Is a scrum master a management position, and if not, why not?
Welcome to part 37 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
Emphatically no. A scrum master is not a manager. A leader? Yes. A servant leadership position but not a manager in the sense of a supervisor or project manager.
When I refer to a manager, I am specifically thinking of that traditional manager that is responsible for people, their outputs, and their delivery. Somebody who decides on what tasks need to be done and then delegates that work to other people.
A scrum master as a leader.
Yes, a scrum master focuses on the people in the team, and yes, they often work with people outside of the team to get things done, but they don’t manage anyone nor do they delegate work.
A manager or project manager is assigned authority by the organization, which in turn needs to be respected by the people in that team. By contrast, a scrum master needs to inspire trust and respect in the people they work with, and through their credibility and reliability they develop influence.
So, a scrum master can be a powerful force of nature in the scrum team but it isn’t through authority or through traditional management techniques and practices.
They inspire others to follow because they are a leader and have demonstrated, consistently and reliably, that their primary driving force is the best interests of the team, the individuals on that team, and achieving the purpose agreed by the team.
A manager makes sure that you do what you are told in the right way, whilst a leader ensures that you are working on the right thing in the most valuable way.
People and Interactions over Processes and Tools.
One of the primary agile values as outlined in the agile manifesto is ‘people and interactions over processes and tools’. This doesn’t mean that processes and tools aren’t valuable or necessary, it simply means that we value people and their interactions above processes and tools.
A manager is often concerned with ensuring that people are doing what they are told, how they were told to do it, and within the constraints – such as cost and time – agreed upon by more senior management.
In an agile or scrum environment, we don’t know the answer upfront so we can’t specify the steps from point A to point Z. We need to discover the answer through experimentation and adaptation, and so we need to focus more on helping people design and develop the processes that best work for them, and helping them identify the tools that best support them, rather than specifying what must be done and how it must be done.
Remember, the team are the experts.
They are the people with the most knowledge of the problem and they are the people in possession of the most valuable skills, and so they are best positioned to make those decisions. There is no need for a scrum master to tell them what to do or supervise their work. It would be a pointless exercise.
So, a great scrum master will definitely hold a team accountable for the work they have committed to doing, to the standard they agreed was necessary for success, but they won’t whip anyone nor will they ‘drive’ any outputs in the same way that a project manager might.
Creating an environment where others can succeed.
There is that old saying that a gardener does not kill the plant if it is failing to grow. It corrects the environment within which the plant is growing. In the same way, the scrum master takes a great interest in helping to create an environment where the team can thrive.
- Do the team have everything they need to get the job done?
- Do the organizational policies support the work that the team are focused on?
- Do we have psychological safety in the team environment?
- Is it safe to fail through well-designed hypotheses and experiments?
- Is the team environment aligned with continuous learning and improvement?
And so forth.
If it’s clear that the team aren’t able to do a great job, the scrum master does not chastise or fire anyone for that reason. Instead, they would work with the team to identify how that could change.
- Do we have the skills we need and if not, how do we acquire them?
- Do we have too much work pouring in and if yes, how do we limit work in progress?
- Are we working on the most valuable items or are we being overburdened by stakeholders?
The focus is on identifying what is needed to succeed, what impediments need to be removed, and how we can improve with each iteration.
The scrum master will also be interested in developing and strengthening relationships.
- Relationships within the team environment.
- Relationships with customers and product stakeholders.
- Relationships with other teams in the organization.
- Relationships with leaders and executives within the organization.
- Relationships with partners, strategic alliances, and suppliers.
Each of these are important and help the team to achieve objectives, especially when problems arise that are outside of the influence and control of the team.
Strengthening relationships also allows individuals in the team to enter and exit confrontation, willingly and effectively, because sometimes we do need to have hard and frank conversations.
We do need to speak the truth to power, and we do need to make the most effective and valuable contribution to the team, and so that does require confrontation and conflict. Are we mature enough to do that, is the team mature enough to do that, and is the organization psychologically safe enough for us to do that.
Customer and Stakeholder Management
In keeping with the scrum master’s need to develop trust and influence, they need to work closely with customers and stakeholders.
Sometimes, that is a teaching role where they are explaining how scrum works and how it serves to produce the most valuable solution or solve the most compelling problem. It’s teaching customers and stakeholders how to engage with the team and get the most out of their interactions.
A scrum master could even be coaching customer and stakeholders to identify the most valuable way forward, and the most effective ways of engaging with the team. Be it through sprint reviews or through product backlog refinement sessions.
Whatever it takes to help bring developers, product owners, and customers / product stakeholders together in productive, respectful, and meaningful ways.
About John McFadyen
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For more information on John McFadyen, connect with John on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnmcfadyen/.
If you like the idea of becoming a scrum master and want to achieve internationally recognised and certified accreditation as a scrum master, visit our Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course page.
If you are already a scrum master and want to upskill to a more advanced level of knowledge and agile coaching capability, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM) course page.
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