What is the role of the Scrum Master and where is it headed?

I have been often asked this question in my coaching stint with many organizations in India – “What is the career path for a Scrum Master”? Mike Cohn’s blogs on this provide some interesting perspectives but there are always questions on the extent of their relevance and applicability in the Indian context. Then there are follow-up questions such as “Who can become a Scrum Master? Do we hire or look for lateral movements to that role from within the organization?” and so on.

Before we go into some of these aspects, a historical perspective is worth looking at and that has to do with a true “Project Manager” role. My question is about whether we have ever had a true Project Management Professional role in India? In my experience, most companies have had Project Managers who had both delivery as well as people management responsibility. A typical Project Manager 5 years ago (and perhaps even today in many organizations) would have 8 to 10 people reporting to her, who are all associated with a project that she is directly responsible for. In many cases, the PM is also a technical person and is expected to guide the team technically. So in essence you have a person responsible for project delivery who has people management AND technical guidance responsibilities. In such a situation, how do you expect a designated Project Manager to do justice to that role?

Most organizations working with conventional approaches have now moved to an Agile way of working with Scrum as the supporting Project Management framework. The first question that they have is “Who should be the Scrum Master?” Given that a Scrum Master is not responsible for people as well as for day to day technical guidance, who should play that role? What happens to the “old” Project Manager? Can some of them become Scrum Masters? If so, does it become a reduced role for them now, given that as a SM they have to give up their People Management responsibility? Can technical leads play that role effectively or would their technical guidance focus override the priority that the SM role demands?

Before attempting to answer these questions, a basic, fundamental thing needs to be understood and appreciated. And that is, that the SM role demands appropriate focus. The Scrum guide talks about the role in detail. The Scrum Master is the Agile coach to the team, and is clearly the custodian of the Agile process that the team needs to define and implement. We also know that the SM is the bottleneck remover / resolver for the team. What is less often understood or appreciated is the fact that the SM is even the coach to the Product Owner when it comes to ensuring a healthy, prioritized backlog at all times. He or she has a critical role in shielding the team from pressures that the Product Management or the senior management exert – typically for higher scope or earlier than committed deliveries – and also motivate the team to meet commitments and to improve the process. And all this is expected to be done with no positional power or authority but through influential leadership skills.

Which brings us to the role of the Manager in the Agile context. Managers in the Agile world will continue to have responsibility for developing team member competencies, planning and doing their performance reviews, mentor team members in improving their performance and so on. They will also be responsible for working with Product Management on the roadmap, product strategies etc. and in ensuring that it is communicated to the team. However, what they will not and should not do is to get into managing a team’s delivery on a day to day basis. Planning, tracking and ensuring delivery are the roles of the team and the Scrum Master and the Manager has no direct role in this process. They could of course help the team resolve a technical bottleneck but that is where it should stop.

The essence of what we are saying is that a Manager is responsible for developing people, technology competence in the team and in playing a strategic role in terms of medium and long term perspectives but leave the day to day delivery responsibility to the Scrum Master and the team. Mixing the two roles ends up compromising both. If an organization has to succeed in the medium to long term it is imperative for them to separate these roles and provide appropriate focus to both.

The Scrum Master could be full time or part time – depending on the maturity of the team and the project / product requirements. A technical lead or a Project Manager could move into that role as long as they understand the role requirements and have the skills to perform the role. When the requirements are not complex and the team gets mature at implementing Agile and has learnt how to work as a self-organizing unit, the Scrum Master can handle additional responsibilities – such as doing a similar role for multiple teams or co-ordinating the work of multiple teams (using mechanisms such as Scrum of Scrum) or in coaching teams for becoming more Agile and so on. Some of those playing the role of a Scrum Master could, in future, move into managerial roles and would be great fits in those roles because of the leadership skills they gain while performing the SM role. Some organizations have implemented all of these concepts with a career path defined for a Scrum Master. In my opinion, these organizations are trend-setters for successful organizations of the future.

What do you think?

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