Do we still need Scrum Masters?

A recruiting colleague of mine recently asked me the following question:

Hey Bob, QQ–there seems to have been a huge downturn in the last year when it comes to dedicated Scrum Master positions in the area. In your opinion, do companies think that this role can be a shared responsibility now? I feel like the Scrum Master’s job is to make themselves obsolete by helping a team work together. Could this have been accomplished already by just hiring the right people who work well together? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks! -Jake

I instantly replied to Jake that this was probably more nuanced than a quick reply and that I wanted to think about it for a bit. The following was my response after some thought —

Jake, I think the following are in play here:

  1. Companies are moving to agile, but not really investing in Scrum-specific roles or making other investments.
    1. This is more natural for Kanban and other teams. But I also see it in Scrum instances where folks are “doing Scrum,” but not making any role, training, or coaching investments. They’re simply hoping that some sort of magic happens. In these cases, there’s no need to recruit Scrum Masters, even though the use of Scrum is growing in the organization.
  • Bad Scrum Masters are flooding the market.
    • This is running companies and leaders off because they don’t see the value of the Scrum Masters in-action. What I really mean by bad, is inexperienced. I never thought that someone who just received their CSM or similar certification has the tools to BE a Scrum Master – not without a mentor and some on-the-job experience.
  • Employers are overloading the good Scrum Masters with many teams, as the firms grow.
    • I’ve personally heard of instances where an individual Scrum Master is expected to support 8-10 teams. Can you imagine that? It would be like expecting an individual manager to effectively manage 100 direct reports. While you can certainly DO it, it really isn’t effective nor humane.
  • Employers are assigning virtually “anyone” to be a “part-time Scrum Master,” which even includes managers.
    • This is an ongoing problem from my perspective. In my own personal leadership experience, I’ve come to realize the value that Scrum Masters bring to agile teams. And by Scrum Masters, I’m talking about the well-tuned ones – those with experience, chops, and who completely understand the role. They are the grower of teams and the enabler of results. They are worth their weight in gold. And, contrary to what Jake is implying, I think there’s a strong need for them AND they are hard to find.
  • And finally, the better Scrum Masters are helping their teams evolve beyond the point of needing them…
    • Of course, this is true. Or the focus of every Scrum Master. It’s also the goal of every good leader, to put themselves out of a job. But it takes time for it and how often does that happen? Point is, there is an incredibly strong need for great Scrum Masters (team-level coaches) as agile adoptions continue to become more pervasive.

You could also apply quite a lot of these questions’ focus on the role of Product Owner as well. As I see many of the same anti-pattern dynamics applied to that role.

If I were to guess as to the dynamics that Jake is seeing, it would be around organizations that are “going Agile” but not seeing the need for the ongoing (role) investment. Usually, they just don’t fully understand the role. So, a bit of training might be in order. Or networking with colleagues in other organizations to learn more about Scrum Mastery.

The other side of it is that they’re probably going to learn but learn the “hard way” on their own.

Wrapping Up

I experience this level of, what I’ll jokingly refer to as, agile cheapskate syndrome, all the time. I usually ask clients who are struggling to justify hiring Scrum Masters, to simply hire ONE good one. To run an experiment and to see for themselves what the value proposition is.

Often that’s all it takes for them to gain a new understanding and appreciation for the value of having a Scrum Master (even if they’re not doing Scrum).

I hope this helped, Jake!