The Mythical Part-Time ScrumMaster

My colleagues and I work with a number of organizations implementing Agile and Scrum.  We are starting to see patterns (and anti-patterns) emerge in the way in which many companies go about transitioning their products to Scrum.  Two of these patterns are particularly disturbing: the bored, part-time ScrumMaster and permanent acceptance of the status quo.  In this article I will demonstrate how these two anti-patterns weigh organizations down and ultimately lead to failure during Agile transitions.  Moreover, we’ve consistently seen a positive correlation between successful Agile transitions and organizations that take the ScrumMaster role seriously.

No Time for Part-Time

In nearly every Certified ScrumMaster course I’ve taught, one of the first questions people ask is whether the ScrumMaster role is really a full-time job.  Even though my answer is unequivocal, doubts linger about whether a ScrumMaster can really keep themselves busy doing nothing but “ScrumMastering” all day.  It seems as though many people have their minds set on how long it should take to fulfill the duties of an average ScrumMaster.

To be clear, if the ScrumMaster is not working 100% of their work time on team and organizational impediments and improvements, the ScrumMaster is not doing enough to make important organizational change happen.  While team-facing impediments are handled, what is often forgotten (or conveniently ignored) is the organizational work the ScrumMaster should do, which over time will contribute to changing conditions and culture to maximize the benefits of Agile product development.

Some common examples of organizational impediments include:

  1. Deficient Product Owners.  There are several variations on this theme:
    1. No one is willing to take on the responsibilities of the product owner role at the organization.
    2. A product owner is identified that person does not have enough time to fulfill the demands of the PO role effectively.
    3. The Product Owner providing product direction is not directly responsible for the profit and loss or ROI of the product.
    4. Product owner passes the buck to the team by forcing improper decisions regarding risk.
  2. External dependencies:  a lone Scrum team working within an organization cannot impose Scrum rules on non-Scrum teams; however, the Scrum team is dependent on the others’ work products.
  3. Defining new career paths for cross-functional team members and ScrumMasters.  This is exacerbated when only part of a larger organization has adopted Scrum.  Without clear career paths, Scrum may experience resistance at the individual level as people can’t envision a personal financial and career win.
  4. Proper organization of products and the teams working on them.  Many organizations newly adopting Scrum simply add Scrum teams to existing project structures without regard for the consequences of those structures.  For example, Scrum works best for teams working on vertical slices of products so that product increments are more easily produced during Sprints, yet the organization had work divided by horizontal layers and continues to do so under Scrum.
  5. The organization still builds products using over-the-fence, phase-wise processes.  By setting up phases in product development, the organization is pitting departments against each other while eliminating any sense of ownership and responsibility.

While the above represent a few recent experiences, there are many, many more.

The challenge facing an organization full of part-time ScrumMasters is that they have limited capacity for change.  Tom DeMarco’s book Slack illustrates that middle-management is often an organization’s only hope for changing and improving itself.  When that layer of management is cut for efficiency, the organization is so busy that no one has slack time to make meaningful change happen.  The same is true for ScrumMasters.  While they may not explicitly be middle-managers, ScrumMasters are the agents of directed and meaningful change in any organization adopting Scrum.  If the ScrumMasters are not working to change those ingrained and complex organizational issues most likely no one is.

That’s Not How We Do Things Around Here

Another dangerous pattern is when the status quo is blindly accepted by the organization at large.  This smell surfaces clearly when the group is confounded by a situational constraint or problem but no one suggests that the constraint be questioned or altered to begin with.  Scrum itself will surface these situations because the process is often impeded by organizational constraints.  Rather than resolve or remove the constraint, the first reaction of some groups is to shoe-horn Scrum into the constraint and carry on as best as possible.  Perhaps making a change is overwhelming in scale and ignored as a possibility from the outset.  But in one particular case I learned that people in an organization were still following rules that no longer existed simply out of habit.   Often a little blood, sweat, and tears upfront nip organizational issues in the bud that would otherwise blossom into destructive product killers down the line.

A Deadly Cocktail

When an organization suffers from both part-time ScrumMasters and a status quo culture the negative effects of either alone are amplified.   Consider the example organization that accepts complex organizational impediments and simultaneously has no agents explicitly advocating change.  No one is actively scanning the horizon looking for issues that might interfere with the effectiveness of the organization’s ability to deliver the right products.  In fact, over time, as the teams’ velocity starts to dim as a result of the impediments, more pressure is applied to the team and the product quality starts to suffer as a consequence.  Perhaps the impediment is finally addressed when the negative consequences are tangible and too great to ignore, but by then it is usually too late.  The organizational impediments coupled with no means to change creates a downward spiral of failed products and ultimately a bankrupt organization.

Both of these issues are related to an organization’s openness and willingness to change or to challenge the status quo in hopes of improving organizations.  Without a doubt, ScrumMasters play a key role in making change happen, but the organization in general should foster a culture of openness toward ferreting out root causes rather then searching for compromises that act as temporary band-aids.  With both active full-time ScrumMasters and a culture of change, organizations will be primed to tackle the root problems that impede effective product development.  Who knows, with a little elbow grease perhaps you too can make some meaningful changes at your place of work.

Victor Szalvay

Victor Szalvay currently leads product development for CollabNet’s ScrumWorks® product suite. In that capacity, he works closely with customers, stakeholders, and the development teams to deliver high business value each release cycle. With more than 150,000 active users worldwide, ScrumWorks is used by more than half of the Fortune 100 and boasts the largest market share of any Agile management tool.

Posted in Agile
3 comments on “The Mythical Part-Time ScrumMaster
  1. Consider the example organization that accepts complex organizational impediments and simultaneously has no agents explicitly advocating change.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “But the organization in general should foster a culture of openness toward ferreting out root causes rather then searching for compromises that act as temporary band-aids”

    Couldn’t agree more, working towards a better organization culture is very important.

  3. Anon says:

    I worry what this means for working women (or anyone with parental care responsibilities, but lets face it this is mostly women) who need to work part time. This effectively excludes them from working in an agile environment doesn’t it?

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