Why Managers Make Terrible Scrum Masters

Agile techniques such as scrum require the attention of an agile team leader or scrum master who can run the daily standups, maintain the velocity charts, and oversee the rituals such as sprint planning meetings, retrospectives and demos.

Those duties generally belong to a member of the development team, and they do take time and attention. That means team members who take on these duties will be drawn away from their normal responsibilities.

Because of this, in companies without dedicated scrum masters, a team’s manager may be tempted to take on the responsibilities.

On the surface this may seem like a logical choice.

The manager is the one person who should be most familiar with what everybody on the team is doing. A manager may appear to be in the best position to oversee the process and evaluate whether or not scrum is being followed. In fact, many of the responsibilities of a scrum master do fall upon management in a more traditional organization.

But there is a basic conflict of interest between the duties of a manager and a scrum master.

A manager sits at the top of the pyramid in a team’s hierarchy, while an agile approach is all about fostering a networked environment of open communication, in which team members rely on each other rather than on the top-down rules of the organization.

In addition, many scrum teams include members who report to different managers. This often happens because the organization divides teams by specialization, and a range of talents is needed to deliver a full working feature to the customer. A scrum team needs to be responsible to itself for delivering the work, while each member of the team needs to be responsible to a manager for fitting into the organization as a whole.

Team members need to learn to share what they’re doing for the sake of the team, while their managers focus on how it fits into the bigger picture. A manager’s practical authority can undermine the objectivity of the scrum master’s duties. Team members may find themselves focusing more on being good employees and following their manager’s orders to earn a good review than on the good of the team.

A Manager’s Hierarchical Duties

A manager has a recognized and important role in an organization. That role is frequently at odds with being the face of agile within the team.

Managers represent authority, and the interface between the rest of the organization and the team, while scrum masters focus on process. Without a manager, many essential aspects of building and maintaining a cohesive team inside of a company would be impossible.

Having a senior position in the organization can turn into a double-edged sword when a manager tries to double as a scrum master.

Managers have both the responsibility to keep track of what the team is working on and the authority to set and enforce organizational standards. The hierarchical nature of management helps to position a team inside a larger organization, but it operates best if it is kept separate from the networked process of agile.

Hiring and Firing

Building and curating the team is the primary duty of the manager.

That means recognizing the expectations of the broader organization and making sure that the people on the team are well-suited to the tasks they’ll be called upon to perform. Recruiting new team members, especially in a competitive industry, is a major responsibility. And in cases where a team member may not be performing adequately and is bringing the standards of the team down, the manager needs to be able to take action.

While agile can help bring relevant issues about team needs and individual performance to the surface, having a manager try to lead the day-to-day rituals can stifle the easy flow of information necessary to make agile work for the entire team.

In addition, the intermediate role of scrum master can serve to identify and correct issues early, and problems can be escalated to the manager outside the agile process when necessary.

Employee Reviews

The responsibility for reviewing each of the employees on the team falls on the shoulders of their direct manager.

That same manager is also responsible for making sure employee development is in line with expectations and organizational needs, to keep the team productive and satisfied. That means staying on top of a number of factors, including the results of an employee’s participation in agile processes.

Many companies have started to make 360° reviews part of their standard processes, encouraging managers to seek feedback about an employee’s performance from subordinates, peers and management. However, the final responsibility rests with the manager, and every employee is aware of that.

Few managers can be objective agile leaders and keep this duty from coloring the way they run the rituals. If employees are intimidated by the authority of a manager who is also trying to run their daily stand-up, they may not be as comfortable participating openly, and the flow of information may be inhibited.

Securing Resources

Managers spend a lot of their time working outside the team, making sure the organization has a good sense of what the team is doing and the benefits they are bringing. This is how a team gets budget people, equipment, and other expenses. The manager is the external advocate for the team to senior management and the executive staff and helps position the needs and wants of the team with other parts of the organization.

All this can take a manager away from the detailed work of agile. For the team to perform at a steady pace, they need the regular and focused attention of a scrum master. Otherwise, the tendency to cut corners and bend the rules may bring down their velocity, make people feel disrespected and turn the potential of agile into nothing but empty promises.

An Agile Leader’s Networked Duties

Like a manager, an attentive leader of agile practices helps keep the team moving forward.

But with management doing the job of keeping the team funded, secure and well staffed, the agile team leader is in a strong position to help facilitate open communication in an environment where mutual self-interest keeps everyone following agile practices and where issues can be raised and addressed openly.

Running the Rituals

The rituals of agile development are easy to learn, but keeping them going in a sustainable way can be difficult. The traditional workplace isn’t naturally inclined toward the openness of agile, and people can quickly fall back into familiar patterns if someone isn’t there to remind them how the process works.

The scrum master needs to maintain order and keep the process moving through the four key rituals of agile development: the daily 15-minute stand-up, the sprint planning meeting, the demo, and the retrospective.

That means taking charge of the time, keeping people from losing sight of the objectives of these rituals, keeping outsiders from interfering and encouraging the mutual respect that professionals offer each other while listening and presenting.

The only authority the scrum master has comes from paying attention and supporting the input of the entire team while defending them from distractions.

Maintaining the Artifacts

There are a few artifacts that go along with most agile practices, including a board of stories and epics, a backlog and an icebox of stories yet to be worked on, and the charts that track the team’s velocity.

In addition, some teams have props, tools and special software that needs to be managed to keep the agile process moving forward smoothly.

Making sure that all of these are maintained from day to day is the responsibility of the scrum master. Nothing stays static from one sprint to the next.

The product owner needs constant access to the backlog and the icebox to keep them groomed and filled with well-phrased stories that are aligned with business objectives.

The team needs to be able to move stories around to suit their development requirements.

And people outside the team need to be able to watch the team’s progress and find out the status of specific projects without disrupting the team’s productivity.

Training the Roles

Agile teams consist of active team members who can work on stories, product owners who create stories and a scrum master who oversees the process. The people who take on these roles in may change over time for many reasons, including organizational shifts, new requirements outside the technical skill of the current team, new clients and natural career growth.

As people move in and out of the team, a scrum master needs to be able to get new members up to speed quickly in without losing the team’s momentum. Scrum masters also need to encourage the rest of the team to take on some of this responsibility. Learning directly from peers is the best way for a new team member to absorb the flavor of agile.

In addition, agile teams sit inside an organization with managers, designers, executives and other interested parties who need to be kept informed about what the team is doing. It’s just as important to train the people outside the team about their role as observers (but not participants) as it is to train the team members on their responsibilities to each other and to the process.

Scrum Masters and Manager Work Best Together

Agile does not depend on the hierarchy of the organization to get the work done, but a healthy working relationship between management and the scrum master can benefit both.

A good scrum master will keep the managers aware of the work being done by people on the team, and meet regularly with managers to find out about organizational issues that could have an impact on planning or velocity.

To be fair, there are some managers who manage to keep these two worlds separate while acting as both managers and agile leaders. But this ability is rare, and relying on their unusual skills is not sustainable in the long term.

For the sake of the team, agile leaders should not be in the management chain of the people who are on the team, and managers should not be distracted by the conflicting duties scrum master.

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  • Bruno Seixas

    You make a very clear and reasonable point.
    It seems a win/win situation for all the “players”.

    Thanks for sharing =)

    • mdavidgreen

      Thank you, Bruno. I agree, both the manager and the scrum master do benefit from having separate roles and working together.