5 Myths Debunked: What Does a Scrum Master Do?

The Scrum Master can be the most difficult accountability to define in concrete terms. The Scrum Guide provides three lists of ways the Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team, the Product Owner, and the organization. These activities, however, can often be misunderstood, or hard to visualize. This can result in stubborn myths about the Scrum Master’s job persisting in organizations using Scrum, or worse, perpetuate the lingering question: what does a Scrum Master do?

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What Does a Scrum Master Do?

The Scrum Master is accountable for the team’s effectiveness in achieving its goals and in using Scrum to do so. This can play out in many ways and look different day by day or team by team. A good Scrum Master coaches, teaches, facilitates, and mentors the Scrum Team and the organization they are serving. Sometimes, they do nothing and go get a donut. Therefore, the answer to the pivotal question is as varied as the myriad of techniques a Scrum Master can use to effect change in the environment around them.

So let’s dig into 5 myths about the Scrum Master, debunk them, and understand what a Scrum Master should do instead.

Myth 1: Facilitation

MYTH: The Scrum Master facilitates all Scrum Events.

FACT:  The Scrum Master coaches the team in self-management, facilitating as needed.

What Does the Scrum Master Do? Facilitate as Needed

What does a Scrum Master Do: Facilitation

It is true that a Scrum Master is accountable for ensuring Scrum is enacted and understood, but that does not necessitate that they facilitate all Scrum Events all the time. Instead, they should only do so when it is necessary or requested by the team. The Scrum Master’s primary role is to ensure the Scrum team is successful. They’ll want to ensure the developers understand the progress towards their Sprint Goal, cause the removal of impediments, and encourage collaboration and continuous improvement.

By only facilitating events when needed, the Scrum Master can better focus on their primary accountabilities and allow the team to take ownership of their processes. This approach also encourages team members to become more self-sufficient and proactive in their work, leading to increased autonomy and improved productivity. Ultimately, the Scrum Master’s goal should be to create a self-managing team that can effectively manage their own Scrum events without requiring constant intervention or hand-holding.

Myth 2: Impediment Removal

MYTH: The Scrum Master removes impediments for the Scrum team 

FACT The Scrum Master causes impediment removal, sometimes indirectly.

What Does the Scrum Master Do? Cause Impediment Removal

What Does a Scrum Master Do: Cause Impediment Removal

As a Scrum Master, it’s not always the case that you have to remove all impediments. While it is true that one of their key accountabilities is “Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress”, some impediments require management intervention, while others need the team’s collaboration to resolve and can thus be resolved without the Scrum Master’s involvement. Some issues may not even be impediments but rather a part of the process that the team must work through.

For example, the Scrum Master may encounter an impediment that requires approval from a higher-level manager or requires additional resources that the team cannot provide. In such cases, the Scrum Master may need to seek help from management or other stakeholders to remove the impediment. In other cases, the Scrum Master may need to help the team collaborate more effectively to resolve the impediment. Ultimately, the key to successfully addressing impediments is to identify them early and work collaboratively to find solutions that work for the team, stakeholders, and the organization.

Myth 3: Enforce Scrum Rules

MYTH: The Scrum Master makes sure the team follows all the Scrum rules.

FACT: The Scrum Master employs various techniques to help the team be more effective in Scrum, including mentoring, coaching, teaching, facilitating, etc. 

What Does the Scrum Master Do? Establish Scrum

What Does a Scrum Master Do: Establish Scrum

The Scrum Master is not a Scrum cop. The accountability is not about running around telling the Scrum Team when they’ve stepped out of line, policing language, or ensuring people are “following the rules”. Not only is that not an effective way to implement Scrum, but it’s also not an effective way to build a cohesive, self-managing team.

Instead, a good Scrum Master has a variety of skills and techniques to draw from. Sometimes a team needs a mentor, someone to show them how an event can be run. Sometimes a team needs a facilitator, someone who can be neutral in their opinion but help draw out ideas from the team members and help them get to a decision. An effective Scrum Master cares about helping the team succeed in whatever way they need at the time, not about telling them where they get it wrong.

Myth 4: Assign Tasks

MYTH: The Scrum Master assigns tasks to the Scrum team members.

FACT: The Scrum Master encourages self-management, by helping the Team understand its boundaries, its goals, and teaching them how to decide what they should do. 

What Does a Scrum Master Do? Coach Self-Management

What Does a Scrum Master Do: Establish Scrum

It is not the Scrum Master’s job to decide who does what on the team. In fact, it’s not the Scrum Master’s job to decide anything for the team. One of the core ways a Scrum Master helps their team is by coaching them in self-management. Assigning tasks to individual team members would fly in the face of this idea. Instead, a Scrum Master might remind the team of the Sprint Goal they’ve set for themselves, and help them see how their decisions may affect that goal.

A Scrum Master could ask probing questions about how the team is assigning themselves tasks, and dig deeper if it seems like the team is ignoring or missing a key step needed to achieve their goals. But a Scrum Master who goes as far as telling each team member, what to do is overstepping their accountability, and should instead focus on coaching the team in how to self-assign work and manage themselves.

Myth 5: Shield the Team

MYTH: The Scrum Master ensures Stakeholders don’t communicate directly with the Developers, and only speak with the Product Owner.

FACT: The Scrum Master helps the team focus, teaches Stakeholders which interactions are helpful and which are distracting, and helps the entire organization use Scrum more effectively.

What Does a Scrum Master Do? Encourage Helpful Communication

What Does the Scrum Master Do: Encourage Helpful Communication

The Scrum Master plays an important role in facilitating collaboration between the Scrum team and stakeholders when needed. They do this by ensuring that stakeholders are engaged and informed throughout the development process, and by working with the Product Owner to ensure the Product Owner invites the right people to the Sprint Review. 

However, it’s important to note that the Scrum Master should never prevent direct communication between the Scrum team and stakeholders. Instead, they should encourage open and transparent communication, which is essential for rapidly responding to evolving or changing stakeholder needs.

The Scrum Master may also help stakeholders to understand the Scrum framework by teaching and coaching on its use and how they can best engage with the team to allow for focus but also good collaboration. By facilitating stakeholder collaboration, the Scrum Master helps to ensure that the team has the support and resources they need to deliver high-quality products that meet the needs of the business and its customers.

Answering the Question

As you can see, the answer to “What does a Scrum Master do?” is not a simple one. It requires a nuanced answer because it is a nuanced role on a Scrum Team. (And yes, we can still call it a “role” even though the Scrum Guide now uses the word “accountability” — both are correct.) Go beyond the simple, tactical ideas that may or may not be correct, and find ways that fulfill the accountability without overstepping its boundaries and hampering the self-management of the Scrum Team.

Need a Refresher?

If your understanding of a Scrum Master is someone who always takes on a certain type of task, decides things for the team, or is even someone who is always visibly present, your may be misunderstanding what a Scrum Master is and what they do.

If you need to brush up on what a Scrum Master is and what they do, or maybe even revisit the basics of the Scrum Framework, you may find a PSM I training class a valuable next step. Whatever method you choose to deepen your understanding of the value a Scrum Master brings to the table, be sure to keep these myths debunked!

And when all else fails, maybe go grab that donut.

Jason Malmstadt

Jason has been teaching Scrum since 2017, more recently joining the Scrum.org community as a Professional Scrum Trainer. He helps teams grow in agility, build healthier team dynamics, and deliver more value. He leverages almost two decades of software development, IT architecture, and consulting experience to help people from all backgrounds work better.
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