A scrum master is a member of an agile development team using a scrum framework. They are responsible for managing and maintaining the process of doing scrum. So, what does it mean to manage a process?
Scrum is one of the most popular frameworks for implementing agile. Compared to other methodologies (e.g., kanban), scrum stands out for its commitment to short iterations of work. Scrum masters are the managers of this iterative methodology, allowing the rest of their team to focus on what they do best, likely writing code or managing the product roadmap.
The scrum master works between the product owner (and other top-level leadership) and the scrum team(developers) — serving as a liaison and supporting both in their goals. Good scrum masters are rooted in agile fundamentals, but remain flexible and open to opportunities for the team to improve or tailor their workflow.
Scrum Master Responsibilities
Managing a scrum process can be as lightweight as scheduling the scrum ceremonies or as involved as any other scrum team member. For most scrum masters, the responsibilities include some or all of the following:
- Standups - Facilitate and administer daily standups (or the daily scrum).
Iteration/sprint planning meetings – Protect the team from over-committing and scope creep. Manage the meeting and aid in estimation and sub task creation.
Sprint reviews – Manage the meeting and capture feedback.
Retrospectives – Manage the meeting and encourage participation. Note areas for improvement and action items for future sprints.
1 on 1s – Meet individually with team members and stakeholders capturing feedback and advising team members to ensure the process is understood and working well. Iron out team disagreements about process and work styles.
Internal Consulting – Scrum masters should be prepared to consult with team members and internal stakeholders on how best to work with the scrum team.
Reporting – Regular analysis of burndown charts and other portfolio planning tools to critique the performance of the team and share with management and team members.
Blockers – The scrum master aids the team by eliminating external blockers and managing internal roadblocks through process or workflow improvements.
Busy work – If the scrum team isn’t humming, that’s the scrum master’s problem. Maybe that means fixing broken computers, moving desks around, or even adjusting the thermostat. Scrum masters should be comfortable doing just about anything to help their team and should be not slink away from grabbing coffees or some snacks if that’s what the team really needs.
Do I need a scrum master?
Every scrum team is different. Many teams handle the responsibilities listed above as a unit, and take pride and enjoyment in a shared management of the process. Management responsibilities rotate through the team, with team members facilitating standups and retros in turn. This sounds nice, utopian even, but it’s rare.
A scrum purist would say that a scrum team must have a scrum master. Without one, your doing something just shy of true scrum. But we’re not purists.
To better understand if you should hire a scrum master, let’s take a look at the other management roles you may already have in your organization, and how they may or may not share some of the scrum master’s responsibilities.
Scrum Master vs Product Manager
The scrum master and product manager fill two different needs on an agile team. The scrum master owns the process of getting work done. The product manager(or product owner) champions the “why,” “when,” and “what.” However, in smaller companies and edge cases, PM can own the scrum process, too.
As we advocate in our Agile Product Management overview, the more involved that a PM is with the development team, the better. Having a PM run the scrum process will help them make more accurate forecasts and roadmaps, and will help the team stay aligned with the larger product vision. However, when roadblocks crop up, or changes arise, sometimes a clear division between process management and product management is required.
Imagine a product manager reeling from some unsettling user data, which just blew up her roadmap. She might find herself wanting to disrupt the team mid-sprint and push through a new feature, thus interrupting the scrum process and creating waste. Imagine a PM who is stretched too thin to look after the development team, and instead needs to focus full time on strategy and roadmapping. Having a scrum master in place can help pump the brakes and protect the development team, while also allowing the PM to focus on what they do best.
If you feel the need for an extra check on PMs, or if your PMs struggle to manage the development team, a scrum master might be right for you.
Scrum Master vs Project Manager
The scrum master’s non-technical (or non-agile) counterpart is the project manager. Both of these roles focus on the “how” of getting work done and solve workflow problems through process and facilitation. So do you need both? Likely not.
Both a traditional project manager and a scrum master are responsible for making sure their teams stay on track, but their approaches are vastly different. The project manager sets and tracks timeframes and milestones, reports on progress, and coordinates team communication. However, they do so from a place of control, in a more traditional management role.
The scrum master helps the team enhance and streamline the processes by which they achieve their goals. They do so as a team member, or collaborator, ideally not as someone in control. The best scrum teams are self-organizing, and therefore don’t react well to top-down management. For developers, a scrum master is much more helpful than a project manager.
These are just a few of the possible configurations of scrum team management. Some organizations make due with all of these roles, some have one or none.
Scrum masters and the greater org
There is one consideration that rises above the rest when thinking about hiring a scrum master: Only do so if your organization is committed to scrum, and invested in the process. All the above roles can manage a development team in a myriad of ways but a scrum master can only be effective with 100% buy-in on scrum. Full stop.
With a scrum master helping every team manage their process, your entire organization can realize some serious gains. On top of shipping value to your customers on a regular basis(the main goal of scrum), teammates and managers will be free to focus on what they do best. Product managers can focus on strategy, developers can write their best code, and Kyle from sales can ring that damn bell. What does that all sound like? It sounds like high-functioning scrum, music to our ears.