What is a Scrum Master?
Restoring dignity to a much disparaged accountability
What exactly is a scrum master? Many reading this will know what a scrum master is, some are indeed scrum masters themselves; other readers have no idea. This article is for them. Beyond the small readership of this substack there are a great many more people—mostly executive directors, hiring managers and human resources personnel—who believe they know what a scrum master is, but only because they have successfully manipulated the term to mean what they want it to mean, so it fits neatly into a corporate category and does not interrupt the status quo. This article is for those people too, so if you know of any, please pass this along.
What is a scrum master? I'll start with a picture. This is a scrum master:
The central figure in this Auguste Rodin sculpture is likely familiar to most of you; the figure is usually seen alone, and entitled "The Thinker". This photograph is a detail of the original context in which the figure sat.1 The title of the piece is "The Poet at the Gates of Hell". My private name for it is "The Scrum Master at the Gates of the Corporation".
The scrum master is an organisational poet. Her material is not language, but environments and relationships. The scrum master sits on the edge of the corporate melee, thoughtfully figuring out how to rescue lost souls from hierarchical, procedural hell, free them up to become the creative humans God made them to be, while at the same time calming the fires of hubris, vanity, indignation, and self-righteousness that threaten to consume them.
Without artists, poets and musicians our world will descend into mundane practicality, where everything has a reason, an explanation, a justification; the human spirit will atrophy, sunsets will be inconveniences, birdsong just noise, and love a commodity. Without effective scrum masters the corporate world will descend into anger, indignation, blame, despair, disengagement and misery. It's already quite far on that downward trajectory. Few knew that it was due to a dearth of corporate poets. That we discovered the need for corporate poets at all was sheer accident. But now we know, we can start to rise. And yet, for the most part, we do not.
What I describe here may be unfamiliar to many, even to those with the job title "scrum master". Most are not aware they are called on to be poets, and sadly too many are trapped in organisational systems governed by fear and stasis. Business leaders, executive directors, governing board members, the ones who have the power to begin this collective ascent, choose not to. Most are afraid of the angels, comfortable with the devil they know. So they take the poet and make him into an advertising copy writer—take the scrum master and force-fit her into the hierarchy, silencing her voice, renaming her as manager, putting her in charge of release schedules, forcing her to measure the productivity of her peers and report back to some faceless entity such as a project management office. This is tragic, of course, but the greater tragedy is that so many allow themselves to be thus shackled, silenced, disenfranchised. It sounds good in the corporate world today to be "doing scrum" and to employ scrum masters, but better not let them do what they are supposed to do, just keep them around as ornaments, and make sure they know their place as lowly employees, powerless, pointless, and the first to go when downsizing starts.
There is a world of difference between the Platonic ideal of a scrum master, and its real world implementation. But just because it is that way, doesn't mean it must stay that way. The ones who have the power to change this system are the scrum masters themselves. Scrum masters are facilitators of change, agents of transformation. If they are not doing that, they are failing the profession, and they need to either step up, or step away and rebrand themselves according to corporate mores. There are no half-measures.
What's my part in resolving this?
Twenty-five years ago, when engaged in developing youth work programs for young people excluded from the school system, I wrote:
The groupwork facilitator is akin to an artist, a sculptor, working in four dimensions. She needs to have a vision of what this raw material—the group— can become, and belief that she is capable of creating the same. Unlike the sculptor's stone, the material the facilitator works with is responsive. It thinks, feels, argues, sulks, arrives late, leaves early, grows and shrinks in size—and can be very, very fragile. The vision of the facilitator needs to be flexible, it needs to accommodate the developing visions of each group member and of the group as a whole. The facilitator needs to be a conceptualist. She needs to fully understand what she is doing and why she is doing it. She should be able to see her work in relation to other aspects of society, recognise the political and sociological implications of the work, identify its meaning in relation to the past, embrace the 'great unknown', the future, but always be firmly rooted in the here-and-now. Groupwork is a big activity. Like art it has the potential for changing the way an individual looks at life, like philosophy it can enhance a person's thinking and encourage them to ask questions, and like religion it can cause a person to trust and believe in themselves, to feel affirmed and strong and to carry that strength to others.2
If we replace the term groupwork with teamwork, and put it in the context of corporate transformation, this passage could have been written today. I have continued this line of thinking throughout my career as a software developer, a manager, a scrum master and an educator of scrum. Its most recent manifestation is The London Scrum Academy where I offer workshops, essays, and ongoing programs to bring out the innate poet in those engaged in the world of organisational change. I hope some of you will join me on the journey, even though the destination is only vaguely known, and the road unstable. Like the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales the joy will be in the journey, each of us telling our stories, sharing in the stories of others and creating new stories to confront the status quo and potentially change hearts and minds.
And after all that, if you still don't know what a scrum master is, don't worry; perhaps you only need to know what a scrum master could be, and that is, quite simply, a poet. Maybe you'd like to be one.
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From Redefining Success: groupwork with young people, by Tim Webb and Tobias Mayer, National Youth Agency, Leeds, 1999.