What is a scrum master?

Recently I applied to two scrum master jobs and it got me thinking: what is a scrum master? What is it exactly that they do?

What made this question even more pertinent to me (apart from the job applications) is that in the past I have been a scrum master. But that was five years ago and none of my jobs since had much involvement of a scrum master. And my experiences of those past five years made me wonder: where exactly does a scrum master fit in?

A scrum master is the Scrum boss

The 2020 Scrum Guide says:

The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization.

The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.

A scrum master is a leader who serves others

The 2020 Scrum Guide says:

Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.

The Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the team members in self-management and cross-functionality;
  • Helping the Scrum Team focus on creating high-value Increments that meet the Definition of Done;
  • Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress; and,
  • Ensuring that all Scrum events take place and are positive, productive, and kept within the timebox.

The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including:

  • Helping find techniques for effective Product Goal definition and Product Backlog management;
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items;
  • Helping establish empirical product planning for a complex environment; and,
  • Facilitating stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed.

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:

  • Leading, training, and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Planning and advising Scrum implementations within the organization;
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact an empirical approach for complex work; and,
  • Removing barriers between stakeholders and Scrum Teams.

A scrum master changes across versions of the Scrum Guide

If you really want to dig into this, I copied the “The Scrum Master” section of all seven versions of the Scrum Guide to a separate page. In this post I’ll focus on the differences in the “The Scrum Master” section between the current and the previous version of the Scrum Guide.

Before going into those differences, I should note that the current version (2020) is a serious revision compared to the previous one (2017). The Scrum Guide Revision History says that the 2020 version is “Even Less Prescriptive” and has “Overall Simplification of Language for a Wider Audience”. Where the 2017 version counted 19 pages and 7.012 words, the 2020 version is only 13 pages and 4.075 words long. And as a result the current version (2020) mentions “Scrum Master” 12 times, while the previous version (2017) mentioned it 34 times.

Subtle changes in choice of words

There are two small changes in choice of words between the 2017 and 2020 versions.

Accountable or responsible?

The 2017 version has the Scrum Master “responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide”. The 2020 version changes this to “accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide.”

That seems significant. If a team is not Scrum-ing properly, the Scrum Master of the 2020 version is in more trouble than the 2017 one.

Servant-leader or leader who serves?

The 2017 version says “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team.”. The 2020 version says basically the same, but avoids the term “servant-leader”: “Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.”

In “Words that changed in Scrum Guide 2020 update” Dave West explains this change:

The 2017 guide used the term “Servant Leadership” to describe the style of leadership that serves Scrum Teams well. This idea is still valid, however, the 2020 Scrum Guide places more emphasis on leadership, removing the potential misinterpretation that Scrum Masters are servants first and leaders second. Understanding the idea of servant leadership is still valuable when using Scrum.

Effectiveness through practices or through the environment?

The 2017 version links the value created by the Scrum Team to the interactions with those outside the team:

The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

The 2020 version does not mention this at all and links the team’s effectiveness to its practices:

The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.

How a scrum master serves others

In the 2017 version the three lists of how a Scrum Master serves others, is in the order: Product Owner, Development Team, Organization. In the 2020 version the order is: Scrum Team, Product Owner, organization.

The reason for this might be as simple as the change in the 2020 version of no longer having a Development Team, with the Scrum Master and Product Owner outside of that team. Instead, there’s now one Scrum Team with three different sets of accountabilities: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Developers.

Still, I find it intriguing that until the 2020 version, serving the Product Owner gets mentioned before serving the Development Team.

Serving the Development Team/Scrum Team

The 2017 version has the Scrum Master “Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress”, while the 2020 version says “Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress”.

In the 2017 version the Scrum Master serves the team by “Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed”. In the 2020 version this becomes “Ensuring that all Scrum events take place and are positive, productive, and kept within the timebox”. This matches another change where the 2017 version includes in the description of each scrum event that the Scrum Master ensures that it takes place. In the 2020 version, the Scrum Master is only mentioned in the description of one event, the Daily Scrum: “If the Product Owner or Scrum Master are actively working on items in the Sprint Backlog, they participate as Developers.”

Serving the Product Owner

In the 2017 version, one of the ways for the Scrum Master to serve the Product Owner is “Ensuring that goals, scope, and product domain are understood by everyone on the Scrum Team as well as possible”. This responsibility is not present in the 2020 version.

There’s also an interesting difference in the choice of verbs throughout the list. The 2017 version has 2x ensuring, 1x finding, 1x helping, 2x understanding, 1x practicing, and 1x facilitating. The 2020 version has 3x helping, 1x facilitating.

Serving the organization

None of the changes seem significant enough to mention in this post.

A scrum master is a facilitator-coach

In “The Art of Agile Development (2nd ed)” (2021) James Shore distinguishes different kinds of coaches: practitioner-coaches, player-coaches, and facilitator-coaches. A Scrum Master is a facilitator-coach:

One of the most common type of coaches is the facilitator-coach, often called a Scrum Master, who leads from the sidelines by facilitating conversations and resolving organizational roadblocks. […] A player-coach and facilitator-coach can be a good team-up, as they have complementary strengths and weaknesses.(p 74)1

One downside of facilitator-coaches is that they don’t contribute a lot to day-to-day development, which can lead to organizations to see them as underutilized and assign them to too many teams. But then they’re not present to see and respond to team challenges. Coaches in this situation often end up as glorified meeting organizers, which isn’t a good use of their talents. (p 74)

Jeff Sutherland describes something similar in “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” (2015):

[…] we needed someone whose job it was to make sure the process itself was effective. Not a manager - more of a servant-leader, something between a team-captain and a coach. (p 62)

He or she would facilitate all the meetings, make sure there was transparency, and, most important, help the team discover what was getting in their way. They key part of that was to realize that often the impediments aren’t simply that the machine doesn’t work or that Jim in accounting is a jerk - it’s the process itself. It was the Scrum Master’s job to guide the team toward continuous improvement - to ask with regularity, “How can we do what we do better?” (p 62)

A scrum master is a manager

In “Agile Software Development with Scrum” (2001) Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle explicitly call the Scrum Master a management role:

The Scrum Master is a new management role introduced by Scrum. The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring that Scrum values, practices, and rules are enacted and enforced. (p 31)

The Scrum Master represents management and the team to each other. At the Daily Scrum, the Scrum Master listens closely to what each team member reports. He or she compares what progress has been made to what progress was expected, based on Sprint goals and predictions made during the previous Daily Scrum. (p 31-32)

The Team Leader, Project Leader, or Project Manager often assume the Scrum Master role. (p 32)

How does the Scrum Master keep the team working at the highest level of productivity? The Scrum Master does so primarily by making decisions and removing impediments. When decisions need to be made in the Daily Scrum, the Scrum Master is responsible for making the decisions immediately, even with incomplete information. (p 32)

As I [Ken Schwaber] ran the daily Scrums for the PNP team, it became apparent that I was fulfilling a management job. I blocked interference, allowed the team to keep focused, removed impediments and helped the team reach decisions quickly. This was a radical change, a flip to what management had previously done. The team figured out how to do what it had committed to do. Management’s new and primary job was to maximize the team’s productivity, to be there to help it do the best it could. (p 7)

While I believe that few people these days would describe the scrum master role as a management one, I do hope that most people would agree that the description above captures things a good manager should do.2 Which leads to an interesting question: where do the responsibilities of a scrum master end and the responsibilities of a team leads and/or engineering manager start?

A scrum master knows more than scrum

In a previous post I mentioned that any approach to software development should cover these five areas: collaboration, software engineering, work management, product, and reflect & experiment. Scrum definitely covers work management and reflect & experiment. Arguably it covers collaboration (as in: soft skills) to some degree. It does not cover software engineering, because it’s not specific to software. And it does not cover product. The Scrum Guide (2020) does say “The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team.” but provides no guidance on how exactly to do this.

So it might just be me, but I’d expect a modern scrum master to be familiar with more than just scrum. They should also know about Lean, Kanban, CI/CD, and DevOps. And that’s before we start talking about how to scale agile and/or scrum.

So what is a scrum master?

I’m really not sure any more.

It’s as if we expect developers to be able to program, testers to test, product owners to create backlog items, UX designers to design, team leads and engineering managers to manage, but we don’t expect them to be able to work as a team, to be able to deliver software together effectively.

That is kind of odd, isn’t it?

  1. In the context of scrum masters as facilitator-coaches instead of practitioner-coaches or player-coaches, the common expectation that scrum masters facilitate trainings and workshops is an intriguing one. It’s hard not to immediately think of the quote “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Man and Superman”. 

  2. I highly recommend Johanna Rothman’s Modern Management Made Easy-series if you want to learn more about this style of management.