The Scrum Master Role Is a Huge Waste of Human Potential

The Scrum Master Role Is a Huge Waste of Human Potential

Marvin

There were a lot of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches at last week’s Agile By Example 2014 (Warsaw). Enough that I was surprised by their numbers, in relation to the total number of attendees. I guess the organisers were less surprised though, looking at the relatively high number of sessions focussing on Scrum Mastering and related matters.

During the conference I tweeted:

Tweet20141030

and some folks found it a tad too cryptic, requesting some expansion / elaboration.

The Role of Scrum Master

It’s my view that we invest the role of Scrum Master – as a given for Scrum teams – with far too much deference and gravitas. I’d go so far as to say that the role is a crock.

As Angel Medinilla pointed out in his excellent session ”Developing Great Scrum Masters”, the role is wholly an invention of the Scrum authors, having zero antecedents and little to zero evidence supporting its alleged value.

Listening to the stories of various Scrum Masters at ABE14, it struck me just how many of these fine folks were and are striving to care for their teams, add value, make a difference to people’s lives, and so on. And more so, how the Scrum Master role itself was and is frustrating them in all these aspirations.

So, when I say the Scrum Master role, both as widely conceived and as generally practiced, is a huge waste of human potential, what I mean is that most people in that role could be and are capable of so much more, yet find themselves – through constant firefighting, running around, chasing people, and so on – buried under a mountain of time-wasting and pointless trivia.

Here’s what the Scrum Guide says in introducing the Scrum Master role:

“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.”

~ Scrum Guide, 2013 version

But, due to the Universal Scrum Master Failure, the raison d’etre of the Scrum Master role – “…helping those outside the team understand…” is invalidated, and the role degenerates into that of a firefighter, or worse, a kind of dysfunctional Project Manager.

Personally, I find the failures of the Scrum Master role – NOT, I hasten to add, any failures of the folks striving valiantly to make it work, even as it cannot – calls the whole Scrum proposition into question. Combined with Scrum’s inherent failure as a local optimisation, plus the equally dire failings of the Product Owner role (which I won’t go into here) I’d suggest the best thing we can do is to throw Scrum onto the garbage heap of history. By all means pick though its bones for the “good bits” like short iterations, early ship-ability, small batch size, self-organisation, etc. – although none of these are the monopoly of Scrum.

Maybe then we can get back to the core issues we all face:

  • “How do we make organisations relying on software development more effective?”
  • “How can businesses exploit software development for business success?”
  • “How can we better attend to people’s needs through software development?” and
  • “What is the core purpose of that thing we so glibly call ‘software development’, anyway”?

– Bob

Afterword

I guess most Scrum Masters who agree with this post might be asking themselves, somewhat resignedly, “Is there anything I can do in my present role to make things even a little better?” Short of giving up on the whole notion of Scrum Master, is there anything that can be salvaged? From personal experience, I’d suggest taking a look at the Universal Scrum Master Failure and see if there’s anything you can do to address or correct that failure in your corner of the world. If it turns out that your present employer has no taste for that, then you’re pretty much wasting your time. And your potential. Life is too short for that.

Further Reading

Developing Scrum Masters ~ Angel Medinilla
The New, New Product Development Game ~ Nonaka and Takeuchi

10 comments
  1. The symptoms are defininetly there, but I would not agree that the root cause of the Scrum Master misery is the role itself. The related post indicates that a common failure pattern applies to most of the current instances of Scrum and the Scrum Master role. I copy that. And then, been there and done that, I know about the difficulty and the pain of even the better Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches or how you prefer to call them. I was not ready for the job back then. Scrum Master is no technical profession, nor a business profession. It requires knowledge and skills of both domains, but it is mainly based on social sciences. You can learn the Scrum basics in two or three days, but in order to be ready to fulfill the Scrum Master role as designed, you’d rather undergo a couple of years of graduate studies and practice on the job.

    Sounds unrealistic? Well, that would be another evidence of your assumption of the “Universal Scrum Master Failure”. What a pity. So we expect that someone who is supposed to work on complex technical systems has a solid university and technical background. And we suppose that someone who is supposed to understand markets, customers, users and companies has a solid university and practical business background. Then we can’t expect that someone without social science related studies, and social background, has any chance to live up to the expectations of the Scrum Master role. Before that happens, there will be lots of more poor Scrum “Masters” in organizational purgatory.

    • Hi Nicolai,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I find the linked article interesting, and concur with much of the problem statement. but just spreading the waste around doesn’t seem to me to be getting to the nub of the issue.

      – Bob

  2. I’m wondering if the difficulties being discussed here are a failure to define the role well enough. There’s no doubt that I’m an engineer (one only has to look at my career). But less well understood is that I bring 35 years of facilitation training, practice, teaching, and mentoring to my job, every single day. I’m convinced both ideologically and from experience that tech teams function better with facilitation. And teams that are supposed to function with less hierarchy, capitalizing on collaboration, like SCRUM, as I understand and practice it, function at a much higher level with at least decent facilitation. Perhaps “Scrum Master” is not the correct appellation? Facilitation will help most teams get the most out of each member’s unique contributions.

  3. From personal experience, the most effective Agile transitions have happened in organizations that have both embraced the ScrumMaster role as it should be and have had capable people in that role. So I would not hastily condemn the role for the general failure to do it well yet. It took the programming profession more than half a century to develop where it is now. Why expect loads of competent ScrumMasters in little over a decade (two, if you really want absolute precision).

    That does not obviously mean that the only way to adopt Agile would be to use Scrum and have ScrumMasters. There are plenty of evidence of other approaches also working. Which is awesome because there are still so few highly competent ScrumMasters🙂.

  4. I’m a SM and I whole heartedly agree. It’s now just a title I’m hired under. I rarely end up practicing scrum and I’m rarely doing something in the job spec.

    Where I add value is often in the coaching, this is where I begin to make my role redundant. Self organising teams etc.

    I keep it lean, everything else is a toolset🙂

  5. Martien said:

    Nail on its head. Thanks for writing this up. When the time is right—bit too early now—I’ll write up a real story that horribly illustrates the point.

  6. myrtokamen said:

    While reading this article I found myself agreeing more and more🙂 what a waste of time!
    Maybe because I believe I am capable of even more than the role describes ..not sure yet, but I would have to add that I also agree with the first comment. Being a good SM needs background in technical, business and social sciences and as a person having all three, this sounds like an answer to all my questions so far.

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