May 4, 2016

Scrum Master Selection--Critical Success Factor?

  —How important the Scrum Master is to a Scrum team?

I am a firm believer that a separate Scrum Master role, as required by Scrum, is good for a team. The rationale for separation is documented in the Scrum Guide. I agree with it's intent, but like most of Scrum it's hard to get right.

In "Agile Methods: The Good, the Hype and the Ugly" an ACM Webinar by Bertrand Meyers discusses as ugly, the Coach and Method Keeper (e.g., Scrum Master) as a separate role (around 44:50). He says this leads people becoming a political commissars and creates a class of people who wash there hands of the result.

The separation described by Meyers' is a Scrum smell whose origin lies in the natural tension arising from the Scrum Master's role to ensure that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices and rules and the Development Team's need to be self-organizing. The problem arises when this natural tension turns into conflict.

This conflict manifests itself whenever the Development Team runs into situations where the theory, practices or rules conflict with what they perceive as the correct way to organize themselves. If the Scrum Master views this as a lack of buy-in instead of part of the learning process there will be trouble.

A common refrain is that if you aren't following the theory, practices and rules of Scrum than you aren't doing Scrum. You need to worry when you hear this sort of thing. It's problematic on at least two fronts.
  • It implies the process has over taken the deliverables in terms of importance. Carefully consider whether perfecting the process is beneficial to the customer deliverable before you place a great deal of importance on such statements.
  • It implies the natural tension arising between the Scrum Master's role and the Development Team's role has turned a corner and may be heading towards the sort of conflict that hurts everyone. Conflict can be good, especially in an environment that promotes constructive criticism and learning but it can be unhealthy in an environment where positions and opinions have become inflexible.
It takes a special person to be an effective Scrum Master. A good Scrum Master has:
  • a precise and wide-ranging knowledge of Scrum theory, practices and rules.
  • wide experience in applying Scrum theory, practices.
  • patience and ability to allow teams to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.
  • humility and understanding both in terms of the Scrum Master's and Development Team's abilities.
In a world where everyone is looking for quick and easy answers to hard problems it is natural to gravitate to something the promises a way forward. The thing to remember is that Scrum is hard to get right because it deals with people and challenges them in ways that they may not be used to. 

Sorting out these challenges isn't something that comes with a certificate from a course you paid a few thousand dollars for. Its a mixture of experience, personality and wisdom that only comes through experience.
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