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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