Scrum Master and then some

Scrum Master and then some

It may have recently been placed 8th in the top ten of weirdest job titles but I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the designation ‘Scrum Master’ for the last few weeks. It’s a title which now appears to have many contradictory definitions, many of which have irritated me when they differ from my own understanding of the term.

I’ve had many discussions with my colleague (and coaching partner) Manjit Chana on the subject and it seemed like a good idea to take the discussion further at the recent Scrum Exchange arranged by Tobias Mayer. Scrumex is a fabulous opportunity for Scrum Masters and Coaches to get together for a day of learning and discovery. It’s a bit like a spa day for coaches and I certainly left it feeling refreshed. I got some great input from many of the other attendees including Barry Overeem, Mat Hayes, Glenn Bowering, Francesco Pratolongo and Dan Brown, and after some contemplation I’ve reached a place of contentment. Now it only remains for me to summarise in this cathartic article.

When it comes to the label ‘Scrum Master’ I have finally come to my senses and will stop trying to reason that there is a single correct definition. Feel free to use the title in whatever way you find useful but make sure you define it fully; to yourself and those you work with, to avoid confusion for those still learning the ropes. For the recruiters amongst you, it is not enough to label a job Scrum Master and think that is in anyway sufficient to describe what you are looking for. Here’s just some of the directions in which misunderstanding can arise…

Scrum Master (as part of the Scrum Framework)

Unless someone tells me different, I will continue to assume that the term Scrum Master first appeared in the definition of Scrum as documented within The Scrum Guide (Schwaber/Sutherland). Here the role is well defined as one of only three roles within the framework. The full definition is here and to try and summarise it in a shorter form is a danger in itself as every aspect of the definition is important.

So if you aren’t doing Scrum are you still a Scrum Master?

There is a logical argument that says Scrum Master is part of the Scrum Framework and therefore if the team deviates from Scrum then the role is no longer that of Scrum Master. Without going all ‘Monty Python’ in my explanation of the problems with defining everything made of wood as being a witch, suffice to say that the Scrum Master is not limited to the Scrum Framework or to the responsibilities of the role defined there.

The “Technical Scrum Master”

Strangely this specific role isn’t mentioned in the Scrum Guide. Regular readers of my articles will be aware of many previous discussions on this subject and my opinion that the role of Scrum Master has no requirement for a technical background. Whilst there may be some communication advantages in speaking the techie language of developers it is not the only option and there are many risks of the role being misinterpreted by the team when performed by a fellow techie.

As a hiring manager or recruiter if you feel the need to include technical skills as part of your job description then please make sure you understand why you are doing it and what it is you’re really looking for. If you’re looking for a technical lead can I politely suggest you call it that as there is very little, if any, overlap with Scrum Master.

Agile Coach or Scrum Master

For many people the two terms are interchangeable but sadly many others associate the Agile Coach title with a higher day rate and therefore assume Scrum Master is a lesser role. If a Scrum Master fulfils all the responsibilities of the role as defined in the Scrum Guide then there is surely no difference. An awareness of other methods, frameworks and tools and experience of when and where they might be useful, adds to the Scrum Master’s ability when “Helping the Development Team to create high-value products”.

Coaching Stance

Perhaps the Agile Coaching Competency Framework as defined by Lyssa Adkins and the Agile Coaching Institute ( can help us to each reach our own definition of Scrum Master. Amongst other things it shows how technical mastery is one of three optional enhancements to the core skill set and this provides a potential explanation of how a technical background possibly fits within the role.

If you’re a Scrum Master take a look at each of the competencies and decide how it is relevant to your own understanding of the role – you may find it useful to describe yourself using the competency framework as a reference.

If you’re looking to recruit a Scrum Master then you may want to use the competency framework to understand and describe what you’re looking for. Finding candidates with a matching stance may provide a shortlist for you.

Final thoughts..

It is not realistic to think that we will all ever share a definition of Scrum Master but perhaps with a common reference we can remove at least some of the misunderstanding and conflict.

I normally conclude my articles with a question or some other potential discussion point but as I am comfortable with my own understanding of the role and I’m happy for you to have a different one, I’m not going to waste any more time telling you you’re wrong!

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