May 30, 2023
Last month I wrote a blog arguing that the popular Scrum terms should be changed for everyone’s benefit. I got a lot of great feedback and it helped my own thinking evolve. And I realized that I did not go far enough in my criticisms of one of the Scrum terms.
That is the Scrum Master. Geez that is a problematic term and I really wish the Scrum authors had picked a different term for this important role.
The problematic part of the term is the word “master”. As I noted in my previous post, the master part of the term Scrum Master is a misnomer because:
When I took my Scrum Master certification training in 2013 from Craig Larman, he was quick to point out that the training itself was only a starting point. He said newly minted Scrum Masters should not be allowed near a Scrum Team for at least six months. What did he expect them to do instead? Hit the books!
Larman had a list of over 70 books that he expected Scrum Masters to read. They covered everything from testing, to legacy code and clean code, to human behavior and rewards.
Literally, no one is reading all those books today. I bet if we surveyed 100 Scrum Masters who obtained their certification in the last year, none of them would have read 7 books in the last year. [Note: You can find Larman’s list of recommended reading from 2013 at the bottom of my blog post on the Best Agile Books.]
Besides the expertise problem, the term “master” has roots in slavery, where it was used to indicate ownership and oppression and the perpetuation of power imbalances. As an agile enthusiast, I try to use language that is inclusive and welcoming, and I think this term falls short.
What term should we use instead of Scrum Master? Well, in my previous article, I recommended the word coach. Then I heard another that I liked even better – agility lead. I saw that term on a job post from JP Morgan Chase. Apparently, agility lead is what JP Morgan Chase is calling the people who are formerly known as Scrum Masters. I like it.
But I thought there might be better terms out there. How can we find out?
I’m not too interested in WHAT we call the master of Scrum. I’m more interested in that person being allowed to do their job. There are still 3 major services the Scrum Master is supposed to provide. First, coaching the Product Owner. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a PO that wants to be coached by a wet-behind-the-ears fresh-out-of-CSM/PSM-training ‘ScrumMaster‘ these days. Second, coaching the Developers. This seems to be the only service anyone will let the ScrumMaster do these days, but barely even this. It seems the ScrumMaster is expected to be a full-fledged PM who cares about peoples’ feelings just enough to tell them so. Third, coaching the Organization into greater Agility and the use of Scrum where/when necessary. Yeah…I’ve haven’t seen ScrumMasters allowed to do this since 2013 – seriously!I truly don’t care what you call this person – just let them do their job! Here are some things that came off the top of my head just now:
- Agile Advocate
- Agile Agent
- Scrum Agent
- Process Improvement Officer (George Carlin would hate me for adding so many syllables)
- Empirical Process Manager
- Process Improver
- Team Coach
- Scrum Coach
- Scrum Guide (but…we can’t co-opt that term, can we?)
- Agile Guide
Scrum Master is an accountability, not a role. What’s the difference? Companies use titles for a number of internal purposes that often times have little to do with the work performed. As an example when I was a newer Project Manager at an Oracle Retail implementer, my title on paper remained Software Engineer III. Scrum provides 3 accountabilities for the Scrum Team and does not prescribe how any company labels its employees. The more important thing is that the responsibilities are met. If an organization wanted to call the person Associate but have them perform the Scrum Master accountability that works. So would calling them Scrum Master.
Scrum Master…was intended to be the Master of Scrum much like a sensei. Many people will call it Scrum Coach but that suggests that coaching is only 1 stance or responsibility of a Scrum Master when there are additional responsibilities of objective facilitation, teaching and guiding. With the subversion of the word coaching, these days I refer to myself as a mentor or a guide.
I fall on the other side of this debate. I don’t have a problem with using the term– Scrum Master. To me, it’s a historical construct that was well-intentioned. Now, it was more useful in the beginning, and now it’s showing its age from many social, generational, cultural, and other perspectives. But it’s an ingrained term that will be hard to replace.So, will I support changing it? Sure.Can I effectively work with it as-is? Sure.
My proposed change to the name Scrum Master is Scrum Mentor. Where I know it will be scrutinized, I believe it works in 2 ways. This is really what the role does, it mentors the team members, including the Product Owner, towards achieving their goals. Where they may do work outside of the team to help eliminate roadblocks, etc., within the team it is more of a hands-off, mentor role. As well, Mentor starts with the letter M, thus the acronyms CSM or SM won’t have to be replaced.Calling a Scrum Master a Scrum Mentor instead may not be perfect, but it is an evolution of the framework we all love.
I have felt that the term Scrum Masters and coach are overused and limiting. The idea that every question should or even can be put to the team without training or guidance leads to all sorts of mistakes. All mistakes are not good learning opportunities. If we embrace a different word, other behaviors become available.A guide can demonstrate, and advise. Train, facilitate, and more without being trapped by a word. In mid-2020, Woold Zuill, Allan Kelly, and I came together to discuss while a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, a coach or Scrum Master can’t lay claim to the same literary allusion. You can check it out on my podcast here: https://bit.ly/2PUPfQ3
As a Product Leadership Coach, I automatically think in terms of outcomes. The outcome that I look for from people serving in this role is an amplification of their team’s ability to tap into their collective intelligence to solve real problems and achieve collective flow as an ensemble. So if I were to choose a term that best captures that essence and goes beyond a single framework, it would be Collaboration Facilitator.
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you may recall an article I wrote about all the terms people were using to describe the Scrum Master. In Puzzled About the Scrum Master Role, I noted all the different ways that agile experts tried to describe the role. Here are some of my favorites:
Wow, so we have a term that doesn’t describe the role very well and a struggle by others – who should be experts – to describe what it actually means!