Sunday, June 17, 2012

Who makes the Best ScrumMaster?

As teams consider adopting Agile, one of the most important decisions they can make is who will be the ScrumMaster. Because the ScrumMaster is the promoter of Agile values and principals as well as the coach for ensuring the Scrum is being practiced effectively, it is critical that this role be filled with someone who is dedicated to implementing the Agile mindset.
A good ScrumMaster must have the ability to be an effective Servant-Leader. If is important to understand that a servant-leader takes a facilitative approach and does not apply command-and-control. Some key attributes include:
  • Building a trusting environment where problems can be raised without fear of blame, retribution, or being judged, with an emphasis of healing and problem solving.
  • Facilitating getting the work done without coercion, assigning, or dictating the work.
  • Ensuring the implementation of healthy Agile Scrum practices and values are followed on the project.
  • Removing roadblocks or find the right level of personnel to remove the roadblock.
In the book “Practicing Servant-Leadership" by Larry Spears and Michele Lawrence, they share attributes for servant leadership. Some attributes include: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, and foresight. Anyone who becomes a ScrumMaster should consider taking ScrumMaster training to help them understand their role and the activities they will facilitate. So the question arises, is there a traditional project role that plays the ScrumMaster the best?

Project Manager as ScrumMaster?
The seemingly obvious traditional role to play a ScrumMaster is the Project Manager. However, from my experience, there are pros with having a Project Manager become the ScrumMaster. On the positive side, the Project Manager has experience in being part of the team, so they may already have a trusting relationship with the team. Some Project Managers have built facilitative skills to lead work in a non-directive yet influential manner. And many already have the skills and the insight into an organization to appropriately remove roadblocks. On the negative side, Project Managers typically do not have technical experience into the product and cannot materially participate in technical discussions or provide meaningful technical insight. Also, some Project Managers had success utilizing command-and-control attributes and the more traditional Project Management practices which will not work well (and can be destructive) in an Agile environment. It can also be hard for some Project Managers to eliminate the traditional Project Management mindset of detailed project planning.

Functional Manager as ScrumMaster?
Quite possibly the most problematic role to play the ScrumMaster is someone who is a Functional Manager (aka, line manager, technical manager, etc.). Anyone playing a role where they have successfully directed people must make concerted efforts in removing their command-and-control behavior. On the positive side, they may have some technical experience into the product so can provide meaningful technical insight. They may already have the skills and the insight into appropriately navigating the organization and the ability to remove roadblocks. On the negative side, because they have been a manager of a team, so they may have issues with the team trusting them as a peer since they have been used to being judged by managers. A Functional Manager may have been successfully utilizing command-and-control attributes. However, this will not work well (and can be destructive) in an Agile environment. They must strive to remove their directive attributes and instead build facilitative skills. They must not assign work but instead enable and support team to become self-empowered. These are significant challenges.

Technical Lead as ScrumMaster?
Quite possibly one of the better traditional roles to play the ScrumMaster is someone who is a Technical Lead (QA Lead, Development Lead, etc.). By “lead”, I do not mean a manager or someone who has direct reports, but instead someone who is considered a lead by his peers. This person has a balance of leadership skills while wanting to get the work done. They typically have no interest in directing people. On the positive side, they have technical experience into the product and their specific field (development, QA, technical writing, etc.) so can appropriately aid the work (without direction or coercion and provide meaningful insight). They have experience at being part of the team, so may already have a trusting relationship with the rest of their peers. Because a lead does not have functional management responsibilities, they typically had to build their facilitative skills to lead work in a non-directive yet influential manner. On the negative side, they may not yet have the skills or the insight into an organization to appropriately remove external facing roadblocks.

Ultimately, the best answer to the question of what role best plays the ScrumMaster is not really a particular role, but instead which person best exemplifies the combination of the attributes of servant leadership, understands the Agile values and principles, embraces continuous learning, has a grasp of the technical aspects of the product under development, and can help remove roadblocks. In your organization, are there traditional roles that more often play the ScrumMaster role or best align with the servant leader attributes? If so, what is that role?  If not a role what attributes best exemplify a ScrumMaster in your organization?

PS - if you liked this article, consider reading "Who makes the Best Product Owner".


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You've done such a nice job of summing up the pros and cons of having people in different positions act as ScrumMaster. And I can't argue with your conclusion.

    IME, it is best for the ScrumMaster to be a dedicated position - the person acting as ScrumMaster has that as her only job. People who don't understand the role well just see the outside framework of it, and it looks pretty easy to maintain the task board, facilitate meetings, manage the burndown charts, and so on. But a good ScrumMaster takes on the nebulous middle of the framework, noticing and helping to resolve conflicts, facilitating discussions when there's a disagreement (since the dedicated ScrumMaster has no stake in the outcome of, say, a coding standard decision), finding ways to remind the team of its commitment to continual improvement. Domain knowledge can also be critical, especially if the development team is new to the domain.

    The ScrumMaster training teaches the basic framework, but as you point out, it takes someone who understands how to be a servant leader, someone who can be creative and help the team be creative in identifying problems and trying small experiments to overcome them.

  3. I agree with virtually everything you said, except that I would add that Scrum knowledge is vital to being a successful ScrumMaster. If we're assuming "all other things equal", then your advice is spot on. OTOH, you never mention Scrum knowledge or "all other things being equal."

  4. Good comments Lisa and scrumcrazy!

  5. Hi, I noted that your portayal of a functional manager is not necessarily the only way that a functional manager can operate.

    I have been a functional manager for a number of years and found that it requires the skills of managing the team's peer-peer relationships and coaching them forward in their careers. My approach has always been to empower my team members so that they don't need micromanaging.

    These skills have been perfect for my new role as a Scrum Master. I am quite glad not to have to assign and check work any more, but to focus on facilitating and helping others grow.

  6. Mario,
    Good article. I think biggest problem with having Functional Managers as ScrumMaster are reluctant team members People are reluctant to take a risk in front of their managers.
    Agile Development

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  8. This is a great inspiring article.I am pretty much pleased with your good work.You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. Looking to reading your next post.

  9. Unfortunately I have to disagree with the conlucsion. In my humble opinion, and based on my experience with agile methods over the last 17 years, your view on a ScrumMaster is too technology- oriented. I totally miss the coaching aspect (not tech.mentoring). What you describe in you blogpost, I have seen in many companies I coached, and sometimes it worked. However, to create high-performing teams, people skills are much more important than any technical insight.

    You also mention servant-leadership. Servant-leaders do not only exist in the agile world. I have worked with line-managers and project managers, who were great servant leaders. The original concept of Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf was created, when agility was still way out of sight. However, the underlying principles, which were then later in the lightweight methods, which we now call Agile methods, very important, do exist way back in human history. Just the adoption for our modern endeavours is something, which is rather young. And still not fully understood in most cases.

    Just to give everybody something to think about: The best ScrumMasters I have seen studied rather Sociology or Psychology.

    Cheers, Wolfgang

  10. Hi Wolfgang, I actually agree with the notion that a ScrumMaster well studied in Sociology or Psychology will have advantages. Since a big part of a ScrumMaster role is to motivate, facilitate, and mediate, this can be very helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Dear Wolfgang and Mario,

    It makes me happy to read that you both think good ScrumMaster’s are those with a Sociology or Psychology degree.

    I am making a career change. I taught English as a Second Language and counseled students (grad degrees in Linguistics and Counseling). I became weary of the adjunct life and decided to attend a coding bootcamp. While in the bootcamp, I discovered coding isn’t for me. However, we also learned about Scrum. When we started this, my life went from gloomy to sunny. I am passionate about Scrum; it simply makes sense (it employs Organizational Psychology principles, which I like) – and it uses my strengths: facilitating, coaching, rapport building, etc.

    My knowledge of back-end is weak at best (C# / .Net). Front-end is below average-average, and UX is average (I enjoy it a lot). After the bootcamp ended, I got my ScrumMaster certification and have been looking for a job in IT because I enjoy the software development field. Any suggestions on how to land a ScrumMaster job?

    Thanks for your blog post and assistance.

  13. One important thing to mention here is Scrum Master should be an independent role in any product development.
    Most of the places I observe that Scrum Master is an additional role/ responsibility given to existing Project Manager or QA Manager.

    I would like to read more on this topic.

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