Behind the Curtain: The Scrum Master Role

It is popular to characterize the scrum master role as following a “servant leader” style of engagement with scrum teams. Beyond that, not much else is offered to help unpack just what that means. The more you read about “servant leadership” the more confused you’re likely to get. A lot of what’s available on the Internet and offered in trainings ends up being contradictory and overburdening to someone just trying to help their team excel. Telling someone they’ll need to become a “servant leader” can be like telling them to go away closer.

So let’s unpack that moniker a little and state what it means in more practical terms for the average, yet effective, scrum master.

To begin, it’s most helpful to put a little space between the two skills. As a scrum master you’ll need to serve. As a scrum master you’ll need to lead. When you’re a good scrum master you’ll know when to do each of those and how. Someone who tries to do both at once usually ends up succeeding at neither.

As a servant, a scrum master has to keep a vigilant eye on making sure their servant behaviors are in the best interests of helping the delivery team succeed. If the scrum master lets the role devolve to little more than an admin to the product owner or the team then they’ve lost their way. It will certainly seem easier to write the story cards for the team, for example, rather than spend the time coaching them how to write story cards. This is a case where leadership is needed. On the other hand, if someone on the team is blocked by a dependency due to a past due deliverable from another team, then the scrum master would indeed serve the best interests of the team by working with the other team to resolve the dependency rather than require the delivery team member to shift focus away from completing work in the queue.

As a leader, a scrum master has to recognize any constraints the context places on the scope of their responsibilities. In meet-ups and conferences I’ve heard people say the scrum master “should be the team spiritual leader,” the team “therapist,” or “a shaman,” and able to administer to the team’s emotional needs. I take a more pragmatic approach and believe a scrum master should be able to recognize when someone on their team is in need of a qualified professional and, if necessary, assist them in finding the help they need. (HR departments exists, in part, to handle these situations.) This is still good leadership. It’s important to recognize the limits of one’s own capabilities and qualifications. Scrum master as therapist is a quagmire, to be sure, and I’ve yet to meet one with the boots to handle it.

Servant leader aside, the “master” in “scrum master” is the source of no end of grief. It’s partly to blame for the tendency in people to ascribe super powers to the scrum master role, such as those described above. In addition, the “master” part of the title implies “boss” or “manager.” It is a common occurrence for team members to address their stand-up conversation to me – as scrum master – rather than the team. I have to interrupt and specifically direct the individual to speak to the team. I’ve had team members share that they assumed I was going to take what was communicated in the stand-up and report directly to the product owner or the department head or even higher in the organization. “How come you’re not taking notes?”, they ask.”The stand-up is for you, not for me. Take your own notes, if you wish,” I reply. (I do take notes, but only for the purpose of following-up on certain issues or capturing action items for myself – things I need to do to remove impediments that are outside the team’s ability to resolve, for example.)

All the downside of what I’ve describe so far can be amplified by the Dunning–Kruger afflicted scrum master. Amplified again if they are “certified.” To paraphrase from the hacker culture on how you know you’re a hacker (in the classical sense), you aren’t a scrum master until someone else calls you a scrum master. There is always more to learn and apply. A scrum master who remains attentive to that fact will naturally develop quality servant and strong leadership skills.

Finally, the scrum master role is often a thankless job. When new to a team and working to establish trust and credibility the scrum master will need to build respect but often won’t be liked during the process. Shifting individuals out of their comfort zone, changing bad habits, or negotiating 21st Century sensitivities is no easy task even when people like and respect you. So a quality scrum master will work to establish respect first and let the liking follow in due course.

Having succeed at this the scrum master’s business will likely shift to the background. So much so some may wonder why they’re taking up space on the team. Working to establish and maintain this level of performance with a team while remaining in the background is at the heart of the servant part of servant/leader.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *