What is a Scrum Master? The True Role Revealed

What is a Scrum Master

Inspired by the disconcerting misconceptions we’ve seen recently and from Eminem’s iconic line, ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?’ – we felt compelled to write this blog “What is a Scrum Master?” and ask:

May I have your attention, please?
Will the real Scrum Master please stand up?
I repeat,
Will the real Scrum Master please stand up?
We’re gonna have a problem here

We’ll be addressing a troubling trend that has caught our attention: the persistent misunderstandings about what a Scrum Master truly is and does. Despite Scrum being around for over 25 years, it’s disheartening to see that many still haven’t fully grasped its core purpose. Instead, they continue to perpetuate outdated notions, treating the Scrum Master as nothing more than a rebranded Project Manager.

Recently, we’ve encountered a slew of misleading LinkedIn posts that inaccurately portray Scrum as merely another Project Management framework. What’s more alarmingly, these posts were also promoting Scrum courses. One post brazenly asserted, ‘Discover how Scrum can empower you to become a master of project management.’ This not only perpetuates the ‘Feature Factory’ (mini-waterfall) mindset but severely undermines the fundamental purpose, values and principles of Scrum.

In this blog, we’ll look to shed light on the true essence of a Scrum Master and help clear up this misconception.

Contrary to popular belief, a Scrum Master is an accountability, not a role, within the Scrum Team. They serve as a ‘guiding mirror,’ reflecting not what the team wants to see, but what it needs to confront: its untapped potential for business agility, self-organization, and empirical decision-making.

If you’ve ever felt that your organization isn’t genuinely practising Scrum or that your Scrum Master isn’t fulfilling their true accountability, you’re not alone. Let’s clear the air and help the real Scrum Master—please, stand up!

Scrum Master

Understanding Scrum Master Accountability

Before we look at answering the question”What is a Scrum Master?” let’s quick recap on what Scrum is first. Scrum is a lightweight framework that consists of 3 accountabilities, 5 events, and 3 artefacts. One of these key accountabilities is the Scrum Master!

Prior to the 2020 update of the Scrum Guide, these were referred to as “roles.” The terminology was updated to “accountabilities” to help eliminate misunderstandings that one person could not hold more than one accountability. So does that mean we can play more than one accountability? More on this later.

Referring back to the Scrum Guide about Scrum Master accountability, it clearly defines it as the following:

The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization.”

The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices within the Scrum framework.”

In this way, the Scrum Master acts as the catalyst propelling the team toward excellence, fueled by Scrum’s essence of embracing change, fostering learning, and nurturing continuous growth.

Scrum Master is not a Project Manager

One of the most pervasive misunderstandings about the Scrum Master’s accountability lies in the mistaken belief that they are simply Project Managers by another name. This misconception is not only misleading but also undermines the essence of Scrum and the unique value that a Scrum Master brings to the table.

The Scrum Master is not a Project Manager in agile clothing. They don’t manage budgets, schedules, or resources. Their primary focus is not on delivering the project on time and within scope but on fostering an environment where the Scrum Team can thrive and deliver value iteratively and incrementally.

Scrum Master vs Project Manager

AspectScrum MasterProject Manager
AccountabilityFosters Scrum adoption, team understanding, and continuous improvement within the Scrum frameworkManages the project’s scope, schedules, and budgets to meet project objectives.
Decision MakingEmpowers the team to be self-managed and encourages data-driven decisionsMakes decisions, delegates tasks, and oversees project execution.
ApproachGuides the team to embrace empiricism, value-driven outcomes, and cultivating a culture of continuous improvement.Takes a directing role, manages resources, and applies established project management methodologies.
Leadership StyleServant LeadershipCommand and Control Leadership
Change ManagementEmbraces change and uncertainty.Has a defined scope and minimizes deviations from the plan.
Adaptive ApproachEmphasizes adaptability and a flexible approach to achieve desired outcomes.Follows predefined project plan to meet predetermined success criteria.

In line with the Scrum Guide’s emphasis, the Scrum Master’s accountability extends to helping everyone—both within the Scrum Team and the broader organization—understand the theory and practice of Scrum. They do this by:

  • Educating and Coaching: The Scrum Master takes on the role of an educator and coach, helping team members and stakeholders understand the principles and values that underpin Scrum. This goes beyond mere rule-following and dives deep into the philosophy of agile methodologies.
  • Facilitating Scrum Events, If Needed: Contrary to another common misconception, the Scrum Master facilitates Scrum events like Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, or Sprint Retrospectives only if needed. Their role is to ensure that these events are effective and true to the spirit of Scrum, thereby enabling the team to inspect and adapt.
  • Removing Impediments: Unlike a Project Manager, who may try to control external variables to stick to a plan, the Scrum Master focuses on removing obstacles that hinder the team’s ability to deliver value.
  • Promoting Self-Organization: The Scrum Master empowers the team to take ownership of their work, encouraging self-organization rather than dictating how things should be done.

By focusing on these aspects, the Scrum Master not only upholds the integrity of the Scrum framework but also facilitates the team’s journey toward continuous improvement and high performance. They are not there to serve the project; they are there to serve the team and, by extension, the organization in its pursuit of agility and excellence.

Can You Play More Than One Accountability?

The short answer is yes, but it’s not without its challenges and is highly dependent on context. To illustrate this, let’s consider the analogy of a Viking boat navigating through treacherous waters.

Impact if Playing Different Scrum Accountabilities
  • Product Owner (PO): Positioned at the front, the PO focuses on maximizing value and strategizing for the journey ahead.
  • Developers: In the middle, they are the heart of delivering value through completed work.
  • Scrum Master (SM): At the back, the SM supports the Developers, the PO, and the broader organization.

The Navigational Dilemma (PO and SM)

If leaning towards the PO accountability, who supports the Developers and drives organizational change? Conversely, if leaning towards the SM, who’s at the front guiding the ship to maximize value?

A Different Set of Challenges (SM and Developer)

The SM, being part of the Scrum Team, can monitor both the PO and the Developers. However, if engrossed in development, who focuses on broader organizational aspects? The effectiveness of this combination often depends on the team’s maturity and the nature of the work.

In essence, taking on multiple accountabilities is a balancing act that can dilute the effectiveness of each. For you and your team to gain a deeper understanding of accountabilities in Scrum, you may find our resource ‘Know your Scrum Accountabilities?‘ helpful.

The True Essence of a Scrum Master

Let’s delve into the core attributes, tools, and philosophies that define a Scrum Master. By understanding these elements, we can appreciate the Scrum Master’s unique position as a catalyst for change, a servant leader, and a champion and guardian of Scrum values and principles.

Characteristics of an Effective Scrum Master

These simple mantras help them avoid prescribing solutions and instead shine a light for the team to inspect and adapt.

While truly great Scrum Mastery is situational, some traits are commonly found:

  • Servant leadership
  • Influence without authority
  • Coaching mindset
  • Courage to challenge the status quo

By putting the team’s needs first and helping unlock their potential, Scrum Masters can facilitate amazing outcomes.

Embracing Servant Leadership

The Scrum Master embodies the principles of servant leadership. They focus on the growth and well-being of their team members, rather than wielding power for its own sake. For a Scrum Master to be a leader, they move away from coordinating individuals and towards coaching people in Scrum and positive team behaviour. They enable self-management within Scrum Teams.

Move Away FromMove Toward
Coordinating individualsCoaching people in Scrum
Providing answersEnabling self-management
Investing in outcomesHelping manage Product Backlogs
DeadlinesFocusing on flow and value
Prescribing solutionsImproving the Definition of Done
Fixing problemsGuiding Teams to discover what works

The 6 Stances of a Scrum Master

Scrum Masters don’t adhere to a one-size-fits-all methodology. Instead, they have a variety of intervention choices and behavioral stances, each tailored to specific situations. These 6 stances act as a heuristic guide for the Scrum Master’s decision-making process. There’s no universally ‘right’ choice—only what the Scrum Master deems most effective in the given context.

The FacilitatorHelps the team reach consensus during discussions.
The CoachHelps the team improve its practices and behaviors.
The Servant LeaderServes the team by removing impediments.
The MentorProvides guidance based on experience.
The TeacherEducates the team on Scrum principles.
The Change AgentDrives change within the organization.

For those keen on exploring further into the intricacies of these stances and their practical applications, Barry’s blog post, ‘The 6 Stances Of A Scrum Master,’ is an essential read. Additionally, our Professional Scrum Master and Professional Scrum Master II courses provide thorough insights and hands-on experience.

An illustration of these varied stances in action can be found in our Where to Start with Scrum. Is Value Stream Mapping Your Answer? blog and the real-world scenario used there.

Living the Scrum Values

The Scrum values of Courage, Focus, Commitment, Respect, and Openness are the lifeblood of the Scrum framework. These values are something the Scrum Master can fall back on to help their team. For instance, if a team is missing a Sprint Goal or Product Goal, it could be a sign that they are lacking in Focus and Commitment. The Scrum Master can then use these values as a guide to help the team realign.

Essential Scrum Master Mottos

Scrum Masters have mottos and heuristics they live by, such as:

  • Let the team decide
  • Reveal, don’t resolve
  • Ask don’t tell
  • Pull, not push
  • Art of the possible
  • Curiosity with positive intent

Scrum Master’s Essential Toolkit

The Scrum Master’s toolkit is grounded on two core tools:

  • Empiricism: Used often to bring issues to light and guide the team in problem-solving. For instance, any development bottlenecks are made visible so the team can inspect and adapt.
  • Self-Management: Empowers the team to own their tasks and overcome challenges. When an obstacle arises, the Scrum Master facilitates a discussion for the team to find their own solutions, fostering self-management.

To see an example of the use of empiricism to help teams, read our post on the Definition of Done, Where to Start?

Complementary Practices:

Besides core tools like empiricism and self-management, Scrum Masters often add additional complementary practices to their toolbox. While not part of Scrum, they may be useful in helping the team’s effectiveness and maximise the benefits of Scrum.

  • Product Owner Practices: Assist the Product Owner in maximizing value through effective goal-setting, vision alignment, and backlog management.
  • Facilitation Techniques: Essential for running effective Scrum events and resolving conflicts.
  • Technical Practices: Help Developers meet the Definition of Done and ensure high-quality deliverables.
  • Flow Practices: Optimize the flow of work, enhancing transparency and facilitating better conversations about progress.
  • And Many More: The toolkit is ever-expanding to include various practices that help maximize the benefits of Scrum.

As the saying goes: “The Scrum Master reveals, but doesn’t resolve.” Their ultimate goal is to enable collective learning and improvement, thereby unlocking the team’s full potential.

Final Thought on What Is a Scrum Master

In the spirit of Eminem’s famous lyric “Will the Real Scrum Master please stand up?” – it’s time to dispel the myths and embrace the true accountability of a Scrum Master. They are not traditional managers, project administrators, or Jira experts. They are catalysts for change, guiding mirrors that illuminate the path to business agility, self-organization, and value-driven outcomes.

A Scrum Master does this by embracing the Scrum framework and its pillars of empiricism. They engage with the tools of self-organization, Scrum values, stances, and mottos to help the team inspect, adapt, and improve. Their core duty lies in facilitating adherence to the Scrum framework, promoting continuous improvement, and empowering the team to unlock their boundless potential.

If you’re inspired to elevate your understanding of Scrum to a professional level, don’t miss our certified Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master training.

If you found this article valuable in understanding the Scrum Master Accountability, please consider sharing it. Your share could be the catalyst for someone’s agile transformation and help clear up persistent misconceptions. Thank you for reading

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