Should a Scrum Master Be “Technical”?

This is a pretty popular question in Scrum circles that recently came up on LinkedIn (again).

In order to answer this question, I believe we first need to define terms “Scrum Master” and “technical”.

Merriam-Webster provides this as a definition for the term technical, “having special and usually practical knowledge especially of a mechanical or scientific subject” while the Business Dictionary provides the following for its definition, “pertaining to computers or technology”.  For the purposes of this post and in the context of Scrum as a process framework for the development of software products, technical, will simply mean “understanding the technologies and being able to engage in the software development activities involved in the process of creating software products”. Technical, is not a synonym for “software developer” or “computer science major”.

For the definition of Scrum Master, we don’t have to look any further than the Scrum Guide which provides us with the following as it relates to the Development Team:

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality;
  • Helping the Development Team to create high-value products;
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress;
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed; and,
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

I highlighted “helping the Development Team to create high-value products” because it stands out separately from “coaching the team”, “removing impediments” and “facilitating events like retrospectives, refinement, and standups”. What does it mean for the Scrum Master to “help the development team create high-value products”? Pretty vague, isn’t it? It would seem to me that the interpretation is largely left to the Scrum Master (and the Development Team) on what help they can provide. In my opinion, helping includes the Scrum Master to directly engaged in the value creation process.  In other words, the Scrum Master can directly act on the software product as its being developed. (For what it’s worth previous versions of the Scrum Guide said something much stronger when it came to helping the development team: https://webgate.ltd.uk/scrum-guide-2013). In helping the team, the Scrum Master still needs to respect the empowerment given to the Development Team.

I don’t know how a Scrum Master can effectively engage in core software development activities without understanding what’s going on from a technical perspective. In the Scrum community, there is a ton of focus on coaching, facilitating and removing impediments. I have no intention to diminish the importance and necessity of these activities but these activities do not act directly on the product that is being created.

I don’t see a lot of conversation around how the Scrum Master can help with the core activities of software development if need be.  In fact, I read many posts that seemingly discourage Scrum Masters from becoming directly involved in value creation. It’s taboo to ask (for example) if a Scrum Master can test, write stories or even code if need be. I’ve interviewed many a Scrum Master who didn’t really care about how things really got done or worked because they believed that this needn’t be a concern of theirs or as they often put it, “I’m not technical and I was told during my training that I didn’t need to be”.

Maybe we’re compensating for bad practices we observed such as the making of the Lead Developer a part time Scrum Master. However, I don’t believe that we effectively address dysfunction by reinforcing other dysfunctional practices.

So, should a Scrum Master be technical? I believe the answer is yes but that is only if the Scrum Master wants to be able to help act directly on the software product being developed. Otherwise, the answer is obviously no. I encourage all the Scrum Master’s I work with to be as technical as they can comfortably be.  As a Scrum Master, the choice is ultimately yours.

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Should A Scrum Master Have A Goal To Make Themselves Unneeded?

It has become quite common to come across articles or posts that state that the goal of a Scrum Master should be to make themselves unneeded or as a colleague recently put it, “put him or herself out of a job”.  I disagree.

The role of the Scrum Master is clearly defined in the Scrum Guide.  To summarize, the Scrum Masters provides service and help to the:

  • Product Owner
  • Development Team
  • The Organization at large

Suggesting that the goal of the Scrum Master is to make themselves unneeded is to suggest that the Scrum Master should be focused on either ensuring that (a) the services they provide are no longer needed and/or (b) someone else besides them provides these services.  In other words, ensuring that they are temporary!  In my opinion, this completely misses the point, is an unnecessary distraction and a potential source of much frustration.

The goal of every team member should be to make a contribution to the team in support of its quest to be successful and this includes the Scrum Master.  The goal of the Scrum Master should be to provide the help needed so that the team can effectively and efficiently deliver software that is valuable.  It is not to make themselves unnecessary.

How about coaching? Is that a permanent thing?  The Scrum Master coaches three distinct groups and even if the Product Owner and Development Team arrive at a point where they no longer need coaching, I’m not convinced the “Organization at large” in a complex environment (ever) arrives at such a point.  Never mind that the Scrum (Agile) body of knowledge continues to evolves, rarely ever does the system remain the same.  If you know of any organizations that have arrived at such point where they could no longer benefit from continued coaching, please feel free to share.

But for grins and giggles, let’s agree that it is actually quite possible for an organization to get to the point where (a) the help provided by the Scrum Master is no longer needed or (b) other roles in the organization can effectively and efficiently provide this help as it changes (because it will change).  In my opinion, this then is simply a by-product of the Scrum Master’s continued service to the organization and is not a goal that is defined upfront.

And yet, if you insist that the goal of the Scrum Master is to make themselves unneeded, then I have a book recommendation for you.  Check out  Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly.  It might be beneficial to you on your journey to make yourself unnecessary or unneeded.

What’s Wrong With Scrum?

What’s wrong with Scrum? In my opinion, nothing really. That’s right, nothing.

But Scrum isn’t perfect. Okay, show me what is, please.

But Scrum is missing some key properties. Okay, show me what has ALL the key properties you believe are required for successful software delivery.

But Scrum doesn’t work in MANY situations. You just might be right and I just might agree with you. But does that mean that something is wrong with Scrum? I think not – and I’m not a Scrum defender (even though it seems like I’m becoming one these days).

There are at least a three reasons that I can quickly think of as to why Scrum will NOT work in a given context (I assume you’ll be able to add to the list):

  1. The nature of the work is not a fit for Scrum.
  2. The organizational culture is not a fit for Scrum.
  3. The individual(s) responsible for guiding Scrum adoption are lacking in skill and ability.

In a very unusual turn for me, I want to explore bullet point 3 first, that is, I want to focus on the individual(s). I rarely do this but in this case I believe it to be important, so with that being said, let’s talk about the Scrum Master role.

The Scrum Master Role

The Scrum Guide says this about the Scrum Master:

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules.

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.

But actually doesn’t stop there, it goes on to say the following:

Scrum Master Service to the Product Owner

The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including:

  • Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management;
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items;
  • Understanding product planning in an empirical environment;
  • Ensuring the Product Owner knows how to arrange the Product Backlog to maximize value;
  • Understanding and practicing agility; and,
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.

Scrum Master Service to the Development Team

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality;
  • Helping the Development Team to create high-value products;
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress;
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed; and,
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

Scrum Master Service to the Organization

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization;
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development;
  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team; and,
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organization.

I took the liberty to copy directly from the Scrum Guide because I consider this to be important stuff.  (Another good resource is the 42 tasks).

A careful review of this role description hopefully makes it obvious to the reader the vital nature of the Scrum Master role in Scrum.  If you currently serve in the role of a Scrum Master, what does your self-assessment look like taking into consideration the Dunning-Kruger effect? Be honest with yourself. Did you understand what empirical product development was (before you googled it right now)?

I posit that one of the big challenges to Scrum in the industry is the inability of many Scrum Masters working in different organizations to be effective. I might be wrong about this but after working with a lot of Scrum Masters, interviewing many more and participating in online discussions, I believe there is some truth to this.

So why is this the case? There are few reasons in my opinion and yet today I just want to look at three that focus largely (surprisingly) on the individual. (There are organizational factors that contribute to the low degree of skill and ability as well, but those will be addressed in a subsequent post.)

 

The Scrum Master Certification

For a handsome fee and a two-day training session, you can become, wait for it, a Certified Scrum Master. The Scrum Alliance says that: As a CSM, you will be able to fill the role of Scrum Master or Scrum team member.

I am yet to understand how a 2-day training session equips anyone to effectively perform the services required of a Scrum Master (except they were already a practitioner).  I would love for someone to bring clarity around this statement. People tell me that they are going to take the class so they can act in the role. Recruiters present candidates that are CSM’s. Managers look to hire CSM candidates. The services are entrusted into the hands of people who are not qualified to perform the role (but they are certified).

The way the CSM certification seems to have been positioned leads people to believe that just taking the class qualifies them for the role and that there is really nothing much to it. This may not be the intent of the Scrum Alliance, but it is definitely (at least) an unintended consequence. Your CSM trainer might even be good enough to stress what is needed to be really effective and yet I’m not sure that makes a difference to many people. I suppose I could be wrong. My interactions would suggest that I’m not.

As Rob Myers and I discussed the other day:

 

Shallow Commitment to Craft

What’s sad about this point is that I encounter many Scrum Master’s that are more committed to enforcing myths in Scrum (as I pointed out in my last post) than they are to improving their craft and growing in their knowledge. They are victims of a “little learning”. As I asked in my last post, when is the last time you as a Scrum Master reviewed the Scrum Guide? Do you know that the Scrum Master doesn’t actually have to attend the Daily Scrum? How about the Agile Manifesto? What’s the last “people coaching” book you read? How about the last dialogues you participated in on a Scrum forum? How much time are you investing in growing your ability?

Scrum Masters that do not continually evolve their capability actually retard the adoption of Agile in the organization. Facilitating events is only the tip of the iceberg. There is more to the role than meets the eye.  Go back and read the role description again.

If you’re really serious about being a Scrum Master then the Certified Scrum Professional certification may be something you would want to look into.

 

Poor Examples

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying the following:

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.

I find that many people feel they can be effective Scrum Masters because of the examples of other Scrum Masters they see around them on a daily basis. Examples that are extremely poor. Examples that suggest that one can perform the role after a two-day training session. Examples that suggest that the role is only about facilitating meetings and removing impediments. Examples that suggest that the role is just another flavor of a project manager (or release manager or…well you get the point).

I’ve focused on the Scrum Master role here because Scrum is talked about quite a bit. I do need to point out however that these observations are not exclusive to the domain of Scrum. I find them quite applicable to Agile (as a value system) and any of its methods and frameworks that are being used today. Hence, this post is not just focused on Scrum and the Scrum Master role.  Its scope includes all Agile Team Leader-type roles.

At the beginning of this post, I presented 3 reasons why Scrum may not work in a particular context. Interestingly enough, an ineffective Scrum Master will not be able to identify reasons 1 and 2 presented above. It disastrous having people who don’t have the requisite skill guide Agile adoption. I’ve encountered many certified Scrum Masters who want to make every thing they do fit into the Scrum framework. For them, they have a hammer and everything is a nail. The inability to take a step back and look at things through the eyes of the system is severely lacking. Sometimes, Scrum is not initially a fit and it’s in the best interest of the teams and organizations to evolve so that Scrum does become a fit. At other times, something else (instead of Scrum) needs to leveraged. The ability to discern and then influence appropriately is critical and yet I find those skills to be significantly lacking in many Agile Team Leaders.

So for Scrum Masters or for those intending to be Scrum Masters (or similar Agile Team Leader roles), take a few minutes to understand the significance of the contribution you are supposed to be making within your organization. Identify where you have gaps and make a conscious effort to address them. Find someone in your organization or the Agile community who can be your coach or guide. Join Twitter and follow some Agile thought leaders. Join one of the Agile groups online. Engage in conversation, debate and learning.

Don’t be the reason people say something is wrong Scrum or Agile.