Project Management

Are Traditional Scrum Masters Becoming Obsolete?

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By Kevin Korterud


I experienced my first agile project nearly a decade ago. At the time, agile was still an emerging concept. I remember thinking there were all sorts of activities going on that I had never seen on any of my projects. People were standing up for meetings, marker boards were filled with things called “stories” and delivery moved forward under the framework of a “sprint.”


At the center of this whirl of frenetic activity was a person who the team called a “scrum master.” At first, I thought this person was a project manager. But they were doing things that were outside of the traditional project management realm.


Since that first experience, agile has matured and continued to grow in popularity. This trend prompted me to examine the evolving role of the scrum master in complex agile delivery environments. Here are my observations:


1. Agile Delivery is Becoming Mature

Agile delivery teams used to function within isolated pockets. But, as the use of agile—as well as the size and complexity of solutions being delivered—grew, new methods, such as SAFe®, were developed to help orchestrate agile delivery across an organization.


With agile becoming more common in organizations as a delivery method, the overall need for scrum masters’ general process advice diminishes. Agile teams over time—as well as with the support of enterprise framework methods—will become more self-sufficient, which reduces the need for some of the current activities performed by scrum masters.     


2. Higher Engagement and Direct Accountability  

One of the guiding principles for scrum masters is that they are not supposed to intervene with the team and are not responsible for delivery outcomes.


While a focus on process advice was essential during the early days of agile, today’s larger and more complex solutions demand that delivery quality issues be identified as soon as possible. In addition, there is also a need to ensure on a more frequent basis that the solution being created will yield the desired business outcomes.


Given its proximity to agile delivery teams, the scrum master role is positioned to leverage a higher level of engagement and accountability. In addition to traditional agile process advice, scrum masters should also serve as a durable checkpoint for both delivery quality and alignment to business outcomes.


These checkpoint activities would include reviewing user story quality, monitoring non-functional requirements and checking solution designs against business needs. As other roles in agile delivery possess some form of delivery accountability, the scrum master must also become more engaged and accountable in order to remain relevant.


3. Emerging Project Managers Becoming Scrum Masters

While scrum masters are not meant to be project managers, that notion is preventing project managers from becoming scrum masters, especially earlier in their career. Emerging project managers invariably have some form of solution delivery experience. They know what makes for sound requirements (especially non-functional), designs, testing, quality and implementation plans.


As the level of complexity and scale increases with agile delivery, so does the need for some form of delivery oversight at the agile team level. With the scrum master position in their repertoire, teams would have developed competencies and know-how for scaled agile delivery, release train engineer, program manager, etc.    


Scrum masters have played an essential role in the growth and adoption of agile as a practical means of delivery. Their direct interactions with agile delivery teams create a unique opportunity to expand their influence in generating valuable outcomes for end-users, consumers, customers, employees or suppliers. To do so, they need to further extend themselves— both in terms of skills and engagement—to remain relevant in today’s complex delivery environment.


How do you feel the scrum master role has evolved? Are newly minted project managers the scrum masters of tomorrow? 

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: June 21, 2017 05:21 PM | Permalink

Comments (13)

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I'm not sure that traditional scrum masters are becoming obsolete, yet. I can see the potential of what you are discussing, but there are still a lot of companies, and markets, that have not embraced agile, yet, so it may be a while before you see a global reduction in Scrum Masters.

Another factor that could contribute to this is that not all flavors of agile are Scrum-based. This is purely anecdotal experience, but as companies mature in agile processes, some are realizing that Scrum is not the only way, and not always the best fit. A question I am hearing more frequently is "Are you really agile if you are locked into one way of doing things?"

Using my workplace as an example, without making any claims regarding process maturity, we have projects where we are using predictive processes, scrum-like processes, and Kanban-like processes. In areas where we have moved away from Scrum, we have project managers or agile coaches. But I work at a global company that sells products. If I worked for a software vendor, having one project approach might make more sense.

I'm not sure that the scrum master role has evolved, but I do feel that project managers need to have the knowledge to identify and use the right approach for the projects that they work on. Newly minted project managers may not be ready to do this, but, given time and experience, this is something they should work toward.

I do not believe that the SCRUM MASTER becomes obsolete, on the contrary I consider that it has become an apprenticeship that is being imposed in the last years. I think combined with the traditional methodology is a good initiative.

Interesting perspective. The agility of agile practices and roles. I would suppose this would vary across organizations.

Kevin, great post. Thanks for sharing!
Agile practices indeed have matured, especially SCRUM, which is somehow the most tangible methodology making it the easiest to implement from scratch. With maturity after the initial big gains also comes the insight that there is value in other methods and that one size does not fit all. So hybrid approaches have emerged and are becoming now set into formal frameworks. Like the traditional project manager also the scrum masters will profit from looking left and right and then adopting whatever fits their special situation. So scrum masters are here to stay, but their role and maybe untimately the name of their role will change and probably merge with other roles and responsibilities in project management.

Recent "creative" understandings of Scrum, with accompanying frameworks, creates this notion of "traditional" Scrum Master role. Often, bottom-up intelligence, self-organization and empiricism are put on the altar in hopes that centralized, top-down decision making will provide predictive power in a complex domain.

I would argue that the need for strong Scrum Master with roots and feet well grounded in agile principles and values are even greater when scaling beyond one or two teams. I see organizations (or really PMO, business owners, etc) become tempted to believe the concepts that made agile work well in uncertainty, all of a sudden no longer are needed as complexity and uncertainty increases.

Yes - "secretary" Scrum Masters are unlikely to successfully tackle the additional and increasing challenges presented when "scaling", whereas they may not cause harm with only one team to support and thus no-one "questions" their effectiveness.

Hi all...thanks for the great commentary. Likely some form of transformation will occur for Scrum Masters over time...very glad to help produce some additional thoughts in this area.

Here is a good follow-on question for everybody...

So if an Agile sprint, release train or solution what degree are Scrum Masters accountable? These days there is less tolerance for delays, costs and poorly functioning solutions than ever before.

In my mind a Scrum Master needs to be part of the overall accountability picture...just can't be Agile process advisors....

@Kevin: What do you mean by "fails"? How can a Sprint (in Scrum) fail?

These days, the number of organizations that up-front assumes they can nail cost, functionality and timeline ahead of time, (and fund it so) are diminishing.

(A ScrumMaster is certainly accountable to the successful use of Scrum. Whether the product was useful, likeable, fit for market - hopefully empiricism was put to use _early_ and the PO could take due course action. But SMs can only do so much in isolation, Scrum is fundamentally a team effort.)

Hi Fredrik...thanks for the additional commentary.

Ive run across some Agile delivery efforts did not go as expected from a delivery schedule, cost and quality perspective.

So was curious to what degree in the future a Scrum Master is part of the solution outcome...especially given their proximity to teams.

Hi Kevin, thanks for sharing!

If everything was fixed to begin with, why call anything agile? What agility was sought if following a plan was considered a success criteria?

A Sprint is a timebox with a start and end date, used to frame a period for inspection and adaptation of product and process. Hence, I see two reasons a Sprint can fail:
a) the end date didn't occure - ie our universe has ceased to exist (has not happened yet)
b) adaptation didn't occur, or perhaps not even inspection - ie empiricism was NOT put to use
(c - there's a third thing about achieving the Sprint Goal (business objective, an impact, etc), but these we can miss and still put empiricism to use for future direction. It's a different kind of "fail" - the goal was simply much harder to achieve than we understood it to be during Sprint Planning)

The Scrum Master has zero to do with the details of the increment (artifact), ie solution outcome. They have great accountability as to HOW it was produced though: a self-organized, team-based, collaborative and collective effort vs individuals coordinated by traditional work-management techniques (PM).

PO/Dev Team: We plan to build this with pen, scissors and some glue!
SM: Great! Tell me how you plan to empirically will be able to know/tell that this was the better option! (What business/product success metrics will tell us we're on the right or wrong track?)

I'd never heard of a scrum master until I started going for my PMP a few months ago. Tonight I'm taking a scrum agile course on udemy so thanks for your insights.
I'll reread your blog post after I finish that class so I get a better understanding of where you're coming from.

Hi Michael...thanks for the comments. Wold be interested in hearing your observations after your class...

I would be careful to have the Scrum master overlap the Product Owner's responsibilities. While they definitely work in tandem, Scrum works better when each role is clear cut.

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