Let the Scrum Master Come From The Team

scrum master teammemberWhen organizations set up their agile teams, a question arises who should become the Scrum master? Could it be a former project or line manager who will take up the role and act as a servant leader for the team? Or could one of the team members also do the Scrum master activities, next to the technical work. My preference is the second option: Let the Scrum master come from the team.

The Scrum master is a servant leader that helps the team to do their work, with primary focus on the process, the way of working. Scrum masters facilitate agile activities such as the daily stand-up and retrospective. They will also protect the team from external disturbances to have the team working in a sustainable pace.

Project managers becoming Scrum Masters 

In some organizations, the project managers become the scrum masters when they adopt agile. They get a training in agile and scrum and on how to be a scrum master, and then things take off. I’ve seen this work, and spoken with former project managers who like to work as a servant leader for scrum teams. But I have also seen many project managers that keep doing a “command and control” style of leading in their new role as scrum master. Which is not a surprise, because by using these skills they have become an excellent project manager. The project managers may not be aware of how they are steering the team, but the team members are, which can lead to resistance when implementing agile!  Scrum puts more emphasis on collaboration and communication, and empowered employees, and that asks for a different style of team leading.

This doesn’t mean that you fire your project managers. An agile organization often still needs projects managers, but the role of project managers changes when an organisation wants to become agile. I have seen project managers do great things in arranging the works environment and conditions for teams. Most of them also have skills and expertise that they can use to solve impediments, which serves the team in doing their work.

Team members taking the Scrum Master role

My preference is that (technical) team members take the Scrum master role, in stead of former project managers. They can do it next to their regular activities. Acceptance by the team is often higher, since they can “elect” their own scrum master. It can even be a rotating role, where different team members are scrum masters for consecutive sprints. As mentioned earlier, the project leader can help the team to solve impediments, but should not be commanding the team.

team-personalsEvery team that I have worked with had team members who possessed the skills needed to do the scrum master role, if you observe and watch a team, and talk with the team members, then you can see them. I have had several teams where people asked if they could do the scrum master role, they felt a natural urge to help and support the team, and help them to move forward.

A new Scrum master can be coached in his/her role, to learn how to do it effectively and in a limited amount of time (it’s a part time role). Agile coaches can help them, and the team as a whole, to collaborate and find great ways to become a self-steering agile team.

What do you think: Should the Scrum master come from the team, or should it be (former) project managers?

(This blog was posted feb 13, 2013, and updated dec 12, 2013: improved using feedback from the comments received).

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Luis Goncalves

    Fully agree with your views 🙂 Like yourself I prefer to have a Scrum Master that comes from the teams 😉

    1. Ben Linders

      Thanks Luis for sharing this. I’ve had several good experiences with team members that took the scrum masters role. But I’ve heard others who had an external scrum master, which also worked out good. Therefor I’m interested in the experience from others.

  2. steve

    Ben, What if no one on the team wants to be scrum master assuming that there might be someone who has the inherent qualifications?
    And if someone wanted to be scrum master, you mention that the developer could be coached to become a scrum master. Coached by whom?
    Finally, do you suggest one specific scrum master for a team, or, as with a couple of teams I have observed, rotating the scrum master position on a timed bases?

    1. BenLinders

      Good question Steve!

      If no one wants to be a scrum master, I would get worried. What is the reason for it? Is the team not running smoothly? Or is the organization surrounding the team expecting things from the Scrum master which are not realistic? I would help the team to find out what is causing this, most probably by bringing this up in the agile retrospective.

      Most organizations have agile coaches who help teams and their stakeholder to help them become agile in an agile way. These could either be internal coaches or external contracters. I’ve also worked with organization who for instance had internal networks of retrospective facilitators, scrum masters, agile coaches, etc where experiences were shared. People from thise networks can also help professionals to adopt new roles.

      At one of my clients I had a team who initially had two candidates for the Scrum master role. We rotated the role, where each team member did a couple of sprints as Scrum master, then the other took over for the next sprints, and back. This worked good, since it was clear who was the scrum master for the sprint. And it actually helped the team since one scrum master could focus on finishing the current sprint while the other could work on starting the next one!

      Again thanks Steve for these great questions!

  3. steve

    In the case I am thinking of, none of the developers has any interest in non-technical issues. They talk among themselves which is a credit to the self-organization concept but there is no one who wants to facilitate or do non-technical stuff. They see the scrum masters on the other teams spending a lot of time away from programming even when they are not full time. They are not interested. Does a team require a scrum master?
    What about companies that don’t invest in agile coaches – they don’t want the consultants – and feel that ‘coaching’ is not a viable expenditure of money. Note that one company who feels this way has a very viable mentoring program. I am not certain that the assumption that there will always be a coach is always correct.
    I was talking about the prospect of splitting scrum master duties with developer duties, not necessarily just sharing the scrum master role unless in your example the candidates went back to programming when not being scrum master. What about being scrum master part time and developer part time during a single sprint?

  4. BenLinders

    Thanks for your follow up questions.

    My view is that to work effectively as a team (or in any other way), you need to pay attention to your process, your way of working. That is mainly what a Scrum master does, which should be only a percentage of his/her time (it’s a role, not a function).

    I’ve seen excellent teams where most or all of the team members reflected on their process and coached each other. They wouldn’t need a specific Scrum master, as they can all play that role when needed. But most teams find it easier to have one person whose primary focus is on the process, a servant leader that helps the team to do their work.

    So yes, the role of a Scrum master is required, but it shouldn’t take much time and force people away from technical work. And for certain it shouldn’t create distance between a Scrum master and the other team members! That is why I propose that the Scrum master should come from the team, like you say a combination of part time Scrum Master and part time developer.

    Coaching and mentoring are different ways to reflect and improve, and that is was needed to become agile. Again it is not coaches that are needed, but the coaching activity that helps people to learn and adapt new ways of working. Cross coaching and mentoring, where employees help each other, is a viable solution. Make sure however that employees develop their skills to do it.

  5. Skip Pletcher

    As a team matures and becomes not only self-directing but also self-governing, the role of scrummaster as maintainer of Scrum-ness shrinks. In fact, anyone and everyone on the team acts as servant-leader in planning (including daily scrums), reviews, and retrospectives. With such a team (generally achievable in three sprints) differentiation/designation of a scrummaster is practically useless for these ceremonies. One key exception to this non-distinction surrounds the need to attack impediments/obstacles. The process of grooming a designated (part-time) scrummaster must include developing fortitude and awareness to act outside of and in the name of the team to advocate and if necessary fight for changes to help the team. This is not a normal team member role, and possibly one for which some people may be ill-suited. That said, anyone on the team who has passion for product and team with just a smidgeon of basic tact can be effective tackling obstacles. I think a team which grows its own scrummasters is a good Scrum team and wonder whether one which cannot is probably not very agile.

    1. BenLinders

      Skip: I’ve seen teams reach the level of maturity and self-organization but that usually took more then 3 sprints. I’ve also seen teams that will probably never reach that level. A Scrum master helps his/her team to become agile, a change which works best (with less resistance!) when one or more team members take the Scrum master role.

      Thanks for your support on teams that grow their own Scrum masters!

  6. Alex Chiritescu

    Thank you for your article!

    Having worked as a Scrum Master and Developer in a team for some time, I am not so much in favour for a combined role. It can be quite a hustle, especially when team is not very stable. There are plenty of things that a Scrum Master can do and I view the SM role as having an important coaching component and not just process coordinator. It can be quite hard to detach from the Developer “persona” and act as a coach for the team and product owner.

    As for the rotating SM, I have seen it done especially in companies that skipped the coaching part of the role. It was a matter of who’s the poor guy/girl who has to calculate velocity and availability, write tickets in JIRA and book rooms for the meetings, if they were done.

    I am not saying that there can’t be teams who rotate SM or that have combined SM/Dev roles and are effective. Just from my experience so far, I haven’t seen it work well.

    There are many benefits to have a SM who knows the domain and the people well, therefore maybe coming from the team. It would definitely make his/her job easier, from many perspectives. Regardless where the SM comes, he/she should live and breathe as a servant leader and not be a “wolf in sheep’s clothes” as it happens with many project managers who fail to leave the command-and-control attitude behind.

    1. Ben Linders

      Thanks for sharing your experiences Alex!

      I agree that combining the roles of developer and Scrum master can be challenging. Happy to see that you acknowledge the benefit of the Scrum master knowing the domain, and yes, the Scrum master shouldn’t be leading teams using a command and control style!

      Your statement about “poor guy/girl who has to calculate velocity and availability, write tickets in JIRA and book rooms for the meetings” worries me a bit. Scrum masters should be doing more that that, they have a whole different purpose for the team which is to help them become more effective.

      I often hear organizations that need a profile or task list for the things that their Scrum masters need to do. I think this approach is not effective. It works better if your Scrum masters (and your managers) have an agile mindset, and are able to decide themselves what would be useful to do to serve the team.

      Your thoughts on this?

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