Topics in Scrum

ScrumMaster

What is a Scrum Master? The ScrumMaster is responsible for making sure a Scrum team lives by the values and practices of Scrum. The ScrumMaster is often considered a coach for the team, helping the team do the best work it possibly can. The ScrumMaster can also be thought of as a process owner for the team, creating a balance with the project's key stakeholder, who is referred to as the product owner.

The ScrumMaster does anything possible to help the team perform at their highest level. This involves removing any impediments to progress, facilitating meetings, and doing things like working with the product owner to make sure the product backlog is in good shape and ready for the next sprint. The ScrumMaster role is commonly filled by a former project manager or a technical team leader but can be anyone.

The ScrumMaster is also often viewed as a protector of the team. The most common example is that the ScrumMaster protects the team by making sure they do not over-commit themselves to what they can achieve during a sprint due to pressure from an overly aggressive product owner. However, a good ScrumMaster also protects the team from complacency.

What is a Scrum Master role and how does it fit into the project? Many who are new to the ScrumMaster role struggle with the apparent contradiction of the ScrumMaster as both a servant-leader to the team and also someone with no authority. The seeming contradiction disappears when we realize that although the ScrumMaster has no authority over Scrum team members, the ScrumMaster does have authority over the process. Although a ScrumMaster may not be able to say, “You’re fired,” a ScrumMaster can say, “I’ve decided we’re going to try two-week sprints for the next month.”

The ScrumMaster is there to help the team in its use of Scrum. Think of the help from a ScrumMaster as similar to a personal trainer who helps you stick with an exercise regimen and perform all exercises with the correct form. A good trainer will provide motivation while at the same time making sure you don’t cheat by skipping a hard exercise. The trainer’s authority, however, is limited. The trainer cannot make you do an exercise you don’t want to do. Instead, the trainer reminds you of your goals and how you’ve chosen to meet them. To the extent that the trainer does have authority, it has been granted by the client. ScrumMasters are much the same: They have authority, but that authority is granted to them by the team.

A ScrumMaster can say to a team, “Look, we’re supposed to deliver potentially shippable software at the end of each sprint. We didn’t do that this time. What can we do to make sure we do better the next sprint?” This is the ScrumMaster exerting authority over the process; something has gone wrong with the process if the team has failed to deliver something potentially shippable.

But because the ScrumMaster’s authority does not extend beyond the process, the same ScrumMaster should not say, “Because we failed to deliver something potentially shippable the last sprint, I want Tod to review all code before it gets checked in.” Having Tod review the code might be a good idea, but the decision is not the ScrumMaster’s to make. Doing so goes beyond authority over the process and enters into how the team works.

With authority limited to ensuring the team follows the process, the ScrumMaster’s role can be more difficult than that of a typical project manager. Project managers often have the fallback position of “do it because I say so.” The times when a ScrumMaster can say that are limited and restricted to ensuring that Scrum is being followed.

Read more about the role of the ScrumMaster, ScrumMaster requirements and the six attributes of the ideal ScrumMaster.