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.”

But is that really true? Is there a state of ‘Agile nirvana‘, where Scrum Masters are raptured into another realm? Or, like Nanny McPhee, move to other families in need of their services?

What role is there for a Scrum Master when the Developers are fully self-managing, trust and respect one another and deliver value on a frequent basis? When a Product Owner is focused on value optimization through customer collaboration and leads complex value chains with 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 an utopia; and for most organizations embracing Agile and/or Scrum they find themselves as being “work in progress”. There is often a long way to achieve actual mastery (or maturity).

In this article I will describe these levels of maturity – and will try to investigate whether or not the Scrum Master can truly be made redundant in high-functioning Agile organizations.

In the Agile Maturity Model by the Agile Leadership School, five levels of maturity are described for all roles in the Scrum Team (Scrum Master, Product Owner, Developers) and the Leadership. For each role, maturity can increase in five axes. These axes have not been specifically named in the model, but I am making an attempt in this article to describe these axes.

The road to maturity

The maturity and mastery of the various axes for Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Developers follows more or less a ‘Shu-Ha-Ri’ structure, divided into five maturity levels. The lowest and first level focuses on complying – learning to follow the basic rules. The second level focuses on interpretation, attaining practical working knowledge and forming one’s own judgement. The third and middle level focusing on contribution – with a high sense of responsibility and active decisionmaking. The fourth level focuses on shaping, where understanding and responsibility have a large role and rules have become guidelines. Finally, at the fifth and final level, the team focuses on leading, where the Scrum Team takes responsibility and shapes the rules themselves.

The maturity and mastery of the various axes for (Agile) leaders follows a different structure, and follows levels in which leaders move from a more rule-centered and micromanaging style, to a leader who delegates power and responsibilities and becomes more of a facilitator. The Agile Maturity Model calls these five levels controlling, advising, involving, stimulating and leading.

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 it was concluded that a higher level of delegation fits with the level of maturity of the Scrum Team. It is worth reading into these interventions: some interventions might be compatible to the maturity of certain teams and others may not.

Maturity of a Scrum Master

Axis 1: Stimulating excellence
At the lowest level, Scrum Masters focus on executing operational work. It’s a Scrum Master going through the works mechanically. When we move up a level, the Scrum Master is taking a more prominent role in guiding the Scrum Team in understanding their roles and how to apply Scrum according to the framework. If we move another level up, The Scrum Master stimulates the Scrum Team to take more responsibility and take ownership of their role in becoming succesful. In the final levels, the Scrum Master fully utilizes their servant-mastership in leading and stimulating success of the Scrum Team – and ultimately the success of the organization and the value stream at large.

Axis 2: Value delivery
At the the lowest level of maturity of this axis, the Scrum Master invests their time in tracking and visualising progress. Moving up, the Scrum Master enables the Developers to do the tracking and visualising themselves. Moving upward in maturity, the focus moves away from tracking progress to the delivery of value and involvement of the Product Owner. In the final levels, continuous improvement and delivery of value by the Scrum Team takes center stage, leading to the focus of the organization on making the best impact on the end-users. 

Axis 3: Mastering Agile values & principles
At low maturity, the Scrum Master plans and facilitates all Scrum events, by the book. On a higher level, this facilitation is taken up a notch, by focusing on the Scrum Values and empiricism as a guide. Taken another step further, the Scrum Master plays a vital role in the letting the Scrum Team understand and embrace these Scrum Values. Later on, the focus lies on the understanding of these values and principles by the stakeholders and ultimately, the entire organization.

Axis 4: (Process) improvement
A fresh Scrum Master starts of with their focus on getting acquainted with the framework by learning new practices and achieving operational successes. As a Scrum Master matures, they shift their focus to connecting their daily practices with goals and outcomes. Moving ahead, the Scrum Master utilizes their skills and knowledge to make sure the team is focused on continuous improvement. In the final two levels, this focus shifts from the team to improving the value chain and finally to improving the organization at large.

Axis 5: Mastering Scrum
This axis focuses on the mastery of Scrum knowledge. Novice Scrum Masters begin by learning how to apply Scrum according to the framework. Later on, the Scrum Master has situational experience in running Scrum according to their theoretical mastery. At a higher level, the Scrum Master can apply their extended experience and has the confidence and capability to run experiments with additional practices. At the highest level of maturity, the Scrum Master teaches others how to combine Scrum with additional practices.

You can observe the focus of a Scrum Master shift from learning the ropes, going through the works, and projectmanagement-skills to ultimately focusing on the knowledge and value delivery of the organization and empowering others.

Maturity of a Product Owner

Axis 1: Stakeholder collaboration
A Product Owner starts off by translating stakeholder wishes into specific, ad hoc work for the team to work on. As the Product Owner matures, they should be able to collaborate with multiple stakeholders to form a single Product Backlog. Later on, the Product Owner upscales that collaboration by involving the rest of the Scrum Team. Mastery and maturity of this axis is achieved by being able to lead a value chain with multiple teams and stakeholders, and ultimately being able to lead the more complex value chains.

Axis 2: Value and impact on stakeholders
Novice Product Owners satisfy their stakeholders by relaying requirements and feedback into the work that is done. As a Product Owner matures, they open up the process and increase the transparency of progress and output, leading to more trust by their stakeholders. The focus shifts from reporting progress and outcomes to making an impact with value. The ultimate level is making an impact on (and measuring) the contentment of the actual end-users.

Axis 3: Product-level mandate
At the lowest maturity level, the Product Owner is merely a proxy of the stakeholders, by executing plans and product decisions made by the stakeholders. This shifts to a more directive opinion when achieving a higher level, as the Product Owner will influence stakeholders in making their plans and decisions. As maturity progresses, this moves from influencing to more in-depth collaboration. Taking it higher, advanced Product Owners claim their mandate to take center stage in making product related decisions and release plans themselves. The Product Owners with the highest level of maturity claim responsibility for planning, budget and costs and benefits regarding the products’ value chain.

Axis 4: Focus on value
Product Owners usually start off with a focus on creating requirements and PBIs, and later on will learn to focus on creating simple sprint goals and product increments. The focus moves from features to actual value being created. The Product Owner improves this value by involving stakeholders and ultimately the end-users. 

Axis 5: Backlog management & product knowledge
This axis focuses on the mastery of product knowledge. The Product Owner starts off with gaining and utilizing their analytical knowledge and basic product knowledge. As the maturity progresses, the Product Owner “owns” and maintains the Product Backlog. The knowledge is increased further as the Product Owner acquires an overview of all steps in the value creation process. This knowledge is increased further as they attain deep knowledge of the product, the value chain and the end-users – with the ultimate mastery lying in attaining deep knowledge on one (or more) product portfolio(s).

For the Product Owner, you can see the tendencies shift from a stakeholder-led, feature-focused approach to an approach where value and its impact on stakeholders and end-users is front and center. The knowledge on the product and the mandate to make product-related decisions shifts to be centered around the Product Owner, instead of the stakeholders.

Maturity of the Developers

Axis 1: Stability and trust
Teams with a ‘young’ agile maturity are looking for stability, rest and a sense of belonging. As the Developers mature, they move onto looking for common understanding amongst themselves. At a higher level, the Developers are becoming more open to each other, leading in a higher level to trust and respect becoming the basis of all actions taken. The highest level of trust is team members trusting each other blindly.

Axis 2: Feedback-driven
Novice teams have a lot of focus on following new processes, rules and instructions in a correct way. As they reach a higher level, the team works on coming up with explicit measurements of success. As the maturity progresses, the team actively asks for feedback to have more impact on stakeholders. The stakeholder involvement grows at a higher level, when the team starts to work with stakeholders to deliver high quality product increments. The highest level in this axis is described as when a team delivers value on a frequent basis, with the value being confirmed by actual end-users.

Axis 3: Propagating/promoting (Scrum) values
At the lowest maturity level, developers are focused on avoiding conflict, pursuing individual targets and generating outputs. Teams that reach a higher stage are occupied with discovering differences, conflicts and the formation of shared values. Together with the Scrum Master, the team can elevate to a higher level by using Scrum and Agile values as a guideline for all interactions. This promotion of these values is increased further as the team collaborates with stakeholders to for continuous improvement and ultimately collaboration with the entire organization to participate in sharing of feedback and learnings.

Axis 4: Process to quality-driven
Novice Developers rely a lot on their Scrum Master for facilitation. At a higher level, the Developers start to own the process by ensuring the outcomes of all events while making the Scrum Values their own. The focus shifts, at a higher level, to reaching Sprint Goals and improving quality. As maturity progresses, the focus shifts from mastering the processes to actually taking responsibility and commitment to frequent delivery of valuable outcomes. At the highest level, Developers take full accountability in creating high quality products.

Axis 5: Forming standards
Developers early in their maturity start off with determining tasks based on their individual knowledge and standards. As Developers grow, they discuss and share their knowledge, practices and quality standards. As the team discusses and shares these, they discover new common standards that are shared by the entire team. At the highest levels, these standards are continuously used, challenged and updated – with ultimately the Developers intuitively acting on their common shared standards.

You can easily draw parallels with Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. This model describes the stages that a group (which can, according to Tuckman, be any kind of group) goes through in order to achieve good cooperation. One could also perceive these as stages of maturity.

Maturity as an (Agile) Leader

Axis 1: Delegation of responsibilities
Leaders at the lowest level of agile maturity want full control and have a very directive style of communication. At a higher levels, leaders relinquish control by delegating a few critical responsibilities, to all but the critical decisions and responsibilities and ultimately – all decisions and responsibilities.

Axis 2: Goal-driven
Leaders in the beginning of their Agile journey usually measure their success by company profit and shareholder happiness. As they progress, they ask for explicit measurements of progress, outputs and quality. Taking it a level higher, leaders track progress by actually regularly visiting team events. At the highest levels, leaders provide the teams with a (relatable) vision and mission and ultimately facilitate the organization to act with a these greater visions and missions in mind.

Axis 3: Employee entrepreneurship
Leaders early in their maturity are focused on giving individual targets on progress, efficiency, quality and outcomes. As the leader matures, they upscale their focus on giving these targets to teams. At a higher level, these targets are set by the teams themselves, with the leader providing clear boundary conditions. As maturity progresses, the leader creates an environment where teams can self-organize and create value. At the highest level for this axis, the leader facilitates entrepreneurship and growth for all employees.

Axis 4: Fostering improvement
Novice agile leaders usually ensure compliance to rules, plan execution and quality targets. At a higher level, agile leaders ensure buy-in to rules, plans and quality standards. As they progress, they ensure consensus on rules, plans and quality standards by involving the teams. The activities of Agile leaders evolve into giving advice, coaching and facilitation, with at the highest tier taking the role of inspirator, guard of the (Agile) workculture and playing a vital part in stimulating continuous improvement.

Axis 5: Product Management delegation
In early stages of agile maturity, leaders want full involvement and control of plans, rules and budget. But as they mature, they start to delegate the execution of these plans to the Product Owner. At a higher level, they involve the Product Owner in co-creating these plans – while at an even higher level, all planning and execution is delegated to the Product Owner. At the top-most level, the leader delegates responsibility for the full value chain to the Product Owner and the Scrum Team(s). 

It is easy to see the growth as an (Agile) leader. In one end of the spectrum, the old industrial paradigm of control, compliance and carrot-and-stick. In the other, delegation, vision-building and facilitating personal and team growth.

The Scrum Master in organizations with high agile maturity

At a lower maturity, we usually see the Scrum Master as we usually see them, as a teacher, facilitator and impediment-remover. But as agile maturity within the organization grows, the nature of the work of the Scrum Master changes. Naturally, the mastery of Scrum and its principles has grown to a much higher level. The Scrum Master moves their focus to improvements on the organizational level, and less on a smaller, team level. There is more focus on impact to the end users, instead of focus on the already well-oiled process. Improving organizations take a more advanced set of skills, which focuses the Scrum Master on mastering the role of change agent. You are not making yourself redundant as a Scrum Master, the nature of your work simply shifts. The only redundancy is in the level of involvement with the Scrum team on on operational level. As the team is becoming more and more self-managing, the focus of the Scrum Master shifts to other, grander challenges.

So, as romantic as the comparison to Nanny McPhee sounds, the work of a Scrum Master changes, moves on, but they are – luckily – not fully out of sight.

I should also note that as organizations change and progress over time, new challenges are always on the rise. Our fields of work may change. Additional practices may arise that could be combined in their own way with Scrum.

Don’t forget that careers and team compositions change over time. New, ‘young’ team Scrum Team members or leaders may find themselves in need for an approach better suited to their growth in attaining a higher level of maturity.

The field of Agile changes as well. Scrum as a framework is always in flux as it is amended every now and then due to new insights.

Finally, the implementation of Scrum can always be seen as a tug-of-war between the Agile paradigm and the old industrial paradigm. Even in very Agile mature organizations, you may find that ‘Taylorism’ may creep back in unexpected, sneaky ways. Be mindful of that!

So rest assured: there is always a vital place for a Scrum Master in agile organizations, no matter the level of maturity.

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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