By way of example, one organization I work with using Agile/Scrum on multiple projects has elected to have a single individual from each team play the roles of “team lead” and “ScrumMaster“. Although they aren’t convinced it’s a bad idea yet, my feeling is that they are on a dangerous path.
As I framed my argument against this specific policy, I realized that, as is often the case, the Agile principles seem to coincide with the economics of the situation.
Argument 1) Knowledge workers aren’t really fungible. If individuals are “split” between tasks they become ineffective and unproductive (see “Slack” by Tom DeMarco).
DeMarco argues that task switching is a leading cause of productivity loss due to 1) the mechanics of switching tasks, 2) the need for knowledge workers to immerse themselves uninterrupted in tasks, and 3) the frustration that accompanies being interrupted too often (see Slack, pg. 16-21). DeMarco refers to evidence generated in multiple empirical studies indicating that on average most workers who are multitasking lose at least one hour in every eight hour day to task-switching. Over the period of a project, these lost hours add up to significant amounts of money wasted on non-productive work.
This “task-switching” problem also directly affects the productivity of the other team members on the team (ripple effect) who now lack a fully productive team member providing focused direction and technical decision making.
Argument 2) There is also a logical conflict of interest when team members act as SM simultaneously. Scrum requires constant communication and relationship building between the product owner and the development
team. Someone needs to act as a mediator between the product owner and development team when conflicts or discrepancies arise, and traditionally this is the SM. However, if the SM is on the team the SM cannot be impartial arbiters of conflicts since they are at the same time team advocates.
Argument 3) A major SM role is to take care of the administrivia overhead and impediments that affect the team. If the SM is also a team member then there is no real net benefit to the team. Consider why professionals often have secretaries; it would be ineffective for the professional to do administrative tasks when someone more capable in that area could handle it which would free up the pro to focus talent more specifically on their area of expertise.
Practically, however, I know that often team members act as SM when there are a limited number of people available and lots of work to do. It’s not a disaster but it is inefficient use of people’s time. At one point, the economic inefficiency of task splitting outweighs bringing on a dedicated SM. I’m curious to hear what others think on this subject.