Oct. 19, 2009

Multifarious - The Scrum Master

published in German in the IX-Magazin 9/2009

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Scrum gets more and more common as an agile method for the management of projects. Those who want to use the model of Scrum successfully should first take a closer look at the description of the three roles and not mistake the Scrum Master with a Team Leader.
As owner of the second important role in a project team that works with Scrum, the Scrum Master communicates between the Product Owner and the Team. He moderates conflicts and takes obstacles that might interfere with the work of the team out of the way. The Scrum Master is not only responsible for the success of a project; he is more likely required to ensure the rules of Scrum.

The role of the Scrum Master

Companies that adjusted to Scrum show more efficiency than before, teams that use Scrum can work more productive and projects are better and easier to plan by using Scrum. All these statements can be true, but only for those who use the holistic Scrum method correctly. A very important part throughout this process plays the role of the Scrum Master. This second part of the Scrum tutorial refers to the responsibilities, asked requirements and limits of a Scrum Master.

Scrum describes three different management roles that make up the Scrum team: Product Owner, Scrum Master and the Development team. These three roles are equal, each with special tasks and responsibilities. The Product Owner, of whom has been an article in the last iX [1], is responsible for eliciting requirements, prioritize tehm and the most important to present the “vision” and the goal to the team, i.e. what the final product should look like. The development team is responsible for the development of a product, its quality and the technical realization.

The tasks of the Scrum Master and his role in comparison to the team leader of classical methods and their differences are the quintessence of this article. The question for the “agile leader” was asked at the Agile Conference 2006 by Tim Lister (see “Online sources”, [a]).

If you look at the first image you might believe at the first sight that this small brash-looking guy in the front is actually leading the group because he leads the way and goes ahead. But no. The actual “leader” is the chick that is looking around at the very end of the group, checking that there is no danger, surveying and having everything under control.

Agile Leaderships Figure 1: Crucial question: Who is leading who?

This image demonstrates very clearly the difference between the classical project leader and the Scrum Master. Furthermore it illustrates the role perception of an agile leader who is putting himself back behind the team. The most obvious difference between a team leader and a Scrum Master is represented by the name itself though. Whereas one is leading the team and sets the tasks, the other one is in charge of observing that the team obeys the rules and realizes the method of Scrum entirely. The Scrum Master does not interfere into the decisions of the team regarding specifically the development, but rather is there for the team as an advisor. He only interferes actively when anybody of the team or any other participant of a project (Stakeholder) does not obey the rules of Scrum. Whereas a team leader often gives requirements and takes responsibility for the completion of those, an experienced Scrum Master gives only impulses and advises to the team to lead the correct way, to use the right method or to choose the right technology. In fine the Scrum Master acts more like a Team Coach than a team leader.

Clearing out all impediments

Another important task of the Scrum Master is to get rid of all possible impediments that might disturb the work of the team. Usually problems can be classified in three different categories. The first one is problems the team cannot solve. E.g. the team cannot do any kind of performance-tests because the hardware is not in place, the IT-department does not provide Bug tracker, or the ordered software just still did not reach the team. Another impediment could be that the marketing or sales manager was there again demanding that another feature gets integrated “quickly”.

The second one regards impediments that result through the organizational structure or strategic decisions. Maybe the office is not capable of handling the important meetings or teamwork – e.g. because there is no media. One mistake that occurs quite often regards the problem that the Scrum Master is seen as the personnel responsible for the team members. This is often because of the classical role of a project leader, but using Scrum it only leads to conflicts of interests and is strongly against its major principle: The team owns a management role in the method of Scrum and is therefore coequal with the Scrum Master and the Product Owner. Another aspect can be the insufficient bandwidth of the internet for the new project.

The third problem refers to the individuals. Someone needs a hand with the debugging. Another one cannot solve a task alone and needs someone else for the pair programming. Someone else has to reset his computer....

Even though a Scrum Master can’t and shouldn’t realize some requirements himself, he is still responsible for solving and getting rid of problems and needs to give proper criteria. This task often takes up a lot of time and requires great authority and backbone. The Scrum Master has to create an optimal working-condition for the team and is responsible for this condition to be retained, in order to meet the goals of every sprint – i.e. for a short sprint the defined requirements.

One carrier for two hats

With the introduction of Scrum there is always the question whether the Scrum Master is part of the developing team and therefore can be integrated in the development itself. The response to this always asked question clearly states a NO. Depending on the situation of a project it might be that the Scrum Master of the one team works parallel to that one as a developer in another team, but the important thing is: Scrum depends on the direct communication, on the commitment to fulfill given tasks in a certain amount of time and on a clear structure. A person that carries two hats at the same time cannot necessarily judge nor act objectively. Even the decision to realize a task or to clear out an impediment would lead to a conflict of interest for the personal union of the Scrum Master/Developer.

The responsibility for the success of a project does not have the Scrum Master. The team gives its commitment to the Product Owner to fulfill certain requirements, the so-called User stories, during the following sprint. Thus the team is as well as the Product Owner responsible for the success of a project. The Scrum Master on the contrary is responsible for the realization of Scrum as a project-management-method by the team and that it acts in respect of the rules of Scrum. A good comparison would be a Sports Coach. He prepares his team for a game, but when the match starts the team is self-responsible and has to give everything it can offer.

A Scrum Master steps back as a person, coaches the team, turns mistakes into a subject – also of a personal matter – and creates with that a team culture, within the team as well as with all other stakeholders that is marked by an open communication regarding possible occurring impediments.

Scrum in the entire company

Even though he is required to keep his focus on the abidance of the process he is an important part for the success of a project. Because: without Scrum Master no Scrum and without Scrum no successful project. The term Scrum Master and his significance regarding the introduction of Scrum are often discussed in the Scrum Alliance as well as in many public blogs. The meaning and the use of Scrum have changed a lot over the last recent years. Following the principle “inspect and adapt” Scrum is not only used in individual projects, but rather developed to a method of management that improves the entire communication and collaboration in a company and with that it as well increases the productivity. Terms as “Scrum of Scrums” or “Enterprise Scrum” can be heard quite often and these terms clarify that this method is far more than just a method for an individual project.

Certifications – yes or no

Dependent on the complexity of the situation of a company and a project it’s often necessary to do a strategic adjustment of the process and the goals of the particular company introducing Scrum. One has to balance chances and risks and evaluate those in order to define a roadmap for the introduction and realization of Scrum. These activities ask for a good process- and project-know-how as well as for experience in the section of management consultancy. If a person is able to introduce Scrum only depends on his experience and capabilities and not on the “name” Scrum Master or a certification.

It’s often asked whether a certification is necessary or not for a Scrum Master. The answer cannot easily be given with a yes or no. It depends on the goal that is chased by someone with a certification. The trainings are done by CSTs (Certified Scrum Trainers) which usually stands for a high quality standard. If the participant only participates for his CV or participates actively in including his experience can’t be said by a certification. Therefor the certification is not an indication if the person who has the certification is a good ScrumMaster or not.

The goal of the apprenticeship to CSM and CSPO (see box “Scrum-qualifications”) is to teach the participants the basics of Scrum-Framework as well as the responsibilities of the three roles, the three artifacts and three ceremonies of Scrum. The one who holds this expectation of a certification-training certainly won’t be disappointed.

Scrum Tools

New Scrum-Tools can be found on the market everyday due to the encouragement of Scrum. Although this term doesn’t only refer to Software tools, but aids of every kind, that support the work of the Scrum Master, Product Owner and team with their preparation and during the sprints. E.g. there is the Whiteboard and the very handy labels that offer an overview about the present sprint at the sprint planning meeting as well as at the daily standup meeting. For all the teams that work distributed there is an online-variation of the Whiteboard as software (see figure 2). Furthermore handy card games such as “Scrum Planning Poker” support the estimation of efforts [c] or the “Business Value Game” for the prioritization of requirements for the Scrum teams easily but also effectively. Interactive online Whiteboard Regarding the Scrum tools it can be said: Before using Scrum-software the team should know how to handle this method and don’t act else wise because of uncertainties of the method. Then a Scrum tool is usually very useful, no matter if it’s about the capture, the vision and historiography of requirements, the description of user stories or tasks or the planning of a sprint. A good and complete list of such tools including judgements can be found at www.userstories.com.


The Scrum Master plays an important part as he’s the one balancing the interests of the other two Scrum-roles: The Product Owner acts primarily on the Business Value and the team requests more quality, for which it is responsible. In order to keep the balance of these two different forces the Scrum Master has to be the supporter and negotiation artist. He does not stand between the Product Owner and the Team, rather arranges a clear communication and moderates during conflicts. This is the technique how the goals of the product and a sprint can be reached.

Overview: Scrum-Qualifications

Scrum Master/Product Owner:

  • For the title of the certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) a two days training is required, where the theoretical basics of the method get taught and where a connection is created to a practical application. For increasing the quality of the certification an exam is planned for 2010 at the end of the training.

Scrum Practitioner:

  • Who wants to be called a Scrum Practitioner needs to prove that he’s been working for at least one year in Scrum-projects and holds a certification of CSM respectively CSPO. Furthermore he needs to write a report on his experiences and judge those.

Scrum Trainer:

In order to be permitted as a Scrum Trainer the applicant has to turn in the following papers at the Scrum Alliance and needs to fulfill the following requests:

  • A summary of the own experience with Scrum represented in a résumé
  • A detailed description of the experience with giving trainings
  • Own material for trainings
  • References from at least two co-trainers he was doing a training with
  • More papers that prove the quality of the applicant

Scrum Coach:

Worldwide there are only 20 Scrum Coaches (in Germany only two: Andrea Tomasini, agile42 and Christoph Matthis), because the expectations for a certification are very high. An applicant has to fulfill the following qualifications:

  • Prove at least 1500 hours Scrum-Coaching/- Consulting the last 5 years
  • name two customers that are able to describe his coaching skills and prove them
  • an extensive description of the projects and companies he introduced Scrum to
  • an interview for the analysis and verification of the described procedures
Image of marion

Marion Eickmann

I am one of the founders and the executive director of agile42. I am supporting strategic product development and leadership challenges for more than 15 years now. Since 2007 I have been realizing local and global agile projects with agile42's international team successfully. You like to talk about: Organic Agility, complexity, resilience, organizational culture & Agile? Just send an email :-)
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Image of marion

Marion Eickmann

I am one of the founders and the executive director of agile42. I am supporting strategic product development and leadership challenges for more than 15 years now. Since 2007 I have been realizing local and global agile projects with agile42's international team successfully. You like to talk about: Organic Agility, complexity, resilience, organizational culture & Agile? Just send an email :-)

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