Puzzled about the Scrum Master Role in the Scrum Framework?

Anthony Mersino
November 25, 2017

Inevitably, when working with organizations and helping them move from Waterfall to the Scrum Framework, there is a lot of confusion about the Scrum Master role. One of the most common questions I get is, What does a Scrum Master do? People often ask the follow-up question,  Can we make our Project Managers the Scrum Masters? (Yes you can but no you should absolutely not.) And third,  Do we need a full-time Scrum Master?

Addressing the Confusion with the Scrum Master Role

I have a theory about why this confusion exists, and why it will continue to exist. But before we go there, let's look at what the Scrum Community has done to address this seemingly bewildering role in the Scrum Framework.

Scrum co-creator Ken Schwaber published two books on Scrum. His 2001 book, Agile Software Development with Scrum and his follow-up 2009 book, Agile Project Management with Scrum both described the Scrum Framework and the role of the Scrum Master in the framework. Apparently, that did not eliminate the confusion.

Schwaber then partnered with Scrum co-creator Jeff Sutherland to publish the Scrum Guide. First published in 2010, The Scrum Guide is the definitive guide to the Scrum Framework. The Scrum Guide describes what the Scrum Master does in service to the Development Team, service to the Product Owner, and service to the Organization. Not surprisingly, the role of the Scrum Master was still being clarified in the most recent update of the Scrum Guide in November 2017 (some 22 years after Scrum was first introduced.)

Another tact taken by some Scrum experts was to describe what the Scrum Master is not, that is, the Scrum Master is not a project manager. They are not the boss of the team. That seems to create more questions. 

Neither of these approaches seem to work. So, Scrum experts decided to try something else.

A Confusing Assortment of 20 Metaphors for the Scrum Master 

Agile and Scrum experts have begun to use metaphors and a way to help people understand the Scrum Master role in the Scrum Framework. I’m particularly amused by the rich descriptions and widely different metaphors for this role. How could we see things so differently? Why so much difficulty explaining this one person's role? What follows are 20 of my favorite metaphors for the Scrum Master role:

  1. Ken Schwaber in his 2009 book Agile Project Management with Scrum said that “The ScrumMaster is a leader, not a manager.” It is such a simple statement, but it embodies the mindset difference between inspiring and controlling. However, not very descriptive.
  2. Ken Schwaber in the same book refers to himself as the Sheepdog in the Scrum Master role. The implication was that the sheepdog protected the sheep (the Dev Team) from the wolves (senior managers). 
  3. Ilan Goldstein also used the sheepdog metaphor. In his Book Scrum Shortcuts Without Cutting Corners, Goldstein describes the Sheepdog "guiding the flock through treacherous terrain and protecting them from hungry wolves". He goes on to say that the Scrum Master should not be like a helicopter parent, hovering and not giving the child space to solve their own problems. 
  4. Nagesh Sharma calls the Scrum Master a little bit of oil to ease friction in the scrum team.  
  5. Agile 42 on the other hand, sees the project manager as the lubricant, and the Scrum Master as the roundabout master; someone who teaches and reminds drivers about the rules and straightens out any delays and deadlocks.
  6. Tushar Jain thinks of the SM like a general family physician. This is someone who has a long trust relationship with the family and pays attention to their general health.
  7. Simon Reindl describes the Scrum Master as the bosun (boatswain), the person who ensures the right things happen on a ship. The Scrum Master helps everyone know what their role is, gets the ship rigged for the weather, etc. 
  8. Larry Apke thinks of the Scrum Master as a Gardener, cultivating the soil and growing great things.  
  9. Charles C Rodriguez on the other hand, compares the Scrum Master to the professional football coach, constantly driving the team towards continuous improvement.
  10. Staying with the football theme, Scrum Arabia compares the Scrum Master not to the coach, but to the football referee in soccer. The referee is responsible for ensuring that the Football rules are enacted and respected on the field. The Referee does this by ensuring that the team adheres to the practices and rules of the game.  The referee does not tell the team how to play the game, nor does he critique the game.
  11. Carleton Nettleton likens the Scrum Master to a Firefighter, in answer to the question do we need a full-time Scrum Master?
  12. Pierluigi Pugliese likes to describe the Scrum Master with the metaphor of Host leader introduced by Marc McKergow and Helen Bailey. The Host Leader is neither a hero nor a servant. He/she is somebody who receives and entertains guests. As a host, we all have duties and responsibilities: from setting up a good environment for our guests to be part of the event together with them and helping them have a good time. 
  13. Solutions IQ describes the SM like a nitrous oxide system in a racing car. I guess the basic idea is that adding nitrous makes the race car go fast and adding a Scrum Master makes the team go fast.
  14. Mariya Breyter stays with the race car theme but likens the Scrum Master to the race-car mechanic; someone who ensures that the race car operates smoothly and efficiently so that the team performs at its best. This person is someone in the background, yet highly reliable, knowledgeable, and respected by the team and stakeholders.
  15. Mike Cohn is a prolific author and well known in Agile and Scrum circles. I’ve saved him for last because 1) he should know the role of SM pretty well and 2) he seems to be the king of metaphors for the Scrum Master ranging from race car mechanic to orchestra conductor. Cohn also uses the race car mechanic metaphor that Breyter used.  “One convenient way to think of the interlocking nature of these three roles is as a race car. The team is the car itself, ready to speed along in whatever direction it is pointed. The product owner is the driver, making sure that the car is always going in the right direction. The ScrumMaster is the chief mechanic, keeping the car well-tuned and performing at its best.”
  16. Cohn also described the ScrumMaster as the team coach; helping the team do the best work it possibly can.
  17. Cohn, in the next breath, describes the ScrumMaster as a process owner for the team, creating a balance with the project's key stakeholder, who is referred to as the product owner.
  18. Cohn goes on to describe the ScrumMaster as a protector of the team.
  19. Not content with those last 4 metaphors, Cohn says to think of the ScrumMaster as you would a personal trainer who helps you stick with an exercise regimen and perform all exercises with the correct form. Like the Scrum Master, the personal trainer’s authority is limited.
  20. Finally, Cohn describes the Scrum Master as an orchestra conductor. As leaders of the band, both the Scrum Master and the conductor provide real-time guidance and leadership to a talented collection of individuals who come together to create something that no one of them could create alone.

Why The Confusion Will Continue to Persist

The confusion in this role is because most of us grew up with a hierarchical worldview. It's not just the idea of having a project manager, there has always been a chain of command that organized our workplaces. Scrum introduced a role that is not part of the hierarchy. The Scrum Master is a leader but without hierarchical power. The Scrum Framework does not provide a reporting line for the Scrum Master and is clear that the Development Team should not report to the Scrum Master.

The idea of not having a single person in charge of the team and a clear chain of command is impossible for many people to understand because of their worldview. They demand a single throat to choke and without one, their heads nearly explode. They can't or won't understand or accept this as a premise. It's all about power and control and the Scrum Master role is one that doesn't fit any of their beliefs about leaders.

As long as people hold on to their hierarchical worldview, they will continue to be confused about the Scrum Master role. And we will probably continue to generate wildly differing metaphors to try and clear their confusion. 

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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