Are Scrum Masters redundant in organizations with high agile maturity?

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Since I was introduced to the Agile Maturity Model in the Professional Agile Leadership course, I have given this model a lot of thought. In Geoff Watts’ ‘Scrum Mastery’, I found a very amusing quote comparing the role of the Scrum Master to that of Nanny McPhee from the 2005 movie of the same name.

Are Scrum Masters redundant in organizations with high agile maturity?

“There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.”

Is this, however, true? Is there a ‘Agile nirvana’ state in which Scrum Masters are raptured into another realm? Or, like Nanny McPhee, will you relocate to other families in need of your services?

What role does a Scrum Master play when the developers are fully self-managing, trust and respect one another, and consistently deliver value? When a Product Owner is focused on maximizing value through customer collaboration and leads complex value chains involving multiple teams and stakeholders? When leaders have become true Agile leaders and embrace and guard an agile culture of continuous improvement and delegation of power?

The above sounds like a utopia; and for most organizations embracing Agile and/or Scrum they find themselves as being “work in progress”. It is quite often difficult to achieve true mastery (or maturity).

In this article, I will describe these levels of maturity and attempt to determine whether the Scrum Master can truly be rendered redundant in high-functioning Agile organizations.

In the Agile Maturity Model by the Agile Leadership School, all roles in the Scrum Team (Scrum Master, Product Owner, Developers, and Leadership) have five levels of maturity. Maturity can be increased in five axes for each role. These axes are not specifically named in the model, but I will attempt to describe them in this article.

The road to maturity

For Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and Developers’ maturity and mastery of the various axes follow a ‘Shu-Ha-Ri’ structure, divided into five maturity levels. The first and lowest level focuses on compliance – learning to follow the fundamental rules. The second level focuses on interpretation, gaining practical working knowledge, and developing one’s own opinion. The third and middle level, with a strong sense of responsibility and active decision-making. The fourth level is all about shaping, where understanding and responsibility play a big role and rules have evolved into guidelines. Finally, at the fifth and final level, the team focuses on leadership, where the Scrum Team assumes responsibility and creates the rules.

The maturity and mastery of the various axes for (Agile) leaders has a different structure, with levels in which leaders progress from a more rule-centered and micromanaging style to a leader who delegate power and responsibilities and becomes more of a facilitator. These five levels are referred to as controlling, advising, involving, stimulating, and leading in the Agile Maturity Model.

In the Professional Agile Leadership course the role and interventions of Agile Leaders were discussed. We talked about seven different levels of delegation – or interventions – that leaders can apply. These are: tell, sell, consult, agree, advice, inquire and delegate. During our class, we concluded that a higher level of delegation corresponds to the maturity of the Scrum Team. It is worthwhile to investigate these interventions: some may be compatible with the maturity of specific teams, while others may not.

Maturity of a Scrum Master

Axis 1: Stimulating excellence
Scrum Masters focus on executing operational work at the most basic level. It’s a Scrum Master going through the motions. As we progress through the levels, the Scrum Master takes on a more prominent role in guiding the Scrum Team in understanding their roles and applying Scrum according to the framework. As we progress, the Scrum Master encourages the Scrum Team to take on more responsibility and ownership of their role in the team’s success. Finally, the Scrum Master fully utilizes their servant-mastership in leading and stimulating the success of the Scrum Team – and, ultimately, the success of the organization and the value stream as a whole.

Axis 2: Value delivery
The Scrum Master invests their time in tracking and visualizing progress at the lowest level of maturity on this axis. Moving up, the Scrum Master empowers the developers to do their own tracking and visualization. As maturity increases, the emphasis shifts from tracking progress to delivering value and involving the Product Owner. In the final levels, the Scrum Team’s continuous improvement and value delivery takes center stage, leading to the organization’s focus on making the greatest impact on end-users.

Axis 3: Mastering Agile values & principles
At a low level of maturity, the Scrum Master plans and facilitates all Scrum events ‘by the book’. This facilitation is taken to the next level by focusing on the Scrum Values and empiricism as a guide. Further, the Scrum Master is critical in ensuring that the Scrum Team understands and embraces the Scrum Values. Later on, the emphasis will be on the stakeholders’ and, eventually, the entire organization’s understanding of these values and principles.

Axis 4: (Process) improvement
A new Scrum Master begins by becoming acquainted with the framework by learning new practices and achieving operational successes. As a Scrum Master matures, their focus shifts to linking their daily practices to goals and outcomes. Moving forward, the Scrum Master employs their skills and knowledge to ensure that the team is committed to continuous improvement. The focus shifts from the team to the value chain, and finally to the organization as a whole in the final two levels.

Axis 5: Mastering Scrum
This axis focuses on Scrum knowledge mastery. Novice Scrum Masters start by learning how to use Scrum in accordance with the framework. Later, the Scrum Master has practical experience running Scrum based on their theoretical mastery. At a higher level, the Scrum Master can draw on their extensive experience and has the confidence and capability to experiment with new practices. The Scrum Master, at the highest level of maturity, teaches others how to combine Scrum with other practices.

You can see a Scrum Master’s focus shift from learning the ropes, going through the works, and project management skills to ultimately focusing on the organization’s knowledge and value delivery and empowering others.

Maturity of a Product Owner

Axis 1: Stakeholder collaboration
A Product Owner begins by converting stakeholder requests into specific, ad hoc work for the team to complete. As the Product Owner grows in experience, they should be able to work with multiple stakeholders to create a single Product Backlog. Later, the Product Owner expands on that collaboration by bringing in the rest of the Scrum Team. This axis’ mastery and maturity is attained by being able to lead a value chain with multiple teams and stakeholders, and eventually leading more complex value chains.

Axis 2: Value and impact on stakeholders
Novice Product Owners satisfy their stakeholders by incorporating requirements and feedback into their work. As a Product Owner matures, he or she opens up the process and increases transparency of progress and output, resulting in greater trust from stakeholders. The emphasis shifts from reporting progress and outcomes to creating value. The ultimate level is influencing (and measuring) the satisfaction of actual end-users.

Axis 3: Product-level mandate
At the most basic maturity level, the Product Owner serves as a proxy for the stakeholders, carrying out their plans and product decisions. When reaching a higher level, this shifts to a more directive viewpoint, as the Product Owner will influence stakeholders in making plans and decisions. This shifts from influencing to more in-depth collaboration as maturity advances. Taking it a step further, advanced Product Owners assert their authority to make product-related decisions and release plans themselves. Product Owners with the highest level of maturity claim responsibility for product value chain planning, budgeting, costs, and benefits.

Axis 4: Focus on value
Product Owners typically begin by focusing on requirements and PBIs, and later learn to focus on simple sprint goals and product increments. The emphasis shifts from features to the actual value being created. The Product Owner increases the value of the product by involving stakeholders and, ultimately, end users.

Axis 5: Backlog management & product knowledge
This axis focuses on product knowledge mastery. The Product Owner begins by acquiring and applying analytical and fundamental product knowledge. The Product Owner “owns” and maintains the Product Backlog as maturity increases. The Product Owner’s knowledge expands further as he or she gains an overview of all steps in the value creation process. This knowledge grows as they gain a thorough understanding of the product, the value chain, and the end-users – the ultimate mastery being a thorough understanding of one (or more) product portfolio(s).

For the Product Owner, you can see a shift from a stakeholder-led, feature-focused approach to one that prioritizes value and its impact on stakeholders and end users. The Product Owner, rather than the stakeholders, gains product knowledge and the authority to make product-related decisions.

Maturity of the Developers

Axis 1: Stability and trust
Teams with a ‘young’ agile maturity seek consistency, rest, and a sense of belonging. As the Developers mature, they begin to seek common ground among themselves. At a higher level, the Developers are becoming more open to one another, leading to trust and respect becoming the foundation of all actions taken. The highest level of trust is when team members blindly trust each other.

Axis 2: Feedback-driven
Novice teams place a high priority on correctly following new processes, rules, and instructions. As they progress, the team focuses on developing explicit measures of success. As the team matures, it actively solicits feedback in order to have a greater impact on stakeholders. When the team begins to collaborate with stakeholders to deliver high-quality product increments, stakeholder involvement increases. The highest level in this axis is described as when a team consistently delivers value, with the value confirmed by actual end-users.

Axis 3: Propagating/promoting (Scrum) values
Developers at the lowest maturity level are focused on avoiding conflict, pursuing individual goals, and producing results. Teams at a higher level are concerned with identifying differences, resolving conflicts, and developing shared values. Together with the Scrum Master, the team can reach new heights by incorporating Scrum and Agile values into all interactions. This promotion of these values is heightened as the team collaborates with stakeholders to achieve continuous improvement and, eventually, with the entire organization to participate in the sharing of feedback and learnings.

Axis 4: Process to quality-driven
Novice Developers rely heavily on their Scrum Master for guidance. At a higher level, the Developers begin to take ownership of the process by ensuring the outcomes of all events while adopting the Scrum Values. At a higher level, the emphasis shifts to meeting Sprint Goals and improving quality. As maturity advances, the emphasis shifts from process mastery to actual responsibility and commitment to frequent delivery of valuable outcomes. Developers at the highest level take full responsibility for producing high-quality products.

Axis 5: Forming standards
Early in their maturity, developers begin by determining tasks based on their individual knowledge and standards. As developers advance in their careers, they discuss and share their knowledge, practices, and quality standards. As the team discusses and shares these, they discover new common standards that they can all agree on. At the highest levels, these standards are constantly used, challenged, and updated, with Developers ultimately acting intuitively on their common shared standards.

There are obvious parallels with Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. This model describes the stages that a group (which can be any type of group, according to Tuckman) goes through in order to achieve good cooperation. These could also be interpreted as stages of maturation.

Maturity as an (Agile) Leader

Axis 1: Delegation of responsibilities
Leaders at the lowest level of agile maturity want complete control and communicate in a very directive manner. Leaders relinquish control at higher levels by delegating a few critical responsibilities, then all but the critical decisions and responsibilities, and finally all decisions and responsibilities.

Axis 2: Goal-driven
Leaders at the start of their Agile journey typically measure their success in terms of company profit and shareholder satisfaction. As time goes on, they demand explicit measurements of progress, outputs, and quality. Taking it a step further, leaders track progress by physically attending team events on a regular basis. Leaders at the highest levels provide teams with a (relatable) vision and mission, allowing the organization to act with these larger visions and missions in mind.

Axis 3: Employee entrepreneurship
Early in their maturity, leaders are focused on setting individual goals for progress, efficiency, quality, and outcomes. As a leader matures, they increase their emphasis on assigning these goals to teams. These targets are set at a higher level by the teams themselves, with the leader providing clear boundary conditions. As maturity grows, the leader fosters an environment in which teams can self-organize and generate value. The leader facilitates entrepreneurship and growth for all employees at the highest level for this axis.

Axis 4: Fostering improvement
Novice agile leaders typically ensure rule compliance, plan execution, and quality targets. At a higher level, agile leaders ensure that rules, plans, and quality standards are followed. As they progress, they involve the teams to ensure agreement on rules, plans, and quality standards. Agile leaders’ activities evolve into advice, coaching, and facilitation, with the highest tier taking on the role of inspirator, guardian of the (Agile) workculture, and vital role in stimulating continuous improvement.

Axis 5: Product Management delegation
Leaders want full involvement and control over plans, rules, and budgets in the early stages of agile maturity. However, as they mature, they begin to delegate plan execution to the Product Owner. At a higher level, they involve the Product Owner in co-creating these plans, and at an even higher level, the Product Owner is in charge of all planning and execution. The leader delegated responsibility for the entire value chain to the Product Owner and the Scrum Team at the highest level(s).

It is simple to see your progress as a (Agile) leader. The old industrial paradigm of control, compliance, and carrot-and-stick is at one end of the spectrum. Delegation, vision-building, and facilitating personal and team growth are on the other end.

The Scrum Master in organizations with high agile maturity

At a lower level of maturity, we usually see the Scrum Master as a teacher, facilitator, and impediment-remover. However, as an organization’s agile maturity grows, the nature of the Scrum Master’s work changes. Naturally, mastery of Scrum and its principles has increased significantly. The Scrum Master shifts their focus to organizational improvements rather than team-level improvements. There is a greater emphasis on the impact on end users rather than the already well-oiled process. Improving organizations necessitates a more advanced set of skills, so the Scrum Master focuses on mastering the role of change agent. As a Scrum Master, you are not becoming obsolete; rather, the nature of your work changes. The only overlap is in the level of operational involvement with the Scrum team. The Scrum Master’s focus shifts to other, larger challenges as the team becomes more self-managing.

So, as romantic as the comparison to Nanny McPhee may sound, the work of a Scrum Master changes and progresses, but they are fortunately never completely out of sight.

I should also point out that as organizations evolve and progress, new challenges emerge. Our activities may change. Additional practices may emerge that can be combined with Scrum in their own unique way.

Remember that careers and team compositions evolve over time. Scrum Team members or leaders who are new or ‘young’ may require a different approach to help them grow and reach a higher level of maturity.

Agile’s field is changing as well. Scrum as a framework is always in flux, as it is updated as new insights emerge.

Finally, Scrum implementation can be viewed as a tug of war between the Agile paradigm and the old industrial paradigm. Even in highly Agile mature organizations, ‘Taylorism’ may resurface in unexpected and sneaky ways. Try to be aware of that!

So, regardless of maturity level, a Scrum Master will always have a critical role in agile organizations.

You can download the Agile Maturity Model on the website of the Agile Leadership School. This model can be used to assess the maturity of the Scrum Team (and all different roles) and Leaders in your organization.

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