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Scrum Master + Team Lead = Team Master?

Last week, I gave the Scrum Guide a fresh read.  I did this for the simple purpose of making sure I was remembering the rules of the game correctly, and not just having conversations based on echoes of memories.  It turns out that my understanding and recollection had not drifted very far, which was good news.  But it also turns out that I still think of “Scrum Master” as somewhat silly.  I re-read the manifesto, had the same impression, and was somewhat gratified to learn that I have the same taste as myself.

What is a Scrum Master, Anyway?

There’s a lot to like in the Scrum guide, but Scrum Master, in my opinion, just isn’t in that bucket.  At best, it’s a built in sales role for Scrum, and one that should become unnecessary as time passes.  The guide itself is pretty unambiguous about this: “the Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted.”  Presumably, once Scrum is “understood and enacted,” the role need not exist.  At its worst, “Scrum Master” is an escape hatch for non-technical project managers in an agile world that largely proclaims them unnecessary (unless re-cast as BAs, product owners, or line managers).

InterruptionCop

Unfortunately, and in far too many organizations, I think that Scrum Master winds up at its worst.  Scrum falls under the umbrella of agile methodologies, and it says something right there in the agile manifesto (or, at least, the principles behind it) about how to organize teams: “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”  This describes a scenario in which empowered and engaged technical folks figure out how to deliver value to interested stakeholders without relying on traditional command and control structures.

In other words, agile teams (and, by extension, Scrum teams) don’t need managers or masters.  They need a “product owner” to represent the interests of the business and… well, that’s it.  They need someone to explain to them what’s needed out of the software and then it’s up to them to go do it.  It’s refreshingly grass-roots.

The promise of the agile movement is that you don’t need layers of managers and hierarchy between CIO and line-level developer that could rival the military.  In fact, you don’t need managers at all.  So what is this Scrum Master thing, then?  It sure feels like a refuge for displaced managers, be they product, process, program, or project managers.

So all of this was going through my head this week when I opened the backlog of reader questions to pick one to write about.  The question is as follows.

I’m the lead developer of my team on a consulting project. While shopping for new jobs, most other lead developer roles include being a scrummaster. This is not something I am interested in and I have avoided successfully in my current job. If I want to take a new lead developer job, do I have to suck it up and be the scrummaster until I can pass it off? I can’t help but feel I come off as inexperienced during phone interviews if I don’t call myself the scrummaster even though I am the dev team lead.

Is Scrum Master a boss role?

First of all, this is somewhat alien to me.  I must admit that I’ve rarely encountered an organization that rolls Scrum Master in with “team lead.”  That’s probably reasonable, since Scrum itself doesn’t acknowledge the existence of such a role.  To wit, the guide proclaims, “Scrum recognizes no titles for Development Team members other than Developer.”  So if an organization is making the ask, “we want a Team/Lead Scrum Master,” they’re probably a “Scrum-But” team.

Now, this isn’t intrinsically bad.  “We have no role but Developer” is a nice, egalitarian sentiment, but in a corporate world with experience matrices, dotted line reporting relationships, leadership roles, and variable pay structures, it tends to be something of a false promise.  In other words, if you show me a team where everyone has the title “Developer,” I’ll show you a team with a bunch of different salaries and varying “unofficial” responsibilities.

So the reason I mention Scrum-But isn’t to dissuade from considering such companies, but rather to provide some context.  Specifically, these organizations most likely don’t grok Scrum or implement it faithfully.  This allows for some wiggle room in how you and the organization define your role, and that wiggle room will come in handy.

When doing interviews, you can engage in a bit of opportunistic expectation management.  They’ll ask questions about whether you’re comfortable in that role, and there’s no downside to saying that you are.  After all, the only real requirement for this is understanding the rules of Scrum, which you can achieve with a few reads through the Scrum guide.

But you can also introduce a subtly impressive credential that sets the stage for positioning yourself not to do it.  You can explain that on teams you’ve led in the past, you had such success with Scrum that the role became unnecessary, since the team understood it well.  Then, once you’re hired and you make sure the team knows how to conduct its affairs, you don’t really need to worry about playing daily standup referee and other such things (though I would argue that part of a good lead’s responsibility is to take on the Scrum Master’s task of fending off distracting outsiders).

However, to circle back to the original premise, I don’t think it’s actually necessary to agree to a Scrum Master role in order to get a team lead role.  Trivially, you don’t need to agree to it if the team isn’t doing (or pretending to do) Scrum.  This doesn’t mean that the team has to be strictly waterfall, either.  You can seek out a lead role for an XP team or any sort of generic “agile” team that doesn’t define Scrum’s roles.  Or, you can interview for the role but stipulate during the interview process that you prefer to delegate this role to someone without leadership responsibility to avoid a conflict of interest.

But in the end, I wouldn’t really advise letting this bullet in a job description be a deal breaker.  It’s too hard to evaluate meaningfully and too easy to delegate.  And, besides, if you’re being given the role, “team lead,” it really ought to be up to you to determine who fills which role.

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Stuart Grassie
Guest
Stuart Grassie

“Scrum-but”. I used to call this “Bastartised Scrum” in one of my old jobs.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

That’s probably a little more blunt and honest. I also like Martin Fowler’s term, “flaccid Scrum” to describe implementing the ceremonies without the technical practices.

Ignacio Cavero
Guest
Ignacio Cavero

I have found that Scum’s main adoption reason is paying lip service to agile while continuing with previous organizational structures, scrum master as a boss role is so common that we could start using the terms “Scrum” and “Formal Scrum as it was meant to be” instead.
In any case I now find that even “Formal Scrum” is becoming obsolete as 3-4 weeks sprints seem to be too long in a continuous delivery environment.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I think it’s possible to scale Scrum down to a week, provided you also scale down the prescribed ceremony lengths accordingly. But yeah, it’s hard for something written 15 years ago about software to hold up well without ongoing amendment. And definitely agreed that the common case of adoption is as you described. The most common symptom I see is a “daily Scrum” that’s a 45 minute status report to a manager while the poor developers have to stand.

Jason Knight
Guest

Your observations are backed up by the 2015 Chaos report by the Standish group. Here is an image from that report detailing the prevalence of companies doing “Agile” or Scrum in name only:

http://tinyurl.com/jktwt5f

I know Agile isn’t a noun; however, many out there think it is and use it interchangeably with Scrum or something very close to it.

Team’s I’ve developed on have come to love the 2 week cadence, although I could definitely see a 1 week Sprint being exciting and hugely beneficial for many products and organizations.

Kostadin Golev
Guest

I have spend the last few years doing the “Lead Dev / Backup Scrum Master”. Meaning I will perform some of the duties of a Scrum master. (Usually when the guy is not available) In my organization the scrum master was not just a team servant. He/She was the contact person for our team. That is a lot of communication, usually with management from above. Think “status reports”. Yes, it was a Scrum-But and yes, not all organizations will be like that. But many of those just renamed their Project Managers to Scrum Masters, so we can assume many other… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I definitely share that experience that it’s common simply to rename “Project Manager” to “Scrum Master” and proceed as normal, with perhaps a token Scrum certification weekend for the PM. In the position myself, I’d probably react similarly. If a prospective employer told me, personally, that part of the lead position would be Scrum Master duties, I’d immediately ask for some elaboration and gently ask what Scrum means to them. (Of course, that’s somewhat moot for me, personally, as this isn’t a role I’d seek)

Jason Knight
Guest

Ditto to @eri@daedtech:disqus’s experience; PMs are often the square peg shoved into a round whole on this.

As a Scrum Master myself, I will sometimes intercept those “status reports” and try very hard to show management that they are largely an unhelpful fetish for control. Until they are weened off of them, I’ll keep providing less and less until they detox. All the while, developers carry on happily delivering value products uninterrupted :).

Nevada Williford
Guest
Nevada Williford

I work on a project with roughly 30 developers. We organize into 6 or 7 groups each release. The teams aren’t set in stone but they remain fairly consistent. On the teams I’ve worked on so far we rotate the scrum master role each release. Scrum master for us is the guy/gal that sends out the meeting invite so everyone has it on their calendar. They get the scrum meeting rolling on time. They keep the meeting focused and don’t let it devolve into “in the weeds” discussions. They jot down some simple notes on everyone’s status updates and bring… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I think the healthiest thing I’ve seen (and why I view the org chart role as unnecessary) is teams that rotate the role among the team members. This lets you have it as/when needed and seems to create more ownership of the process in the team.

Jason Knight
Guest

Ditto to swapping as a healthy practice and the org chart role as unnecessary (I would add probably harmful). Having the Scrum Master role as a title in a hierarchy of titles is bad. I touched on it a bit in my blog here: http://jasontknight.com/agenda-less-scrum-mastering/ Swapping the SM role can be a very healthy enlightening and efficacious way to build empathy, share responsibility, etc. I will add that team new to Scrum and agility might be better served to stick with one really accomplished SM for a longer period instead of giving everyone equal crack at the struggle. An accomplished… Read more »

Jason Knight
Guest

Caveat, I’m a developer who is currently a Scrum Master full-time. What you say about the SM role as escape hatch for PM’s is definitely true as is the “team boss” scenario. These are common anti-patterns. It’s worth emphasizing how hard it is to actually succeed at the primary job the Scrum Guide lists for a Scrum Master: to be responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. This doesn’t happen quickly and is a main component of why Scrum is simple to understand but difficult to master. A professional Scrum Master works very hard to become increasingly redundant. Yet,… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Curious if you get to write any code in that role…?

Anyway, I’d certainly be inclined to agree that the role can exist with value indefinitely at large organizations with long histories of command and control management. It’s been my experience that those organizations house seemingly limitless threats to a knowledge worker team built on trust and collaboration.

Jason Knight
Guest

I’ve got the odd side project or kata to keep me fresh, but my day job has not I’ve not written production code for 8 months and am definitely feeling it. The organization would definitely support me assuming a developer role if I wanted to. When I came on, virtually no one understood Scrum or was willing to stick their neck out to practice it professionally. They were practicing a very dysfunction form of Scrum and had been building an aversion to the framework. They were blaming the framework rather than interpersonal and organizational dysfunctions. The road to turn that… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

It sounds like you’re on the path to a nice win for yourself and the organization. I’ve been in the position of wading upstream at a company (in a W2 role there) to try to affect change, and I know both how exhausting and rewarding it can be (or deflating, if it doesn’t take). It seems like a good organization to support you taking this on. There are a lot of companies that would essentially take the attitude, “do this in your spare time for career development if you want, but give me your 8 dev hours a day or… Read more »

Jason Knight
Guest

Absolutely :). I’m being allowed to practice the [Dedicated Champion] and [Evangelist] patterns from “Fearless Change.” Great book if you would be tempted to see change patterns (like software design patters, somewhat) with bases in clinical, neuropsychology :).

ProQuotient
Guest

Many people who are new to Agile confuse the role of a Scrum Master as being one that leads the team and gives the orders. This article helps clear that confusion with a proper explanation and comparison between the Scrum Master and the Team Master / Leader.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Thanks! Glad if you found it helpful.