Scrum Team Effectiveness. Is the Scrum Master Accountable?

Gregory Crown: So recently, there was some interest in the topic of Scrum Master accountability. And here’s what was posed to me. Is it really fair to hold a Scrum Master accountable for Scrum Team’s effectiveness when they don’t have control over the Scrum Team’s effectiveness? So the general thought was, a Scrum Master can coach, they can facilitate, they can do everything right. But if the team says, Hey, in the spirit of self management, we’re not going to take your advice. We’re not going to change. We’re not going to improve. Can you hold the Scrum Master accountable? A bit of a nugget right there.

Robert Pieper: Well, it’s a hard one to be in if you’re a Scrum Master, you don’t have the power to make people do anything, and yet you’re responsible for everything, or at least the team’s effectiveness. Yeah, it’s not fair. But it’s also not fair for, I guess, a farmer when the winds change, or the weather patterns change and wipes out their entire crop, or there’s a drought. But what is the farmer to do? I mean, is there anything a farmer can do?

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Jason Malmstadt: Yeah, I think there are a lot of situations where you can find yourself in a position where you can only do what you can do. You can’t guarantee outcomes. I mean, I think the same is true of a project manager, right? A project manager can’t make things happen but they’re on the hook to, you know, manage the time, the scope, the budget of a project. They often don’t have the authority to make those things happen when they want to. Is that fair?

Robert Pieper: Guess not.

Gregory Crown: In the spirit of giving some meta examples to kind of harness this. I think there’s even some challenges with some of the athletic teams that we watch. You know, so pick your favorite sport. Yes, coaches can bench players and do various things so they have maybe some measure of control, but ultimately, it’s up to the people within the team themselves to be able to work towards the things that are important to the entirety of the team. I mean, the coach’s ability is to help them get ready, but the players have to play the game. And it’s ultimately up to them to win it.

Robert Pieper: Yeah, good point. So Scrum Masters don’t have a whole lot of authority. I mean, no one reports to a Scrum Master, and the primary tool is influence without authority. While it’s not fair that they are responsible for the effectiveness of the team, it’s just how it goes. But what can a Scrum Master even do? Like what can you do to influence a team to be better, like in that case you brought up earlier where a team just doesn’t want to do it. They… But what are you gonna do as a Scrum Master?

Jason Malmstadt: But when you use the word influence, I think of leadership as being more about influence than authority anyway. So if you think about a leader who has to rely on their authority, right, you have to do what I’m saying because I say so. And if you don’t, you’re gonna lose your job. That’s not typically a very effective leader. Like you might be able to make things happen, but the people that they are leading in that case, are usually not very engaged. So a leader in my estimation, that is more effective, leads through influence anyway. So I think what a Scrum Master has to do is dig into that more effective style of leadership where it’s more about influence and let go of the need for authority that’s pretty often a crutch for leadership anyway.

Gregory Crown: I’ll throw a wrinkle in this one. So what happens when a coach of a professional team isn’t pulling their weight? More or less what if the team is, you know, 1 in 13 at the end of the season? They might be a great coach, but it’s not compatible with the team. It’s not compatible with their environment. I might be a great farmer. But if my expertise is corn, and I’m trying to grow corn in the middle of the desert, maybe I’ve got to rethink the strategy. At what point does a Scrum Master say this isn’t compatible for me? I need to go find a different team, or at what point does an organization say, “look, that team is not effective under your leadership. We need to reassign you to another team.” Sometimes the difficulty here is because there isn’t straight up control. There’s the dependency on self-management. Scrum Masters aren’t always a great fit. And you might be a great person, maybe even a great leader, but only with certain people. And if those people aren’t responding to you, maybe it’s time to find a new assignment. But you know, that’s just one angle. I know it’s not popular.

Robert Pieper: I agree. Sometimes it just ain’t a fit.

Gregory Crown: I guess, coming full circle. If the question is, “Is it fair that a Scrum Master is held accountable for the team’s effectiveness?” It’s kind of like my mom used to say, it’s not fair. But life isn’t fair. I don’t know. What do you think?

Robert Pieper: Life isn’t fair.

Jason Malmstadt: Life is not fair. “It’s not fair” is a dirty phrase in my house. We all say that. None of us truly want fair.

Gregory Crown: All right. Tough job. If you’re a Scrum Master, hats off. Stick with it. Your teams need you. And being a leader in this kind of environment, it’s tough, but stick with it and see if you can’t improve a little bit at a time.

Greg Crown

Likes baking, craft beer, whisk(e)y & beaches.