The case for a dedicated Scrum Master role

A pretty common question I get asked when teaching Scrum is about the Scrum Master as a second role for a Developer or the Product Owner. While this is a typical implementation, and several other authors are arguing for the Scrum Master to be a temporary, part-time or rotating role among the rest of the Scrum Team, I have to disagree for three primary reasons…

1. The Scrum Master as a balancing force

I like to picture the Scrum Team as three separate forces around a round table, the three collaborating knights that produce value together. Nice metaphor, but it suffers the problem that, in real life, it is implemented by humans, each with their own personality, communication and interaction style, goals, aspirations, likes and dislikes, biases… 

To operate effectively, such a human system needs to be appropriately balanced. A great Scrum Master, acting skillfully, can provide such a balancing action through facilitation, coaching questions, or simply by being a mirror reflecting how the other roles interact. By being an independent force, they can effectively support the system.

In contrast, a Scrum Master who is also either a Developer or a Product Owner might be unable to do that effectively.

2. A complex set of skills

As change agents, Scrum Masters need to possess many skills. They need to be:

  • Experts in all things agile, including Scrum, Kanban, Lean, etc…
  • System Thinkers
  • Facilitators
  • Mentors
  • Coaches
  • Mediators
  • Effective Communicators
  • Organisational Consultants

Each skill requires deep learning and a lot of time to apply it effectively. It can take years to develop good Scrum Masters, not to mention the continuous updating needed in every professional role. In the field, I see the difference between adequately trained Scrum Masters and people “just having the role”, with the former being notably more effective and the latter sometimes being even more of a problem than a solution. As a rule of thumb, I suggest a minimum of 20 days of education per year in a mix of the disciplines above, and obviously, the more, the better!

Though referring to different skills, the same can be said about Developers and Product Owners: there’s a world of things to learn for each role.

So… is it possible for a Developer or a Product Owner to also be a good Scrum Master? The answer is yes: I’ve seen skilled individuals who consistently grew in both roles. BUT I’ve seen very few of them. In most cases, the result was people mediocre in both. So I’d say avoid…

3. Failure under pressure

Another aspect to consider is what happens when the Scrum team is under pressure to deliver or, more in general, in a difficult situation. What is the person with two roles going to do? *Usually* they will focus on the role that delivers output: a Developer + Scrum Master will usually act, for that phase, just as a Developer and the Scrum Master role fades away.

So right there, when the Team could benefit from somebody who helps them reflect on the experience and induce learning and improvement, such a resource is missing!

But… we have double roles! 

Well, you’re free to do whatever you want in your organisation. Still, if your Scrum Masters also have another role or you don’t have any Scrum Masters at all, I suggest you create an initial Scrum Master group and have them Scrum Mastering as much as possible to show the value of that role. Growing together in a Community of Practice can boost their skills quickly!

Offer the people with a double role the possibility to decide what role they prefer, even letting them try to be only a Scrum Master for some time: they might love it or hate it, but at least it will be clear! 

In general, I suggest developing the Scrum Master skills from within the organisation: somebody who has been in the organisation for years understands also how to move in it.

And make sure there is a career path for Scrum Masters: I’ve seen many companies not finding the right people simply because of that.