Eight misunderstood stances of a Scrum Master: my take on the ‘Scrum Master Vices’

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In a previous article I talked about the eight stances of a Scrum Master, as described in the 2016 whitepaper by Barry Overeem. These stances are the roles that a Scrum Master should fulfill. In his whitepaper Overeem also described eight misunderstood stances of a Scrum Master. As a Scrum Master, it is important to be mindful of these stances, and avoid these to the best of your ability. Some of these stances I have held in the past, as probably did many a novice Scrum Master. These pitfalls are quite the feast of recognition, so without further ado: here are the vices of a Scrum Master.

The Scribe

During Scrum Events, I can imagine you want to make yourself most useful as a Scrum Master. You want to give space for the Developers to ehm… develop?”. So you bravely take on the role of scribe to jot down and record the minutes of discussions, retrospectives and refinement sessions. That’s what a Scrum Master does, right… Right?! I mean, in a lot of settings (especially when there is a dual role of Scrum Master and Project Manager), a Scrum Master is seen as ‘overhead’, so “it’s all fun and games, that whole facilitating role, but you gotta make yourself useful, right?”.

Wrong! You don’t have to prove your own raison d’être by doing the administrative work. Fulfilling the various stances as a Scrum Master is tough enough as it is. It is a vital role within Scrum and you do not (I repeat: do NOT) have to do the recording. This can be something that anyone can do within the Scrum Team. A self-managing team can also manage recording and reporting!

The Secretary

In the vein of the previous misunderstood role, another role that is wrongfully assigned to one’s self is the role of secretary.  When a Scrum Event needs to be planned the team sometimes turns to the Scrum Master to schedule the events, taking into account the busy schedule, holidays and part-time days of the team. Especially when there is a double role as a Project Manager, it is sometimes expected from the Scrum Master to make sure all events are planned.

Although it’s okay to plan an event every once in a while, it’s still not your prime responsibility as a Scrum Master. This also falls within the self-management of the team! If you’re the one (or feel like you’re the one) responsible for planning the Scrum events, I suggest not doing it next time – and watch closely what happens next. A pretty interesting discussion about roles and self-management might unfold!

The Scrum Police

It’s good to be passionate (and even evangelical) about Scrum. It’s a wonderful framework, but it should not be used to police people around. Every situation is different, and context can shift over time. What seems to be a good solution one time, can be detrimental another time.  The Scrum Guide is a guide and should be seen as such. It is not a rule book, you may find it very flexible: that is what a framework is! When you deviate from the framework, it’s better to fulfill the role as a coach to point out the merits of the framework.

The Team Boss

Ah, the team boss. The leader at the front of the pack, leading the sheep from point A to B. Dictating what should be done and how. The general, the field marshal, the supreme leader. The one to deliver us from all uncertainty. The bringer of purpose, hope and glory.

Except as a Scrum Master, you’re not. Or at least, you can bring purpose, hope and glory – but not in this form and function. Remember, you are a servant-leader.  It is you who serves the team, not the other way around. You are leading by example and not by title. ‘What’ should be done is determined by the Product Owner. The ‘how’ by the Developers. Remember, there is no hierarchy.

The Admin

A misunderstood view on the facilitating role of the Scrum Master, is that they are the driving force behind the supporting Scrum infrastructure. They are the Jira-junkie. The one tinkering with the automation, the one in control of the workflow. And as something is wrong, the team cries out in agony, asking the Scrum Master in their role as admin to “fix it”. You are there to fix impediments, you impediment-fixer!

It’s true that the Scrum Team needs good infrastructure, and all that stands in the way of transparency, inspection and adaptation should be addressed to fix. But you are not solely responsible for that. Maintaining and improving the (digital) workflow within Sprints is a shared responsibility of the team. Put it this way, what if the entire Scrum Team was responsible for the workflow and infrastructure? Imagine the room for new insights and experimentation that might stimulate!

The Chairman

Oh, the memories about this stance! Let me take a trip down memory lane: it was my very first Sprint. I was a Scrum Master in a Sprint with a Product Owner who could not be bothered by showing up at the Daily Scrums, let alone be physically present during the Sprint. The Product Owner worked at an advertising agency very much used to waterfall and a traditional client-contractor relationship. I remember Daily Scrums for that sprint – the Developers each took their turn and told me what they did the previous day and what they would do today. It was very much a status and progress report, one that I passed on by email to the Product Owner (who was like “Yeah okay, carry on”). I would be the chairman of the Daily Scrum and I would pass on the information.

This role is a perversion of the Scrum Master role and disavows the collaboration and continuous dialogue within the Scrum Team. Remember, the chairman sounds awfully lot like a traditional project manager. And that role is non-existent in Scrum.

The Super Hero

The hero the Scrum Team needs, the hero the Scrum team deserves. You may not wear a cape but you might as well do. The Scrum Master Super Hero saves the day by doing what they do best: solving all impediments. Did your bucket of internet dry out? Is your keyboard squeaking? Is there a headache forming in this wonderful genius cranium of yours? Don’t fear! Scrum-Master-Extraordinaire-Super-Hero is here!

Let me be clear. You’re not Batman. I’m not Batman. I might wear all black and I might talk with a deep voice, but I am not Batman – or a hero for that matter. Your Scrum Team is a team of super heroes. And you help them out! But not by solving problems they can easily solve themselves. Self-management is key, if there are issues that are beyond the self-management of the team, that is where you step in. In my previous article I approached the facilitator role by comparing it to Batman’s iconic butler: Alfred Pennyworth. Be an Alfred.

The Coffee Clerk

It’s okay being a good colleague. Getting coffee or a snack (or giving a backrub or whatever) can help with the general atmosphere – but it’s not your main activity. You are not the main source of happiness and joy within a Sprint, and if you think extrinsic trinkets such as food are decisive in motivating the team – well, you are mistaken.

The well-being of the team is a collective effort, and though getting coffee might be beneficial for well-being, it’s not blissful on its own. It’s better to facilitate team-building, you may find that being much more effective.

My final thoughts on the eight misunderstood stances of a Scrum Master

So, which of the eight misunderstood stances of a Scrum Master are you guilty of?

I frankly admit that I am guilty in fulfilling all of these eight misunderstood stances of a Scrum Master – I have fulfilled them all at some point in my career. Let me be clear, though: it’s okay to hold one of these stances every once in a while. You should however be mindful of these stances because they are often in the way of self-management of the Scrum Team.

A lot of these misunderstood stances are rooted in a conflict with a double role as a (traditional) Project Manager. It’s a lot about attracting responsibilities that you think are yours – or think that is expected of you. As I said before, beginning Scrum Masters are trying to prove their own reason to exist, their raison d’être. And I think that is natural, it’s a role you grow in by actually doing. If you focus on the eight ‘virtuous’ stances of a Scrum Master and be mindful of the pitfalls above, you are well underway in fulfilling your role as a Scrum Master in a great way. And if you want to be a coffee-fetching Jira-nerding Batman every once in a while, well… you do you!

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