ScrumMaster as Fire Fighter

Pitfall of Scrum: ScrumMaster as Contributor

The ScrumMaster is like a fire-fighter: it’s okay for them to be idle – just watching the team – waiting for an emergency obstacle. Taking on tasks tends to distract the ScrumMaster from the job of helping the team follow the rules of Scrum, from the job of vigorously removing obstacles, and from the job of protecting the team from interruptions. Let’s look at each of these aspects of the ScrumMaster role in turn:

The ScrumMaster Helps the Team Follow the Rules of Scrum

The ScrumMaster is a process facilitator. The Scrum process, while simple to describe, is not easy to do. As the Scrum Guide says:

Scrum is:

Lightweight

Simple to understand

Difficult to master

The ScrumMaster helps the Scrum Team and the organization to master the Scrum framework. Helping everyone understand Scrum and respect its rules is a first step. Some of the rules are particularly challenging. In some companies, being on time for meetings and ending them on time is hard. Scrum requires this. The ScrumMaster helps the team do this. In some companies, meeting deadlines, even short ones, is difficult. Scrum requires this every Sprint. The ScrumMaster helps the team do this. In some companies, giving time to improving things is hard. Scrum Teams do retrospectives. The ScrumMaster ensures that the team takes the time for this.

Of course, following the rules is hard for people. Even just the concept of “rules” is hard for some people. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want. Well, if you aren’t following the rules of Scrum you aren’t doing Scrum. So for some teams, just getting to the point of being willing to follow the rules of Scrum is a big step. The ScrumMaster needs to help with motivation.

The ScrumMaster is Vigorously Removing Obstacles

The Scrum Team is going to be working hard to meet a goal for the Sprint. As they work, they are going to work through many challenges and problems on their own. However, the team will start to encounter obstacles as well. These obstacles or impediments come from a few sources:

  1. Dependencies on other people or parts of the organization outside the Scrum Team.
  2. Skill gaps within the team.
  3. Burdensome bureaucracy imposed by the organization.
  4. Lack of resources such as tools, equipment, licenses, or even access to funds.

The ScrumMaster needs to work through these.

On a panel talk on Saturday one person said “the scrum master is an administrator, moving cards, updating the burn down. It is an easy job, I think my son could do it.” I then rebutted his remarks….

The ScrumMaster will tackle enterprise operations for their slow error prone deployment process, tackle Sarbox [Sarbanes-Oxley] compliance policy that has been way over-engineered to the point of slowing dev to a crawl, telling the PMO that 3 sets of reports is waste, exhorting the team to try to do unit tests in ABAP (SAP cobol), etc.

Robin Dymond, CST – (Scrum Training and Coaching Community Google Group, Sep. 23, 2009)

The ScrumMaster is Protecting the Team from Interruptions

Every organization seems to have more work than their staff have the capacity to deliver. Staff are often asked to task switch repeatedly over the course of a day or even in a single hour. Sometimes people are “allocated” to multiple projects simultaneously. This breaks the Scrum value of focus. The ScrumMaster needs to protect the team from interruptions or anything else that would break their focus.

But what should the Scrum Team members be focused on? Simply: the goal of a single Sprint. And a single Scrum Team is focused on a single product. The Product Owner should be the point of contact for any and all requests for the time and effort of a Scrum Team. The ScrumMaster needs to re-direct any interruptions to the Product Owner. The Product Owner decides if:

  • the interruption results in a new Product Backlog Item, OR
  • the interruption is irrelevant to the product and simply discarded, OR
  • the interruption is important enough to cancel the current Sprint.

There are no other options in Scrum for handling requests for work from the Scrum Team (or any member of the Scrum Team).

Contribution as Distraction for the ScrumMaster

Any time the ScrumMaster starts to contribute to the product development effort directly, the ScrumMaster is distracted from the other three duties. Although simple, following the rules of Scrum is not easy. Getting distracted from the duty of helping the team follow the rules of Scrum means that the team is likely to develop bad habits or regress to non-Scrum behaviour. Vigorously removing obstacles is usually a huge job all on its own. Most Scrum Teams have huge organizational obstacle that must be worked on. Some of these obstacles will take years of persistent effort to deal with. The ScrumMaster cannot become distracted by tactical details of product development. Protecting the team from interruptions means the ScrumMaster must have broad awareness, at all times, of what is happening with the team. If a team member is interrupted by a phone call, an email, or someone walking into the Scrum team room, the ScrumMaster needs to notice it immediately.

Whenever a ScrumMaster takes on a product development task, focus on the role is lost and a condition of a simple conflict-of-interest is created. If the team has “committed” to deliver certain Product Backlog Items at the end of a Sprint, then that feeling of commitment may lead a ScrumMaster to focusing on the wrong things.

The time of a ScrumMaster is an investment in continuous improvement. Letting a ScrumMaster contribute to the work of the team dilutes that investment.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.


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One thought on “Pitfall of Scrum: ScrumMaster as Contributor”

  1. Great information! The ScrumMaster has many important roles to play which are often not understood. This article covers some of the important things a ScrumMaster should do such as protecting the team from interruptions to make sure that they can work effectively.

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