The Universal Scrum Master Failure

The Universal Scrum Master Failure

Here’s a post for everybody thinking about adopting Scrum, hiring Scrum Masters, or finding a role as a Scrum Master.

Most every Scrum Master I have met and talked with has said little about what I regard as the (near) universal failing of the Scrum Master role. A failing which is so significant that it negates just about all the positive aspects of the role put together. But a failing which can be remedied, given some awareness and cooperation on the part of adopting organisations and Scrum Masters together, preferably from the very get-go.

The Purpose of Scrum

There’s been much written about the core purpose of Scrum. The most widespread explanation seems to be about exposing organisational dysfunction:

“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.”

~ From The Scrum Guide (Schwaber and Sutherland)

Blockers. Impediments. Obstructions.

“Scrum highlights organisational dysfunctions and challenges us in uncomfortable ways.”

~ Deborah Hartmann-Preuss

“Scrum is a framework for surfacing organizational dysfunction.”

~ Tobias Meyer

“The Scrum framework is designed to surface obstacles that get in the way of delivering value.”

~ Stacia Viscardi

“An enterprise can use Scrum as a tool to become the best product development and management organization in its market. Scrum will highlight every deficiency and impediment that the enterprise has so the enterprise can fix them and change into such an organization.

Whenever an enterprise modifies or only partially implements Scrum, it is hiding or obscuring one or more dysfunctionalities that restrict its competence in product development and management.”

~ Ken Schwaber

Whoa. Hold on right there. Organisational dysfunction? As in, things that impact the development team but (generally) lie outside its immediate control? How many Scrum Masters – or their teams – want to tackle “organisational dysfunction”? I don’t see this happening much, in practice. And I don’t see the people driving the adoption of Scrum in organisations showing much awareness of it, either. Herein lies the universal Scrum Master failure.

Organisational dysfunction. This gets talked about and written about a lot. Many fine words. But not many people seem to know about this core purpose. Or if they do know about it, few seem to take it to heart. Or to act on it.

“The Scrum Master’s role is to remove impediments to the team’s progress.”

~ From The Scrum Guide (Schwaber and Sutherland)

Personally, I’d quibble about this being in the Scrum Master’s exclusive purview, preferring to see is as something for everyone – Scrum Master, Team and Product Owner all – to get involved in. But let’s put that to one side for now.

Getting Real

Whoever is addressing impediments, let’s get real. Most – I’d say some 80% – of the impediments impacting the development team will originate from outside the team, and resolution of these impediments will mostly fall to folks outside the team, too. Most likely, to managers and senior managers across the organisation.

Simply tackling the impediments within the team seems myopic, to say the least. Although in keeping, perhaps, with Scrum’s own inherent dysfunction – as a purely local optimisation.

So, we get to it. For me, the absolutely key role for any Scrum Master is to establish and nurture channels from the team outwards into the diaspora of wider management. Nothing else is as important. And nothing gets so little time and attention.

In this post, I’ll not go into why this might be, nor what to do about it. I will return to these questions with some answers, in a future post, if there’s any interest.

– Bob

  1. Hi Bob, excellent insight! It’s not the ScrumMasters job to tell everyone around they do a lousy job when it comes to interacting with the product development team. But it is his job to show what the results are from the team given their context. Rather than like Atlas carrying the world on his back, the ScrumMaster is holding the world in his hands, showing it to others around 🙂

  2. Douglas said:

    Yes, please – there’s interest

  3. iesavage said:

    Yes, agreed. There is much interest.

    To turn the org chart right side up, that manager-contributor relationship is a key lever.

    Great insight, Bob

  4. Berthold said:

    I agree that believing a scrum masters activities should be restricted to their team is about as myopic as thinking of Agile as a method of managing software developers. I’d like to think that I wasn’t the only scrum master devoting equal time to helping teams overcome impediments as to changing the way the entire organisation thought. It is paramount that if we go the bottom up route that we don’t forget the up part.

  5. wivani said:

    I came as far as apologizing to the team I am scrummaster for, that my focus was for the biggest part on ‘the outside’ (management, the organization as a whole, ..) and that I felt like I was neglecting them in their struggle to “be a happy employee when I leave for home in the evening” (quoting one of them).
    I’m very sorry I didn’t find this blog earlier as the posts resonate very hard to the situation I find myself in. Organizational therapy!
    You will not find it strange that I’m curious – very much so – about further insights you might have.

  6. Paul Hookham said:

    I agree with you Bob. What’s the point of the role if it’s not to fix issues outside of the team – across the wider organization. I believe there are almost 400,000 Certified Scrum Masters but only 1% of these can be bothered to go on to achieve the next level. This tells a story methinks!

  7. Anthony Little said:

    Bob I’m interested in what to do about.

    Yes there’s interest.


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