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The Scrum Master Role is Evolving


Anthony Mersino

June 8, 2023

9:17 AM

Article at a glance
    • The role of the Scrum Master is evolving, with many organizations moving away from the traditional dedicated position in favor of alternative approaches to support teams and the broader organization.
    • Organizations like Google, Meta, and Amazon operate without dedicated Scrum Masters, opting not to allocate resources solely to the Scrum Master role.
    • Capital One’s decision to lay off over 1,000 agile delivery leads (akin to Scrum Masters) in January 2023 signals a shift towards mature teams that no longer require dedicated coaching.
    • As organizations seek to reduce costs, the necessity of a dedicated Scrum Master is being questioned, prompting consideration of alternative roles to inherit Scrum Master responsibilities.
    • A trend towards “Full Stack Scrum Masters” is emerging, encompassing mastery of Scrum, Kanban, agile scaling, and project management skills, offering a versatile value proposition for organizations seeking multi-capable individuals.

Last month I wrote about the term for Scrum Master and how it should be changed. That sparked a number of other conversations, including one with my colleague and agile expert, Al Bayer. We think that the role of the Scrum Master is evolving, and we wondered if others are seeing this as well. 

The accountabilities of the Scrum Master are clearly articulated in the Scrum Guide, which also describes the Scrum Team as:

The Scrum Team consists of one Scrum Master, one Product Owner, and Developers. Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies.

The Scrum Guide (2020)

The way I read this, you cannot have a Scrum Team without one Scrum Master. Scrum enthusiasts would insist that the Scrum Master role is a dedicated accountability and that each team should have a dedicated Scrum Master.  “You wouldn’t have a professional sports team without a coach” is how that line of thinking goes. However, having someone whose role is limited to Scrum Mastering is expensive.

It seems like more and more organizations are moving away from the model of a dedicated Scrum Master. Instead, they are exploring other approaches to support teams and the broader organization. Massive organizations such as Google, Meta, and Amazon don’t have dedicated Scrum Masters for their teams. They still consider themselves agile – they just don’t have a person with that single skillset playing the role of Scrum Master. It seems that organizations don’t want to pay for a person whose role is limited to impediment removal, Scrum ceremony execution, training, and overall Agile guidance. 

In some cases, it is a team member performing the accountabilities of the Scrum Master. In many others, it is a department manager, the product owner, or a project manager performing those accountabilities. 

Capital One surprised many agile enthusiasts in January of 2023 when they announced that they were laying off over 1,000 agile delivery leads, effectively a Scrum Master role. Capital One felt that the teams and organization could operate without that role. In other words, the agile delivery leads effectively coached the teams to the point where they were mature enough that they did not need the coach. They worked themselves out of a job.

As organizations look to reduce costs, the dedicated Scrum Master may be a prime target. I know it is something that most of our clients ask about. “Do we really need to have a Scrum Master?” They are assessing the effectiveness of having a dedicated specialty role and looking at how to get the work done without Scrum Masters. 

Who can take on the Scrum Master Accountabilities?

Several adjacent roles could inherit the responsibilities of the Scrum Master. We have seen Product Owners / Product Managers, Engineering Managers, Quality Assurance team members, and others assume some or all of these responsibilities in many organizations.  

But there is one other role that seems to inherit the responsibilities of the Scrum Master frequently. That is the Project Manager or Program Manager.

Some recent job descriptions pulled from different industries show a common theme. These titles may vary, but all seem to include some level of responsibility that was formerly assigned to the Scrum Master position. 

Here are some examples of titles that commonly include these responsibilities:

  • Agile Project Manager
  • Agile Coach
  • Agility Lead
  • Agile Program Manager
  • Agile Delivery Lead

Is There a Trend Toward Full Stack Scrum Masters?

We have heard recently of a trend toward having people with capabilities that include mastery of Scrum, Kanban, agile scaling, and other important skills. This is a ‘Full Stack’ position, and it proves to be valuable similar to how full stack developers have been valuable. Let’s call it the full-stack Scrum Master.

The full-stack Scrum Master can obviously support a team by removing impediments and facilitating discussions. They can also train and coach up and down the organization. But the third capability that we are seeing is responsible for delivery—specifically, the ability to plan and deliver projects.

A single person who can do several things across the enterprise is a huge value proposition for any organization. Rather than hiring specialists for each unique role and set of responsibilities, the full-stack Scrum Masters can jump in and help where needed by the team, department, or leadership. That single individual could:

  • Assume the role of Scrum Master to a new team or a struggling team
  • Coach and train at any level in the organization on Agile Principles and Practices
  • Take responsibility for the delivery of projects 

The need for experienced Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters is greatest during an Agile Transformation. The need should dissipate over time as teams become more mature. However, even after Agile has been fully embedded within an Organization, some teams and leaders will need ongoing coaching and support.

Some organizations have implemented one or two roles above at the Department or Group level. They maintain a pool of qualified full-stack Scrum Masters and loan them out based on the needs and priorities of the groups they support. The ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ mindset is applied, and the teams or people who need the most help get it quickly and efficiently. 

The Bottom Line on Full-Stack Scrum Masters

It appears that there is a trend in the way the accountabilities of the Scrum Master are delivered. It looks like there is a merger of three key practices; project management, coaching organizations on Agile Practices and Mindset, and supporting traditional Scrum Master duties. We just don’t know how widespread this has become.

What do you think? Perhaps you are a Scrum Master, or you work with or hire Scrum Masters. Are you seeing this trend in your company? We would like to hear about your own experience. Please let us know if you see the same trend or something similar. Staying on top of the evolution of Agile Roles is critical to our growth as Agile Leaders and Practitioners. 

Thanks to Al Bayer for a spirited discussion on this topic.

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