What Do ScrumMasters Do Again?

In my time working with agile, I’ve heard ScrumMasters described as many things:

  • ScrumMasters are secretaries to the development team, doing the things the developers don’t have time for
  • ScrumMasters are Project Managers
  • ScrumMasters act between the team and the Product Owner
  • ScrumMasters are an arbiter
  • ScrumMasters are responsible for chasing customers
To be fair, I think the title ‘ScrumMaster’ itself is a little misleading. The word ‘Master’ conjures up images of authority and expertise that I don’t believe are a fair representation of the role. The amount of times I’ve heard ScrumMasters represented as ‘waste’ in agile in scary. Hearing comments such as ‘I would never pay somebody to do this role full time’ just makes me wonder what experiences people have had with ScrumMasters and how much these companies invest in continuous improvement which I hope you’d agree is essential for longevity of any business.

“A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside.”–W. Edwards Deming, The New EconomicsA system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside.

How do you know you’ve got a sticky-note on your back marked ‘Kick-me’ without someone pointing it out (or stumbling across a mirror)? Interactions between team members are similar, and according to Deming’s statement, cannot be understood from inside the team.

A ScrumMaster is like a football coach, standing on the side-lines during the game. A football coach doesn’t play a position but they are constantly looking at how the team are interacting with each other. They know if the defensive line is being held too high and how the team aren’t working together to achieve a common vision. After the game the coach helps the team look at their performance for strengths and weaknesses, they’ll identify actions for potential changes and implement them incrementally to avoid boiling frog syndrome. Although a football team may be able to play 1 or 2 games without a coach, other teams may eventually overtake them in ability and effectiveness. Does this sound familiar?

Describing what a ScrumMaster does every day is hard to describe because every team is different. As I’ve changed from team to team over the years my activities and levels of involvement vary depending on what constraintis holding the team back from increasing their effectiveness. This may be anything, from the obvious impediments like the team not chasing feedback from a Product Owner/Customer, right through to the team feeling demotivated when senior management impose a well-meant but miscalculated delivery of the latest process initiative. In Agile Development, we’ve moved away from requirements documents to value people over processes. We know the value of a powerful vision over detailed requirements when developing software. Why should our jobs be any different? I can’t remember the last time a job description actually described what I did every day. Instead of a Job Description why not buy into a Job Vision? A powerful and ambitious statement that inspires us to do our job well?

As ScrumMaster I am striving to make myself redundant.

Yes, I really mean it. In my opinion, a ScrumMaster or Agile Coach for a team should be striving to put themselves out of work. You’ll never get there of course but that doesn’t make it any less important to try. We should be identifying constraints and impediments to the team becoming self-organising (not necessarily self-directing – future blog post on this one perhaps?). This doesn’t mean chasing the Product Owner/Customer or writing code for them when the team are busy, why are they so busy? Why couldn’t they write the code themselves? As soon as you put yourself in the system you lose the ability to understand the system.

So what’s the Vision for your role in the company? I’d be especially interested to hear ideas on vision statements for Product Owners.

6 thoughts on “What Do ScrumMasters Do Again?

  1. scrimmers July 11, 2012 / 5:35 pm

    Great Post Craig.
    I was having this conversation today with an aspiring Scrum Master and said exactly what you’ve written about making yourself redundant.
    I think you’ve summarised well some of the initial indicators of someone that would make a good Scrum Master.

    Incidentally I have it on good authority that the ‘Master’ aspect of Scrum Master comes from the old Webmaster. Not sure how to interpret that.. I’m still mulling it over.

    • Craig Livings July 12, 2012 / 6:37 pm

      Cheers James. I don’t really care much for job titles anyway. I much prefer the idea of a Job Vision.

  2. Nigel July 11, 2012 / 6:06 pm

    FYI: ScrumMaster is derived from WebMaster. No one assumed that WebMaster was Peter Parker, Lord of the Interweb or a Spider. WebMaster looked after the webpages. ScrumMaster looks after the Scrum.

    • Craig Livings July 12, 2012 / 6:35 pm

      I see your point. I think it’s the separation of the words Scrum and Master that I see a lot that suggests a subtle difference in my opinion. As a result I usually combine the words.

      Do you feel that the boundaries of a ScrumMaster’s role in a company lie with Scrum? What if the biggest constraint to the effectiveness of the team sits outside Scrum? Is that still a ScrumMaster?

      I guess I feel like it could be overly descriptive. ‘Looking after the Scrum’ feels like it may only reflect part of what I feel the role entails.

  3. Glenn Smith November 7, 2012 / 9:54 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comment, “As ScrumMaster I am striving to make myself redundant.” It reminds me of the quote from Nanny McPhee that is also perfectly relevant for Scrum Masters, ”When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go”.

    I think it’s hard for lots of people new to agile to not be able to quantify what the scrum master does and how they add value, which is probably why you get the comments that they think they are Project Managers, or team secretaries etc. I don’t think though this is a scrum issue per say, but the scrum master typifies that fact you can not put a number on teamwork and collaboration.

    Maybe the agile industry is missing a trick by not finding ways to quantifiable demonstrate the value; gut feel is a leap to far for some. I’m not sure I have the answer to this, although I wish I did. It’s possible we need to look for proxy measures of success, although how these directly link to the scrum master isn’t clear.

    • Craig Livings November 7, 2012 / 12:46 pm

      Hi Glenn,

      I agree, sometimes I think we get caught up in a world of measurement and think that in order to justify something it must be quantifiable. The ScrumMaster role varies depending on the team’s effectiveness and impediments that are introduced. This makes is hard to measure successes as the work is inherently unpredictable. Daily Scrums are a good time to communicate to the team how the ScrumMaster and Product Owner are contributing to the success of the Sprint in the same way that developers/testers do.
      There may be a corporate culture around figures and measurement which needs to be reviewed. I would regard this as in impediment to the team’s success.



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