where many scrum teams experience anti-patterns.

The solution? Empower your scrum master. Seriously. It could be that simple.

[ Read also: 3 DevOps, agile, and scrum myths, debunked. ]

Consider the purpose of a scrum master (from The Scrum Guide):

The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

The scrum master role is service-centric. In fact, the job of the scrum master is composed of three service levels: to the product owner, to the development team, and to the organization.

A scrum master has three service roles

1. Serving a product owner: While serving a product owner, the scrum master helps to promote the product vision and goals to the entire scrum team and organization. We also expect to see a scrum master coaching the entire team on how to create, maintain, and refine a product backlog. Teaching the necessity of planning and replanning in response to changes in the market and organization is essential to a product owner understanding how to become an agile project manager.

2. Serving the development team: This is a different challenge for the scrum master. The scrum master coaches the development team on how to self-organize towards goals as they solve complex problems. The scrum master will often help the development team understand the importance and necessity of technical excellence and quality in product development. Removing impediments – things that slow down a development team – and acting as a facilitator during scrum events are also ways that a scrum master serves the development team.

3. Serving the organization:  This is an often overlooked but essential part of the scrum master role. Leading, planning, and coaching the scrum adoption within the organization is essential. Scrum is supposed to be used as a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Scrum is supposed to be used as a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Scrum masters provoke changes to the status quo that increase the value delivered by scrum teams. When the teams deliver value, the organization as a whole wins. A scrum master working at this level is amplifying and scaling the benefits of scrum throughout the entire organization, not just the IT department.

5 signs your scrum master is not empowered

Many organizations – perhaps even your own – have diminished the scrum master role and limited the ability of the person in the role to have the impact needed to help organizations deliver value. Consider these examples:

1. The scrum notetaker: Creating status reports during the daily scrum. Capturing the sprint plan as a Gantt chart. Updating user stories during refinement discussions. Writing action plans based on retrospective commitments.

2. The scrum scheduler: Placing the scrum team events on calendars. Tracking vacation time and holiday hours.

3. The scrum lord: Taking a legalistic view of scrum. Not honoring the team’s context and current abilities: “If you are doing something that isn’t in The Scrum Guide, you’re doing it wrong. No exceptions!”

4. The scrum team boss: Servant-leaders do not tell people what to do, but this kind of scrum master does just that. Have you seen a scrum master hire and fire team members, or do performance reviews? Or even worse, a scrum master who assigns work and tells the development team how best to do their work? None of these actions are part of the scrum master role.

5. The scrum admin: Updating JIRA, keeping TFS up to date, and making sure all the stories are estimated and entered correctly in Rally. Can’t a self-organizing development team manage their own work?

Do you see the difference? An empowered scrum master has the ability to bring empiricism to bear as a competitive advantage to an organization. A mechanical scrum master diminishes as teams self-organize and solve complex problems.

An empowered scrum master has the ability to bring empiricism to bear as a competitive advantage to an organization.

As leaders, we can decide to empower our scrum masters to be true coaches, mentors, teachers, trainers, and change agents. When you make this choice, your teams have the opportunity to learn how to become high-performing squads who can deliver value to the world. Avoid anti-scrum patterns and empower your scrum masters to fulfill their role.

Consider how the scrum masters in your organization fulfill their role today. What do you see them do? What are the kinds of things you hear them say? Do you see some of the anti-patterns in the day-to-day activities of your scrum teams?

Next, take the first step toward fully empowering your scrum master: Have an open and honest conversation with your scrum master about their role today, with the intention of finding one small change to the way they work to become more empowered and impactful.

[ What do great agile leaders do differently? Read How to be a stronger DevOps leader: 9 tips. ]

A professional Scrum trainer with, Ryan Ripley has worked as a software developer, manager, director, and Scrum Master at various Fortune 500 companies in the medical device, wholesale, and financial services industries. He is the host of "Agile for Humans," the top agile podcast on iTunes. Ryan lives in Indiana with his wife, Kristin, and three children.