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Should Your Manager be your Scrum Master?

TL;DR - A manager with the right mindset can absolutely be a great Scrum Master!

Image courtesy of  Kim Paulin  via  Creative Commons  license.

Image courtesy of Kim Paulin via Creative Commons license.

Let’s examine why I think it’s possible, starting with a story.

I was having lunch with a Development Manager at a web product company, explaining the role and responsibilities of a Scrum Master. “The Scrum Master does much more than just facilitate meetings,” I said, “she also coaches the team to be the best team they can be: a high-performance delivery machine. And probably the hardest part of the Scrum Master role is removing roadblocks — anything that slows the team down or in any way prevents them from being the best team ever. And these roadblocks are often the organizational policies and cultural issues that require a lot of time and effort to change.” The Dev Manager immediately asked, “If the Scrum Master does all those things, then what am I supposed to do as a manager?”

I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. But since then I’ve thought a lot about this and talk with a lot of people who have tried it.

A good Scrum Master should play each of these three key roles for a team:

1. Facilitator

2. Coach

3. Roadblock remover

But wait — a good manager (line manager, functional manager - a leader with direct reports in the organization) should also be a coach and roadblock remover. I believe those are the most valuable things a manager can do: build a better team and a better organization.

So why shouldn’t a Line Manager also fill the role of Scrum Master? The arguments against the dual role fall into these three basic categories:

  1. Management style: the manager lacks the servant leader mindset and skills that are important in a Scrum Master

  2. Positional Authority breeds fear: the manager determines team member’s salary & bonus; this creates fear, which prevents a healthy & open relationship between team members and the Manager/Scrum Master.

  3. Workload: it’s too much work for one person to play both roles

Let’s examine how we can avoid each of these pitfalls.

Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term servant leadership, says this via the Center for Servant Leadership:

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

I assert that servant leadership is a critical skill for any 21st century leader of knowledge workers & creative workers. In other words, if your Manager is not a servant leader, then you have a leadership problem, not a Scrum/Agile problem.

Positional Authority & Fear

To be effective, a leader must earn the trust of her team. Unfortunately, the traditional, tired old system of “annual performance reviews” inhibits trust-building, and is just plain ineffective and inefficient . A growing number of notable companies agree, including IBM, Microsoft, Accenture, and Oppenheimer Funds. In his bestselling 2018 book Measure What Matters, John Doer writes that over 50 of the Fortune 500 companies have scrapped annual performance reviews. Modern evaluation systems share these characteristics:

  • Frequent (e.g. weekly), less formal, conversational feedback and recognition (praise)

  • Specific & timely feedback that is actionable

  • Multi-directional (360 degree) feedback - among managers, reports, & peers

  • The accumulated feedback from all directions is the primary factor in compensation decisions, rather than a single manager’s decision, which can seem arbitrary and biased

Modern performance evaluation systems increase a Manager’s ability to earn trust, but of course it is only one piece in earning a team’s trust. With trust established, however, a Manager should be able to also serve as Scrum Master.

Workload of the Manager as Scrum Master

The single most important thing a Manager or a Scrum Master can do is to build and strengthen the capabilities of her teams. Effective leaders should grow beyond being the “expert” or the “hero” toward higher levels of leadership effectiveness: coaching, empowering, and catalyzing growth in team and organizational capabilities. With this more effective leadership style, the responsibilities of the Manager and Scrum Master significantly overlap, and there is little “extra” work required to fill both roles.

Some Managers may simply have too many direct reports to succeed — and this may be true even if they are serving only in the Manager role. There may also be times when a Line Manager is particularly overburdened, for example in a fast-growing organization that is interviewing and hiring lots of people.

The bottom line: Managers with a reasonable number of direct reports who don’t have some unusual extra duties should have time to play both roles.

Conditions for Managers to Succeed as Scrum Masters

To overcome the potential pitfalls of Managers as Scrum Masters, then, we need to establish these conditions:

  1. Managers with a post-heroic, servant leadership mindset and style

  2. Build trust in the Manager-Employee relationship, in particular by improving the way performance feedback and salary decisions are made

  3. Keep the Manager’s workload ‘manageable’: reasonable number of reports and no extraordinary responsibilities

Case studies

Lv Yi has described the evolution of the Manager and Scrum Master roles in the Agile transformation at Nokia Siemens Networks. In summary, they started with line managers as Scrum Masters, but those leaders struggled to balance the organization-facing aspects of the Manager role with the team-facing aspects of being Scrum Master. For that reason, they separated the roles, which revealed other challenges, including some of the drawbacks listed above. In the end, each line manager was leading 2-3 teams, and also served as Scrum Masters for one of those teams. The remaining teams had a non-manager Scrum Master.

Daniel Lynn told me his story of coaching a team at an insurance company, and one team requested for their manager to be their Scrum Master. Daniel coached the team about the potential drawbacks to the dual role, but the team was adamant that their manager should serve as their Scrum Master, already knowing that he was a true servant-leader. This manager ended up doing a great job as Scrum Master for the team.

I spoke with Steve, who is currently working as both Development Manager and Scrum Master at a company that builds software for the construction industry. Steve initially found himself with too many direct reports to manage himself, so he promoted one person to be the line manager and re-assigned about half of his reports to this new manager. He also organized the group into two separate teams, allowing him to serve as both Manager and Scrum Master for one team. Steve has two recommendations for people in the dual role:

  1. Beware of the implicit pressure that team members feel to ‘please the boss’, even if there is no explicit pressure being applied. For example, team members may overcommit even after repeated pleas from the Manager/ScrumMaster to not overcommit.

  2. Ask the team if they want to hold their retrospectives without the Manager.

I would advise to consider a two-part retro, where the Manager excuses himself from part 1, but joins for part 2. Over time, the team may be comfortable including the Manager/ScrumMaster for the entire retrospective.

Drawbacks to separating the roles?

What if you don’t have the right conditions for the dual role? Should you continue to separate the Manager and Scrum Master roles? Possibly. Hopefully you will work toward establishing the necessary conditions. In the meantime you might consider the potential pitfalls of separating the Manager and Scrum Master roles between two different people.

  1. Redundant responsibilities

  2. Scrum Master lacks authority to remove roadblocks and affect real change

  3. Lack of respect for the Scrum Master role due to lack of authority & influence

  4. Higher cost of paying both Manager and Scrum Master salaries

  5. The Manager is disconnected from the team, lacking insight into what’s really happening in the trenches

Maybe these drawbacks provide some motivation to make the changes that will enable your Manager to be a great Scrum Master.

Bradley Swansonleadership, scrum