The 1 Mistake Every Scrum Master Makes At Least Once

As we briefly explore this common Scrum Master pitfall, let me take you back to my earlier career for a moment. A number of years ago, I made a professional transition away from the role of a software development Project Manager and shifted paradigms into the role of a Scrum Master. Seemed easy enough at the time, yes?

Actually, not really.

As I shared in the post entitled ‘Are You a Scrum Master or a Project Manager?’, I struggled to discard the command & control mindset, and it proved difficult for the Teams that I was trying to serve. I had much to learn.

I made a ton of mistakes during this (sometimes painful) transition, but there was one particular “learning moment” that tripped me up the most:

Fast forward to present day, where I have since trained and coached many professionals to grow and flourish in the Scrum Master role, often by learning directly from my own role-transition “storytelling”. Even then, I still encounter plenty of job-titled Scrum Masters in practice who have not yet anchored their understanding of the Daily Scrum and its purpose, which often hampers an organization’s pursuit toward business Agility.

Have you made this mistake before?

If you’re a Scrum Master, it’s okay to admit it — you’ve gotten into the “Daily Scrum status meeting” habit at least once, right?

Some of the common symptoms include (but not limited to):

  • Each Developer is telling the Scrum Master: “Yesterday, I did this. Today, I’m going to do that. No blocks.”
  • The Scrum Master is moving sticky notes around the Sprint Backlog and telling people what to do.
  • The Scrum Master is asking closed-ended questions, like: “Are you done with this task yet?”, or “When will you be done with your work?”

If this describes you (or some of the Scrum Masters in your organization), then I can’t stress how important it is to unwind this behavior immediately, so that Development Teams can learn (ideally, from the Scrum Master) how to monitor their own progress and conduct their own planning in a highly collaborative and focused manner.

The Daily Scrum might not be what you think it is

Understanding the intent of the Daily Scrum is more difficult than it sounds. I know this because I observe and help undo the “status meeting” behavior in virtually every organization that I coach. I encourage you to do the same.

Reflecting back on my own transition, I was clearly confused at first. I mean, here was a simple, 15-minute daily event that replaced my old project manager status meetings. But now … rather than waiting to hold a status meeting every Friday, I could now “check in” with the Team every single day.

Everything looked so familiar – a sticky board to track the Development Team’s progress, a meeting with the Teams (usually every morning), and the infamous “three questions” that each Developer would have to answer. And best of all, I could run it, so they could provide their status to me.

I couldn’t have been any more wrong about the purpose and intent of this event.

To unlock the real power in Scrum…

I had to come to terms with my own behavior and how it needed to change. In a real Daily Scrum, my role was not to run this meeting at all; instead, my responsibility was to teach and coach the Development Teams on how to review their own progress, conduct their own daily planning, how to deal with their own issues, how to collaborate with the Scrum Product Owner, and how to escalate larger issues in an influential way.

In short, I had to mentor them on self-organization.

Once I understood this, it allowed me to adapt my own behavior away from a management stance and into a mentoring stance. As my mentoring stance improved, Development Teams improved. Once Development Teams started collaborating effectively in their Daily Scrums, I would gradually fade away – to the point where I rarely attended this event (if at all).

In my recent post entitled ‘5 Beliefs Every Agile Journey Must Avoid‘, consider digging into flawed Belief #4 – the “Daily Stand-up”. I offer sage advice to consider changing the name back to the Daily Scrum. Sometimes a simple Scrum Guide name-alignment (and some coaching) can activate the reboot switch that launches self-organization to a higher level.

If you’re a Scrum Master, I invite you to challenge your own desire to attend the Daily Scrum. Are you there to manage or to mentor?

In Closing

What are your Daily Scrums like? What will you do differently next week to enable this event to reach high performance without your presence?

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Are you a Scrum Master or a Project Manager?

Do you hold the job title of Scrum Master in your organization? In most big companies today, this oddly-named title is still misrepresented as a Project Manager, which is hindering the pursuit of Organizational Agility and hurting the professionals who are genuinely attempting to make this challenging job change. If you are one of these people, then it might be time for you to make a change.

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As we enter one of my darker posts, allow me the opportunity to take you back into my prior career, and my childhood for a moment.

A number of years ago, I made a professional and emotional transition and I quit my job of software development Project Manager and shifted paradigms into the foreign role of ‘Scrum Master’. Or is it ‘ScrumMaster’ without a space? At the beginning of this transition, I confused it with a role I played in my childhood. Do you remember the epic role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons? As an appointed “Dungeon Master” by my friends in elementary school, I was considered the master of all, mysterious, wise, and the one who largely controlled the fate of Teams.

However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the supposed “master of Scrum” is actually a very different role – it’s one of service-first to others, commitment & sacrifice to a purpose larger than our own, and the wielding of unspeakable power through positive influence, persuasion and genuine appreciation rather than control and coercion. If the role (job?) is fully embraced in the C-suite, then a real Scrum Master emerges as one of inspirational and disciplined leadership that guides an organization to outstanding levels of workplace performance. Sounds magical, doesn’t it?

If you’re someone who has Scrum Master in your job title, consider investing a few minutes into these reflective questions to reveal if this is the right job for you, or even more important, let’s discover if your organization truly understands and embraces this important role:

 

Does your organization reward Scrum Masters for “driving results”?

Does your organization discourage failure and experimentation in the workplace?

Do you refer to Teams as “my” Teams? Does the organization assign you to Teams to make them improve?

Do you start sentences with phrases like: “What I would like to see from you all…” or “Please help me understand why…”?

Do you feel an urge to assign work to Teams or solve a Team’s problems to keep it on track?

Are you responsible for judging the performance of Team Members and removing poor performers?

Is ‘Scrum Master’ considered a pay-grade job title in the organization that is commensurate with a Project Manager?

 

Did you answer YES to most of these questions? Then your job title and workplace reality are probably different. It could be time for a job change.

I’ll offer yet one more question in the spirit of this post’s theme:

Is a Scrum Master role really a JOB?

If the answers to these questions feel uncomfortable to you, then your current job is possibly confusing, or even painful. If so, then you might be on a career path that is not right for you and something needs to change. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to leave your organization, but you might need to exemplify courage and “quit-your-job”, but in the right way that involves positive learning moments for you, your peers, your manager and your organization. Positive communication will fuel connections rather than burn bridges – which (hint hint) is an attribute of the Scrum Master role.

Is this post connecting with you and your professional goals?

If so, then consider these two pieces of advice for (1) leaving your Project Management job behind and fully embracing the Scrum Master role, or (2) returning back to your previous job as a Project Manager and guiding the organization to remove Scrum Master from your job title. You owe it to your own professional sanity to get this right:

 

1. Change your mindset and job behavior from Project Manager to Scrum Master. This can be extremely challenging for those who have been Project Managers for a long time, but it requires you to dig deep into your mind & soul and engage in a personal transformation that changes the way you think about ….. well, most everything. Then, go forth into the organization and positively influence your senior leadership on the value of this critical servant-leadership presence, how it enables higher levels of performance in the workplace, and what is means to you personally and professionally to pursue this path in a fruitful and ethical manner. Garner support for this transition. If you aren’t able to gain this support, then perhaps it’s time to take your service-first leadership potential to another organization where you can fulfill your professional purpose.

2. Work with your organization to shift back into a Project Manager job. Organizations have initiatives that continue to be a great fit for a Project Manager, so it’s worth seeking out those opportunities if the *real* Scrum Master role isn’t the right fit for you. If you have a job title called Scrum Master, but you’re acting as a Project Manager, then once again – use positive communication to educate your manager on the mismatch between the job title and the responsibilities, then respectfully request the switch for reasons that best align with your strengths and career aspirations.

 

In order to change jobs in the right way, you first have to understand what the change means to you and to the organization.

If you recognize a Scrum Master as that of teacher, servant-leader, mentor and coach, then you’ll find that it’s markedly different than that of a traditional Project Manager. As I continue my travels through organizations small and large, I am finding that many job-titled Scrum Masters are unintentionally acting as Project Managers in disguise. This is the cause of great pain in many organizations right now. This pain is real and evokes a strong emotional response when I have the chance to coach within an organization. The emotions are that of PAIN – to people, teams and organizations. The misunderstanding of this role is literally hurting others, and it’s time to get this right in the interest of workplace humanity.

Am I speaking strongly about this? Yes …. I feel strongly about it.

What are some of the pain points I see in organizations? What are some pain points you’re feeling? Use this pain as an opportunity-creation tool when preparing to hold a job-change dialogue with your manager:

 

1. It’s painful for those who are trying to change into the role – Because of the stark difference in mindset, these former-Project-Managers-trying-to-become-Servant-Leaders are running into an enormous mismatch in how they think and act in the workplace. To make matters more challenging, oftentimes their job description is still written with the responsibilities of a Project Manager. They might also “report to” a boss who is creating performance bonus structures to drive the behaviors of project management, but within the misunderstood role of Scrum Master. It’s confusing and painful to the person trying to change, especially if the wrong behaviors are being rewarded.

In what way would your job change alleviate this pain for you?

2. It’s painful for Teams that are trying to learn how to self-organize – Project Managers are responsible for planning the work of a Team and essentially assigning that work to individuals. In an Agile environment, the world is supposed to work differently – Teams are galvanized by a shared vision of the future, a business opportunity, or a business problem. These Teams self-organize to decide how best to accomplish their work and meet these business opportunities. For Project Managers who are trying to serve a Scrum Master role, I often find that they revert to the behaviors of project management which is in direct conflict to the self-organizing behavior that they are responsible for promoting. It creates pain within a Team and introduces nasty conflicts and other toxic behaviors that actually make Team performance ‘worse’ rather than ‘better’.

In what way would your job change alleviate this pain for self-organizing, autonomous Teams?

3. It’s painful for the Organizations that have a sense of urgency to change – For organizations that have a critical and urgent need to change, the ultimate long-term survival of the business depends on supportive senior leadership that rebuilds the organization on a foundation of trust, respect and openness – which leads to transparency and more effective and nimble decision-making in the workplace. Crippled by the command & control behaviors of old, some organizations try to “install Agile” by training Project Managers with the expectation that they will walk out of a class as proclaimed Scrum Masters. But without the right mindset of senior leadership, this training is quickly lost and the mindset behind a servant-leader role and self-organizing Teams gives way to previous behavior. In some ways, it makes this change effort worse and reduces the effectiveness of the Organization; all because of the Organization’s lack of understanding and willingness to trust Teams and enable Scrum Masters as true servant-first leaders for the organization. Old-school politics and ego take over and a promising transformation to Agile is dead on arrival.

In what way would your job change enable the pursuit of higher levels of organizational performance that address a critical business problem or opportunity?

 

Remember – use these painful conditions to create positive opportunity focused conversations with your manager. Your job might depend on it.

 

What is your advice to others?

What do you think of this advice? What advice would you offer others who are trying to become a Scrum Master but are still acting as a Project Manager? Please share your insights in the comments section below so we can all learn from each other.

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.