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3 Reasons Why Scrum Masters Struggle to Become Servant Leaders

December 12, 2010

It seems it is rather hard for some of the Scrum Masters to stick to their servent leader role. This is one of the most common pitfalls. The lure of being a manager is too strong. Knowingly, or unknowingly people keep falling into this trap. They behave more like project managers than ScrumMasters.

Several symptoms indicate that the ScrumMaster is struggling to let the team self organize and thus acting more as a manager, than a ScrumMaster. Three keys ones are

  1. ScrumMaster assigns tasks
  2. ScrumMaster acts as go between the Team and the Product Owner
  3. ScrumMaster makes decisions on behalf of the team

We’ll use Sally, as an example ScrumMaster to explain this anttipattern.

ScrumMaster assigns tasks

It’s Daily Scrum time. Team gathers around, along with Sally, on time and Daily Scrum kicks off. So far so good. On close scrutiny, it looks like that the team members are talking to the Sally during the meeting. They are ‘reporting’  on what they did.

It’s a symptom that Sally might be working as a manager instead of a ScrumMaster. Stay tuned to what happens later. A team member has just reported what she did yesterday. She doesn’t have any tasks pending for today. Instead of picking up some task herself or self organizing with the team to pick up the next task, she just looks at Sally. Sally wisely nods her head and tells her what to do next. And the meeting goes on.

This doesn’t not necessarily always happen during the daily Scrum. Team members finish their task and instead of working with the team to pick up the next one, they go talk to Sally asking about what should be done next. Like good old days. Except that it’s not so good.
More often that not, it’s the command and control style management legacy that leads to this kind of behavior. Both novice and experienced ScrumMaster succumb to this. They don’t act as the facilitator the ScrumMaster should be, rather they act as managers. They tell their team members what to do. They don’t train their team to be self organizing. The Team looks forward to their ‘leader’ to tell them what to do and in some cases, how to do it.

ScrumMaster role is not that of a manager or a ‘leader’. Scrum Master doesn’t assign tasks. Scrum Master doesn’t tell the team what to do or how to do it. When I tell this to people in training sessions, there are usually more than a few confused and sarcastic looking faces. They find it hard to imagine a team simply going about its business without someone ‘managing’ them, telling them what to do. Scrum teams are self organizing.
It’s the team that commits to delivering every Sprint, not the ScrumMaster. People take their commitment more seriously, compared with the commitments thrusted upon them by other people. It’s the ScrumMaster’s responsibility to teach the team about self organization.

ScrumMaster acts as a go between the Team and the Product Owner

The team has completed the planning meeting and the Sprint starts. Team starts to build the functionality it committed to during the planning meeting. As the team keeps adding functionality, it needs to communicate with the Product Owner about the features and acceptance criteria. The Team have questions.
Sally seems like a very active person. She communicates with the team very frequently. As soon as the team raises some issues, she is ‘on it’. She goes around and locates the Product Owner and asks the Product Owner relevant questions. She then gets back to the team and informs the team about the response given by the Product Owner. The team seems happy, they get back to work. And the cycle goes on.

This is another legacy of activity driven management culture, where managers invent work for themselves. They are used to act as a go between their team and other stakeholders and teams.

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

The ScrumMaster must facilitate and encourage direct communication between the Team and the Product Owner. The ScrumMaster must train the Team and the Product Owner to communicate directly. This is one of the core reasons Scrum encourages collocated teams.

ScrumMaster makes decisions on behalf of the team

Sally comes from a strong technical and management background. During a planning session, or even during the course of a Sprint, the Team needs to make a seemingly difficult decision. The discussion starts around the topic. Opinions starts coming from different directions. It looks like a normal team discussion. Until, Sally gives her verdict about the issue at hand. There’s a pause in the discussion. The team member look up to Sally. In ‘better teams’, the ScrumMaster gives her reasons for the decision. The discussion ends. That’s it. ‘The team’ has made a decision, even though the decision is ‘spoon fed’ to the team by the ScrumMaster. This happens a few times. Now whenever the Team needs to make a tough decision, it looks up to the ScrumMaster. The ScrumMaster has transformed into a ‘manager’, a ‘lead architect‘ or at least a ‘decision maker’.

The ScrumMaster is not there to make decision on behalf of the team. The ScrumMaster must facilitate the decision making whenever needed, but never spoon feed the decision to the Team. It is a self organizing team. The team should make its own decisions. The ScrumMaster must train and coach the team to become self organizing, to solve difficult and hairy problems, to make decisions and own its decisions.

Learn more about Scrum and Agile in one of Scrum Master Certification Courses.

© Faisal Mahmood

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