The purpose of today’s post isn’t to discuss the qualities of great Scrum Master. The purpose is to talk about what happens when the Scrum Master fails at one of their most important responsibilities — clearing the way of impediments. Furthermore, what happens when the Scrum Master actually becomes the impediment?

The Scrum Master is a unique kind of role. It’s a leadership role, but one that leads through servant-leadership, not command-and-control. According to the Scrum Guide:

“The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices and rules.”

As the coach, facilitator and moderator, they have two main responsibilities. First, they protect the Scrum and clear the development team’s path of impediments. Second, they use their deep knowledge of Scrum principles to make sure the team follows the Scrum methodology.

But if a Scrum Master is not performing optimally, they may start to become the impediment themselves. Let’s break down some of the ways the Scrum Master can be the impediment and some of the ways to avoid it.

Problem: Acting Like a Project Manager

A project manager is the decision maker, in charge of planning, execution and reporting during a project. They bear the responsibility for completing the project and making the customer happy. When a Project Manager (or anyone used to command-and-control style management) transitions to a Scrum Master, they may still try to control the behavior of their team and the product.

The Scrum Master leads but does not have the responsibility or authority of a leader — they can’t make people do things. If you find yourself assigning new tasks not in the sprint, demanding a detailed report of a developer’s activities or making decisions without the team’s input, then you may be a Project Manager posing as a Scrum Master.

Solution: Be a Servant Leader

A good Scrum Master will have to dismiss the notion that they can control everything, as well as unburden themselves of the ego of traditional leadership. Micromanaging the development team doesn’t allow them to take ownership of the project or their role in it.

Check out the Wikipedia post on servant leadership and you’ll find that the characteristics that make up a good servant leader also make for a good Scrum Master.

The Center for Servant Leadership at the Pastoral Institute in Georgia defines servant leadership as a lifelong journey that includes discovery of one’s self, a desire to serve others, and a commitment to lead. Servant-leaders continually strive to be trustworthy, self-aware, humble, caring, visionary, empowering, relational, competent, good stewards and community builders.

When you embody these traits, your role becomes less about making people do things and more about empowering people to use the skills for which they were hired. Helping the team by clearing impediments, protecting them, adhering to Scrum principles and moderating communication will build a strong team that is self-managing.


Problem: Feeling Overburdened or Unproductive

If you work in a small team or one with minimal resources, you may find that you’ve needed to combine the Scrum roles. Serving as both the Scrum Master and Product Owner is problematic in many ways. It can lead you to feel overburdened or not as productive as you could be if you were only inhabiting one role at a time. It’s a conflict of interest, as the Scrum Master and the Product Owner serve two different masters — the development team and the client and stakeholders, respectively.

Solution: Inhabit Only One Role at a Time

The simple answer here is to inhabit only one role only (and since this is a post about Scrum Masters, let’s assume that’s the role). It’s usually not that simple, though. If your team has less than the desired amount of people, then you may be forced to take double roles. If that happens, it’s better to be a part of the development team and a Scrum Master than to take on the Product Owner role. If it’s a matter of management trying to make do with what you have, then it’s more a problem of management than it is you. You can read more about how functional managers and executives are failing agile teams to get tips on how to solve that.

Problem: Steamrolling Every Impediment

Sure, one of the top priorities of the Scrum Master is to remove impediments. But much like helicopter parents who resolve every issue for their child, your team won’t become self-reliant. A common symptom of this problem: when you are gone, no work gets done on the team because they are used to you doing everything for them.

Solution: Create a Self-Organizing Team

While it may be tempting, it’s not your job to clear everything out of the way. You (or management) have hired a team of talented individuals, so make use of their skill. The Agile Manifesto advises providing the necessary environment and support for motivated team members and then…wait for it…trusting them to get the job done. Give them the tools they need then get out of the way. That way the development team will know you are there for them but also that you have an expectation for them to be motivated and productive, i.e. a self-organizing team. If you’ve created an Agile Team Charter, refer back to it often. 


Problem: Sabotaging the Daily Standup

Bad behavior can sometimes occur in a daily standup. It’s even worse if you’re the one doing it. You know the signs: You’re talking at your team instead of listening. You’re arguing instead of moderating. The conversation is only going in the direction you choose. You notice that the conversation stops every time you speak because people are afraid to contradict you.

Solution: Eat a Snickers

It’s true that negative emotions and outbursts can result from an empty stomach (otherwise known as being hangry). But that’s not the only time emotions are bound to arise in a standup. You may be having a bad day or letting personal problem affect your workday. You may have even slipped back into a Project Manager role; whatever it is, you’ve stepped away from the Scrum Master role of listening and maintaining open lines of communication for your team. By talking over the development team, you are failing to live up to the Scrum values of respecting what the development team has to say and denying them an open environment in which to express themselves.

Beyond eating a Snickers, what can you do? In Agile Retrospectives, the authors Ester Larby and Diana Larson advise calling for a break; this is where you can assess what’s happening. They recommend taking a few deep breaths and asking yourself these questions to recenter and focus:

  • What just happened?
  • How much was inside me and how much was outside me?
  • How did the group get here?
  • Where does the group need to go next?
  • What are the three options I have for next steps?
  • What will I offer the group?

Don’t forget that you are a human coaching a team of humans. If you step back, apologize for your outburst and ask for forgiveness, they’ll likely be happy to comply. People respect a leader that can recognize a mistake and own up to it. You’re also leading by example, letting your team know that it’s safe space to own up to other issues that occur in the future.


Problem: Feeling Out of Control

Do you have more than one of the problems listed above? It’s no wonder you might be feeling out of control.

Solution: Ask for More Training or Step Down

This is one of the harder solutions because both options take a lot of humility. The first is to request more training. Maybe you were shepherded into this role from another, dissimilar role and management thought the skills would transfer. Or maybe you just didn’t pick it up that well the first time. There’s no shame in getting more training and coming back stronger.

The second option is to step down as Scrum Master. Take a look at how you feel and assess how much even you like the role. If it’s something you simply aren’t suited for, then step down to a developer role. It’s better to remove yourself as Scrum Master than to stubbornly holding on to the role to the detriment of the project.


Get Back in Position

If you’re having trouble identifying these issues, try asking someone you trust to observe you and provide constructive feedback. Don’t be afraid to apply the inspect and adapt approach to problems you’re facing. It may feel uncomfortable to change behaviors that feel ingrained, but learning and practicing over time will help you to become an exemplary Scrum Master.

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About Jennifer Yeadon

I am the Content Marketer at SmartFile, which means I get to learn everything and write about it -- my two favorite things. I firmly believe that oatmeal cookies should contain chocolate chips, not raisins.

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