Dedicated Scrum Master or not?

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Should the Scrum Master role be full time or part time? What if there is not enough Scrum Master work to do? Can the Scrum Master also do other work in the team? Can the Scrum Master be Scrum Master for several teams?

There was a debate about this and Scrum Alliance created the Scrum Master Manifesto in 2011.

Even though this has been debated by many minds before, I still get asked what my views are on this topic.

I’ve done all kinds of variations on this role. I’ve been a dedicated Scrum Master for a single team. I have done the SM role and a developer role at the same time. I’ve been a Scrum Master for several teams at the same time. These alternatives have their own advantages and challenges. In this post I intend to describe my view and recommendations.

Primary and secondary roles

First of all, I believe that the Scrum Master role is important enough to be the primary role when you have several roles. So, if you are a SM/Developer, any SM-related work should take precedence over developer work. What implications does this have? It means that you must be able to drop whatever else you are working on, when the team needs you to wear the SM hat. Imagine you are coding on a feature and another team member can’t continue working because there are conflicting requirements or another impediment. Enter the Scrum Master. You now need to drop what you are working on to resolve these conflicting requirements, probably together with the Product Owner. This means you should probably rarely take lead on the top feature. Why? Beacuse you may need to stop working on it at any time, and since it is the top feature, it should be the top priority of at least someone in the team, preferrably several people in the team. In the SM/Developer role, I think it works well to see yourself as a supportive programmer. You work together with others, do pair programming, help someone nail down a bug and fix the broken pipeline someone is struggling with.

Working in several teams

Which team is your team? Can a person be a member of several teams? Sure, but it is unlikely you will be a full member, comparable to the other, full-time members of the team. If you are a Scrum Master for several teams, then it is quite likely you have a role in some management group, and then that group is probably your primary team. The Scrum teams will then become your secondary teams.

Working in several teams will also stretch you and it will become hard to keep track of everything that is going on in each team. Keeping informed will require disturbing team members and you may become a impediment yourself… When you are in a single team, you are constantly in on all conversations and happenings, and you get a feeling for what the team needs to advance forward.

Also, if you are a SM in several teams and both teams need your help, how do you prioritise? I’ve had this role and done it with some success, but it is stressful and sometimes you need to choose which team needs your help the most.

Regardless if you are a Scrum Master or if you have some other role, I prefer to be in a single team. It’s easier and much better for the team.

Not enough work for a full-time Scrum Master

Let’s say we have a team that needs a Scrum Master, but we don’t think it needs to be a full time role. We acknowledge that the SM role needs to be the primary one, but we cannot find a suitable secondary role for the intended Scrum Master. Is it wasteful to have a SM who probably won’t have enough to do?

In my experience, this is often the line of thought that leads to problematic situations like a SM for several teams. I don’t really have a perfect solution for this that can be applied in any situation. Like argued, I prefer to have people working full time in a single team. If there is not enough work to do as a SM in a single team, I try to find a good secondary role for this person in this team and encourage them to improve their Scrum Master skills. Perhaps learn some new facilitation techniques, agile games or visualisation. Perhaps the person is interested in learning a new craft, such as programming. I do prefer a person doing several roles in a single team than a person working for several teams.

In summary

I don’t really care about doing Scrum by the book or not. I care about what works. In my experience, being in a single team is more likely to work well. Working for several teams is quite hard and will force you to make difficult choices, sometimes leaving other teams disappointed. Having several roles in a single team can work well, but it is ofcourse harder and also requires more skills of the individual.

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