The Scrum Master: Three Popular Anti-Patterns

Scrum is a deceptively simple framework for agile product development. Besides the development team there are only the roles Product Owner and Scrum Master. The process is lean and requires only a few artifacts and events (as the meetings in Scrum are called). This simplicity leads in practice to all kinds of fake agile and cargo cult – lovely but rather ineffective drama. To prevent this from happening, there is the Scrum Master. Unfortunately, this important role suffers from many misinterpretations, as the following three anti-patterns illustrate.

The Manager

There used to be project managers and a project management office, now the Scrum Master manages it. Planning meetings, writing minutes and reports, tracking open issues and any other administrative stuff.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Upton Sinclair

This is very convenient in two ways. On the one hand, because the team and the product owner can then concentrate on their work (of course only until the next report is due and they are then bothered with estimates and spreadsheets), but also because all the former project managers and project management offices find their position in the new agile world. And what’s especially convenient is that nothing has to be changed except the title!

The Teacher

When Scrum is introduced and organizations undergo an agile transformation, there is a lot of change and uncertainty. This inevitably leads to the call for consultants and their silver bullets. Because no one knows enough about Scrum yet, the Scrum Master (usually indeed an external consultant) is seen as a teacher. He or she should instruct the clueless product owner and the clueless development team in Scrum. And if it doesn’t work out, then a better Scrum Master will be brought in!

The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.

Scrum Guide, November 2017

The Scrum Guide deliberately does not state that the Scrum Master is a teacher or consultant who teaches and introduces Scrum theory, practices, rules and values. It says that it helps those involved to understand them so that they can implement these themselves according to the supreme principle of self-organization. Of course, this requires a deep understanding of Scrum from the Scrum Master, but also a completely different stance than that of the teacher or consultant, into which he either willingly puts himself or into which he is driven by the surrounding organization in its quest for more agility.

Stop trying to borrow wisdom and think for yourself. Face your difficulties and think and think and think and solve your problems yourself. Suffering and difficulties provide opportunities to become better. Success is never giving up.

Taiichi Ohno

The Guardian

“Why should I care about the others. All I care about is my team! That’s what I protect and promote as a Scrum Master.” This position is often to be found, but it is much too narrow, as the second paragraph about the role of the Scrum Master in the Scrum Guide shows:

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, November 2017

The Scrum Master works primarily with his team, but always has a broader perspective. He always looks at the team in its environment. He thinks not only of his team, but also systemically and thereby helps to avoid local sub-optimization. This is the only way the team can optimize its value contribution to the big picture.

Servant leadership: At Spotify managers are focused on coaching, mentorship, and solving impediments rather than telling people what to do.

Agile à la Spotify

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