Scrum Master Role and Responsibilities

Scrum Masters hold teams accountable to the Scrum process and values. Explore the role of Scrum Master, how it fits with the agile team and product owner, and how to become a Certified ScrumMaster. 

The Scrum Master is the Scrum role responsible for the process of creating a product using Scrum.

What Is a Scrum Master?

The Scrum Master is accountable for ensuring a Scrum team lives by the values, principles, and practices of Scrum.

Scrum has five values that are essential for success: focus, openness, commitment, courage, and respect. It is built on certain agile principles, including small, cross-functional teams, frequent inspect-and-adapt feedback loops, and people over process. Practices include a small set of roles, meetings, and tools that teams depend on for success.

The ScrumMaster is often considered an agile coach for the team, ensuring the team can do the best work possible. Like coaches, Scrum Masters are not players. They are not one of the team members doing the work of the sprint. Instead, they focus on how the sprint is going, where the team is bogging down and they've noticed team progress. They are always looking for ways to improve and to help the team perform at its best.

The Scrum Master serves 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 product owner is accountable for what will be developed. The developers on the team are accountable for how it is created. Together, the three roles form a team that makes Scrum work.

So, what falls outside the responsibility of a Scrum Master? Deciding what will be developed, deciding how it is created, and (in most cases) doing the work of creating the product.

What Does a Scrum Master Do?

What exactly do Scrum Masters do? They do anything possible to help the team perform at their highest level. This involves the folllowing Scrum Master accountabilities / responsibilities:

  • Removing any impediments to progress,
  • Facilitating meetings, and
  • Working with the product owner to make sure the product backlog is in good shape and ready for the next sprint.

An additional responsibility is to function as a protector of the team. The most common example is that they protect the team from over-committing themselves to what they can achieve during a sprint due to pressure from an overly aggressive product owner. However, ScrumMasters also protect the team from complacency.

Another of the many Scrum Master responsibilities is to help the team in its understanding and use of the Scrum framework. Think of this as similar to a personal trainer who helps you stick with an exercise regimen and perform all exercises with the correct form.

A good personal 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 personal 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: Any authority they have has been granted to them by the team.

Additionally, one accountability of the Scrum Master is to hold teams to their commitments. They can say to a team, “Look, we all agree that 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 Scrum Master’s authority does not extend beyond the process, they 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 falls outside the ScrumMaster’s responsibility; it is not theirs to make. Doing so goes beyond authority over the process and enters into how the team works.

What's the Role of a Scrum Master? How Does It Work?

Many who are new to the role struggle with the apparent contradiction of the Scrum Master as both a servant leader to the team and also someone with no authority. 

The seeming contradiction disappears when we realize that although the Scrum Master has no authority over Scrum team members, they do have authority over the process.

Although they may not be able to say, “You’re fired,” they can say, “I’ve decided we’re going to try two-week sprints for the next month.”

Solving for small problems before they escalate into big problems is one of the key elements of the role.

Although Scrum Masters have no authority over Scrum team members, they do have authority over the process.

Remember, too, that Scrum Masters serve primarily as coaches, not players. That means that Scrum Masters typically do not pitch in to do the work. Take an event like product backlog refinement, for example. When estimating stories, the Scrum Master's key responsibility is to facilitate the meeting, ensuring that everyone's voice is heard and that each team member has a chance to participate. They are not there to provide estimates.

How to Become a Scrum Master

Anyone can become a Scrum Master. The key is to have a good understanding of the role, a growth mindset, and an ability to lead through influence. We’ve thought of seven questions to ask yourself to see if being a Scrum Master is right for you and seven tips for how to land your first job as a ScrumMaster. But there is more to consider.

Skill sets that good Scrum Masters share include being a good listener, feeling comfortable with uncertainty, able to handle conflict, having comfort with technology, being more excited about clearing a path for others than doing the work themselves, and feeling satisfied with life outside the spotlight.

The best Scrum Masters have a similar set of characteristics. It would be impossible to come up with a comprehensive list, but I can say that like Batman, they are humble, protective, have to earn their authority, never give up, and live by a moral code that includes servant leadership. 

Certified Scrum Master (CSM) Certification

Because they must be so familiar with the ins and outs of Scrum, many find it beneficial to earn their Scrum Master certification. Many certifications exist, from Professional Scrum Master® to Certified ScrumMaster®(CSM). The important thing to understand is that there is so much more to being a Scrum Master than just the ability to take a course and pass the exam.

Here at Mountain Goat Software, we offer the Certified ScrumMaster course and certification. Read more about the Certified ScrumMaster requirements.

Scrum Master vs Project Manager

To compare the Scrum Master role with a project manager role, it's essential to understand agile project management and Scrum. Project management and product development is different with agile methodologies like Scrum. Instead of responsibilities residing with one project manager role, project management is dispersed among all the Scrum roles. In other words, no one person is managing the project.

In the Scrum methodology, the product owner decides what will be developed, in what priority order, and (with the team) by when. The team itself decides how to accomplish the creation of that work, in collaboration with the product owner, and gives the product owner the information they need to make scope and date tradeoff decisions. The Scrum Master ensures everyone acts in accordance with their roles, facilitates conversations about the work, and holds people accountable to their commitments.

If you are considering making the transition from project manager to Scrum Master, you are not alone. The Scrum Master role is commonly filled by a former project manager or a technical team leader but can be anyone.

Is Scrum Master a Full-Time Job?

The short answer is yes: Fulfilling all of the responsibilities of the role, in the right way, is a full-time job.

That being said, it might not always be economically justifiable to dedicate someone to the role full time. And that's OK. It's not ideal, but it's OK. But do try to make it happen if you can: You'll gain more produtive teams, higher quality, and more satisfied customers.

Is there a time when a Scrum Master might be able to work with more than one team or grow beyond their initial role? Again, yes. But not when a project team is new to Scrum. When a team is new to Scrum, they ideally need the help that only a full-time Scrum Master can provide.

Who Chooses the Team's Scrum Master?

Ideally, team members would always choose their own ScrumMaster.

In reality, that’s not always possible. Whether the team should choose their own ScrumMaster is dependent largely on how far along in their adoption of Scrum the team is. In many cases when a team first begins an agile or scrum process there are many parts of it they are unsure of. There are many parts they will struggle with and will be tempted to omit or weaken.

New teams often, for example, are tempted to conduct their daily scrums less often than daily, or hold two-day sprint planning sessions. They might not be used to working closely with others or venturing beyond their individual roles.

Those teams need someone who will tell them it’s not acceptable at this point for them to experiment with the fundamental, generative rules of Scrum. Taking a team at this level and saying, “you’re self-organizing so you figure out who your ScrumMaster is” often leads to disaster.

So, who should select a team’s Scrum Master? Ideally, the decision should be left up to the team. However, a caveat to that statement is to first make sure the team is up for the initial challenges of using Scrum.

When the team isn’t in a position to choose their first ScrumMaster, the decision belongs to the departmental manager whose neck will most be on the line for the success of the project. 

Should Teams Rotate the ScrumMaster Role?

Although some teams decide to rotate the role among all team members, it doesn’t demonstrate an appropriate respect for the challenges and significance of the role.

However, there might be some occasions when you may want to rotate the role temporarily. The most common is to create learning opportunities.

For example, if team members are struggling to understand the duties, they may want to consider rotating each team member through the role. This may allow each to develop an understanding of what it means to be a Scrum Master. 

Similarly, if a team identifies four or five good candidates among their ranks, it might help to rotate among them, giving each a chance to try the role. Then by considering the performance of each, the team will hopefully be able to choose the most appropriate person.

Bob Schatz and Ibrahim Abdelshafi, in "The Agile Marathon," point out another reason why rotating might be useful. Sometimes teams treat Scrum Masters as managers, which interferes with teams becoming self-organizing. If this is happening, then rotating the role temporarily can create a sense of shared team responsibility and establish a balance of power.