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3 Common Scrum Master Mistakes - Part II

May 01, 2012

In the first part, we discussed common Scrum Master mistakes. Now, we will focus on some of the consequences of these mistakes, typical causes and a few ideas that can help you to avoid making these mistakes.

Following are some consequences of the Scrum Master working as a manager.

Single Point of Failure

The Team becomes reliant on a single person making decisions on its behalf. It kills self-organization. The quality of the decision making takes a sound beating. The Team has to live with the decision made by one person instead of leveraging collective intelligence of all the Team members.

These decisions might work fine, at times, because of the individual experience of the Scrum Master. However, over the long term a single person struggles with making quality decisions on his or her own, compared with the Team conducting a healthy discussion and utilizing its collective experience and intelligence in making such decisions.

Ineffective Communication

The Team should communicate directly with the Product Owner. The Scrum Master constrains the free flow of communication by coming in between. The Scrum Master risks lowering the effectiveness of this communication by adding an unnecessary layer of communication. The message possibly becomes convoluted.

Typical Causes

Better the Devil You Know

The command and control mentality has strong roots. It is a legacy of traditional processes where one person is accountable for project delivery, and this has been part of enterprise culture for decades. This is the predominant way that projects are “managed”.

It is difficult to let go of this deep-rooted legacy even after transitioning to Agile and Scrum. People tend to fall back on techniques they know, especially when things start to head south.

I have heard many Scrum Masters saying, “I know the self-organization concept is rather good but the Team will take its time to self-organize. It will surely make some mistakes along the way, which is fine in a ‘normal project’. However, this project is crucial. I cannot risk not ‘delivering’ this project. So this time around, we need to move fast and do things using ‘best practices’ and techniques we (I) know work.”

They go on and act as traditional project managers, assigning tasks, making decisions and tracking individual progress.

Scrum Masters Held Responsible For Project Delivery

Organizations prefer to know who is responsible for project delivery. The project manager traditionally has filled this role. After adopting Agile, organizations assign this role to the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master is now responsible for project delivery just as the project managers.

Prevention and Cure Ideas

A couple of measures can help in avoiding and stopping this antipattern.

Delivery Is Team Responsibility

The Scrum Master is not responsible for project delivery. The Team is responsible for delivery. That is why the Team must be empowered. The Scrum Master role is not that of a manager or a “leader”. The Scrum Master does not assign tasks. The Scrum Master does not tell the Team what to do or how to do it. Scrum Teams are self-organizing. In addition, Scrum Masters should remember that in Scrum, the Product Owner is primarily responsible for stakeholder management.

When I tell this to people in training sessions, there are usually more than a few confused and sarcastic-looking faces. They find it difficult to imagine a Team just going about its business without someone “managing” them, and telling them what to do.

Scrum encourages high bandwidth communication among the Team. The same rule applies to communication between the Team and the Product Owner. The Product Owner is part of the Scrum Team. The Team must communicate directly with the Product Owner to ensure that the communication is smooth, rapid, and effective. There should not be any barriers. There should be no filters.

This is a big cultural shift. It takes deliberate planning, effective communication and, of course, some trial and error before the organization culture starts to shift to this new paradigm. During this time, if the Scrum Master is not supported by the organization, they will shift this pressure to the Team and start working more and more as project managers.

Scrum Master Coaching

It is difficult to let the traditional management legacy go. The Certification courses are a start of the learning and training process, not the end. There is a reason even the excellent sports champions hire coaches. Scrum Masters should receive training and coaching to help them understand Agile, and coaching techniques and practices. Then the Scrum Master must train and coach the Team to become self-organizing, to solve difficult and hairy problems, and to make and own its decisions.

The Scrum Master must facilitate and encourage direct communication between the Team and the Product Owner. The Scrum Master must train the Team and the Product Owner to communicate directly.

The Scrum Master is not a project manager. The Scrum Master is a servant-leader role. The Scrum Master does not assign tasks and spoon-feed decisions to the Team. The Scrum Master does not act as a go-between for the Team and the Product Owner. The Scrum Master helps, coaches and guides the Team in becoming self-organizing.

Learn more about the Scrum Master, Scrum and Agile in one of Scrum Master Certification courses.

© Faisal Mahmood

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