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Scrum Wizards and Half Masters: why does each Scrum Team need its own Scrum Master?

“Can we do Scrum without the Scrum Master?” – this question did NOT surprise me the last time when I met leaders in one big enterprise. I still hear variations of this question over and over again.

On the other hand, we are approached by IT professionals with the opposite question: “What to do when managers do not understand why they need a scrum master?”

The Usual Way of Thinking

First of all, it is necessary to understand the way of thinking of a manager. Each of them has two main tasks: reduce costs and increase income. Most of them are guided by the classic management, now often called the “old paradigm”, which is based on a vertical management model (“manager → subordinate”). In this model, there must be a boss who decides tasks, distributes across his subordinates, and measures the performance of employees.

When it comes to agile paradigm, the tired managers do not have time to delve into new concepts, approaches, models as we found most of them under enormous pressure to “achieve the result”. The budget owners may not really see the important details that can boomerang them later. Lost profits, slow product launch, or even significant losses if they are not delivering value in time.

After hearing about Scrum the managers ask the usual questions:

  • Where can we reduce our costs for your innovative model?
  • How to get the most out of it so that the “result” can be seen?

The tired manager sees only familiar and clear concepts in the new model that can be clearly related to the old paradigm and rationalized as everything else. There are many ways to evaluate a developer’s work, but how to measure a scrum master?

Since the term “Scrum Master” for most of them is unfamiliar and tangible benefits not clear, the question sounds quite logical – why should we spend a budget on it?

Having heard about the self-management and autonomy of scrum teams, managers will only be happy with their decision – no scrum masters! If team members are “self-organized”, why do we need a “master” for them?

An Alternative View

Fortunately, there are great examples that could easily relate to a new role. Many of us are involved (or were engaged in childhood) in football, swimming, tennis, and even chess. Accordingly, everyone dealt with the coach. It is an angle that I propose to look at the role of the Scrum Master.

Fans see eleven football players. The contribution of each player is evident to millions of spectators. The coach is not visible on the field. Occasionally, he interferes with the process – gives an indispensable hint when players get carried away with the game and forget why they went out. But what does the coach do? For most, this question is unclear. Especially when the team loses by a landslide. On the contrary, the team wins, the fans glorify the players.

So, the success of the coach should be measured by the success of the whole team. This is essential stepping stone in Scrum. A leader is successful when his team is successful. In the old paradigm, the whole team depends on one leader.

“A leader is successful when his team is successful. The primary role of a scrum master is to form and grow a successful scrum team.”

– Slava Moskalenko

By analogy with sports, a scrum master is a coach. Stripping a scrum team of a scrum master is the same as depriving a sports team coach.

When I came to the swimming coach, he just told me, “Swim twice”. I swam. He watched. Then I was suggested: raise your hand a little higher, turn your head slower, etc. Then I continued to practice, given his tips. Most of the time my swimming coach observed me in the water, periodically delivered some tangible value giving some feedback. My coach never seemed to be very busy helping me to progress in our personal training sessions.

Anyone who follows the “logic” to reward people based on how busy they are is unlikely to understand why coaches are paid so much. One thing should be grasped by tired managers – for a scrum team to be effective and deliver the desired outcomes, we need to respect the proven scrum role model. It is time-tested and confirmed by the success of global Fortune Global 500 companies. To make the teamwork most effective, each role should be in place. For more details, see the article “Scrum role model: how it came about and why it is important“.

It’s worth noting that some scrum teams with a compromised role model were successful in the short term. However, they had undesirable consequences in the long run. Failed scrum-based projects had one thing in common – modifying the original accountabilities, the absence of one of the scrum roles, or its dysfunction.

Old Tricks

There are various tricks to keep familiar and understandable roles and “squeeze” more, like an orange, here and now. Among the most popular tricks are two:

  • Get the scrum master to perform other, more understandable roles (such as a tester, administrator, or business analyst) in parallel.
  • Make the scrum master “serve” not one but several teams (the more, the better).

The result of this trick – multiplying Half Masters and Scrum Wizards in out IT industry.

Half Master

I wonder what the effectiveness of a national football team would be if the functions of one of the eleven players on the field were performed by … a coach? Or vice versa: the role of a coach pushed down to a goalkeeper or a striker?

Many old-school managers consider it economically practical to get rid of an expensive coach and let one of the players carry it. At least, we can draw such a conclusion based on their decisions:

  • adding more responsibilities to the scrum master (so that he also does some coding, troubleshooting, support, testing, etc.);
  • adding the responsibilities of a scrum master to another team member (programmer, tester, etc.).

In fact, the decision to combine roles makes a scrum master a “half-master”, as in football – a half-coach. No one should even wonder why then we get “half-scrum” and “half-efficiency”.

Scrum Wizard

Another trick is to force a scrum master to employ several teams to squeeze everything out of him. These types of “savings” can surely please the budget committee or even the financial officer.

Managers with this mindset can barely understand that the most valuable asset is talented professionals. The age of genius is a thing of the past. Now it’s the age of professionals teaming up to help bring a product to market faster than competitors.

The consequence of the “Scrum Wizard” pattern will be losing the most valuable capital – human talent. Scrum wizards burn out quickly focusing on quantity over quality. Treating talented professionals like nuts and bolts of the delivery methodology will hold a company far or deep behind its competitors.

Time waits for nobody. The winner is the one who releases the product faster, creating value for the user. Scrum was developed for this purpose. The consequences of the old tricks are the imitation of Scrum to preserve the old good resource utilization, even at a high price.

“Scrum Wizard” Case

One of the airlines I worked with managed to impose the role of “wizard” on the scrum master. The Scrum Guide defines how a scrum master can serve the developers, product owners, and organization. The company’s leadership was convinced it shouldn’t be a full-time job and assigned several teams to each scrum master.

Their scrum masters quickly burned out and performed their role mechanically, formally. Scrum masters have lost focus, scattering attention to the problems of different teams. The teams did not achieve their potential.

Can the “wizard” be successful?

Under certain circumstances, a scrum master can naturally scale his service to multiple teams, but it takes time. First, the scrum master should implement a scrum framework within a smaller group of people to ensure a seamless transition from the forming stage to performing. A stable performing team gives a solid foundation for scaling to multiple teams with the same scrum master. We are talking about a maximum of two or three scrum teams and only one product. I would call it natural scaling.

Half Master Case

My first steps in agile and scrum began in a leading software development company in Eastern Europe. The company gave me a role where I was 50% scrum master and 50% programmer. The hybrid role was more like a technical leader than a scrum master. I had to decide where I want to be, and the desire to grow as a scrum master outweighed technical leadership. Since then, I have never put myself in half-master mode.

Experience of others

After training several hundred scrum masters, I found out that 4 out of 5 were in the same “Half Master” situation! Colleagues complained of suffering from loss of focus, priorities, overload. In the “Half Master” role, only one in ten showed a successful result. The other nine merely conducted some scrum meetings and updated scrum boards.

Half-master can be successful in rare organizations with solid Scrum experience, where all the organizational impediments to scrum adoption were already solved and management demonstrates strong support and understanding of Scrum.

Companies that started and failed their first scrum pilots often sends their Half Masters to the certification training. What I just heard from the students: “Scrum does not work!”, “Scrum is terrible!”, “I’m a clumsy scrum master!”, “I sit until night and have to fix technical issues all day long to prepare for planned release?”, “The managers ducked all my initiatives!”. After that, tired professionals over a glass of beer tell other tired professionals how silly Scrum is or why it will never work properly.

How Can Managers Help?

Understand new concepts

First of all, it is worth acquiring the concept of “change agent”. A scrum master is not a person who “performs duties according to job descriptions”, but a leader who influences the environment and develops the team.

It is also worth understanding the flaws in the old paradigm where everyone should be fully utilized. Managers manage, set tasks, monitor, hold meetings, opinion, listen to reports. This is done by project managers. Scrum rethought this role and created a new generation of managers – product owners and scrum masters.

We should remember the parallel of the Scrum Master with a sports coach. Rethink the concept of business value, where talented professionals are the most valuable asset. Missed deadlines can cause some financial losses, undermine the reputation, but we restore it. However, losing talented people is the worst loss which can’t be easily replaced in couple of months.

“Three out of ten specialists will leave the team without a scrum master, and these three will be the best.” – Slava Moskalenko

Losses in the absence of a scrum master:

  • The team is not growing
  • Low quality
  • Technical debt accumulates
  • Escalation of conflicts
  • The release is slowing down
  • The company is losing its competitive advantage in the market
  • The company loses the most valuable resource – human talent
  • The company is not making a profit

In the modern world, a team that does not have a coach, a protector, and someone who solves their problems will not thrive. The scrum master is just needed to ensure the team’s stability, reliability, and smooth operation, resulting in long-term results. Each scrum team must have its own scrum master.

Summary

  • Managers should refrain from the misconception of saving on scrum masters. If your company wants to succeed in product development with Scrum – do not spare money on the scrum master.
  • Avoid fruitless experiments with half-masters and scrum wizards
  • When you need to scale the role of the scrum master, be guided by systematic scaling
  • The “one scrum master per one scrum team” format ensures best outcomes

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