The Court Jester at the Touchline

Servant lead­er­ship in gen­er­al and the mis­un­der­stood role of the Scrum Mas­ter in par­tic­u­lar is most­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed. The effect of this kind of lead­er­ship is rather indi­rect; like a gar­den­er it cre­ates good con­di­tions for suc­cess­ful coop­er­a­tion. If a Scrum Mas­ter, like a foot­ball coach, stands only at the touch­line dur­ing a match, his con­tri­bu­tion is eas­i­ly over­looked. So soon­er or lat­er Scrum Mas­ters will be offered “real” work, i.e. the coach will sim­ply be brought in. And those who are not well aware of their actu­al task and who are try­ing to avoid con­flict will accept this work with grat­i­tude. The much more impor­tant long-term work on the sys­tem and the con­tin­u­ous improve­ment of the orga­ni­za­tion are left behind, but nobody notices this any­more, because every­one is busy with “real” work.

Have you ever expe­ri­enced this? The Scrum Mas­ter is abused as jack of all trades, because after all he is sup­posed to help the team and the prod­uct own­er. That’s what the Scrum Guide says! So he can work a lit­tle bit with the team or at least take some of the annoy­ing project man­age­ment office tasks off the hands of the team, such as report­ing and doc­u­men­ta­tion. Sure he can, but then it sucks.

Wait a minute, the Scrum Mas­ter is sup­posed to take care of imped­i­ments, right? Yes, the Scrum Guide says some­thing about “remov­ing imped­i­ments to the Devel­op­ment Team’s progress.” And the Scrum Mas­ter serves the team, the prod­uct own­er and the orga­ni­za­tion and helps them, right? Yes, and the Scrum Guide also clear­ly states how this ser­vant lead­er­ship is to be under­stood, name­ly as help for self-help: “Coach­ing the Devel­op­ment Team in self-orga­ni­za­tion and cross-functionality.”

So let’s stick for a moment with the imped­i­ments and take an every­day exam­ple: The Devel­op­ment Team is both­ered with sta­tus report­ing because the orga­ni­za­tion is so used to it and thinks it needs it. This is clear­ly an imped­i­ment, but it does­n’t dis­ap­pear because the Scrum Mas­ter him­self devot­ed­ly takes over the report­ing for the team. His real task is to show that the required report­ing slows down the team and then, togeth­er with the recip­i­ents of the sta­tus report (which hope­ful­ly exist, but I would­n’t always bet on it), find a bet­ter way to sat­is­fy their real and hope­ful­ly legit­i­mate interests.

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

Inex­pe­ri­enced Scrum Mas­ters are afraid of this con­flict between the demands made on them (often from a high­er lev­el) and the actu­al task of their role. It is by no means easy to dis­ap­point this expec­ta­tion, espe­cial­ly when they are more or less sub­tly blamed for aban­don­ing the team and avoid­ing their respon­si­bil­i­ty. Many have nev­er expe­ri­enced it dif­fer­ent­ly and are more or less hap­py to be brought in and to work in the sys­tem, which is always urgent at short notice. And in doing so, they for­get the more impor­tant long-term work on the sys­tem.

Putting your head in the sand does­n’t improve the view.

Anais Nin

But the task of the Scrum Mas­ters is not to be pop­u­lar and to avoid con­flicts. Espe­cial­ly not the con­flicts with the orga­ni­za­tion that arise when unhelp­ful prac­tices and inter­ac­tions of the orga­ni­za­tion with the team have to be addressed and ques­tioned. This work on the sys­tem as a mod­ern court jester can only suc­ceed with the right per­spec­tive and the nec­es­sary inde­pen­dence, which is why the posi­tion on the touch­line is prefer­able for the Scrum Mas­ter. So nip this in the bud the next time you are tempt­ed or pushed to work in the system. 

I can’t give you a sure-fire for­mu­la for suc­cess, but I can give you a for­mu­la for fail­ure: try to please every­body all the time.

Her­bert Bayard Swope

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