The degradation of the Scrum Master to administrative clerk

blog scrum Aug 19, 2019

I can still hear him say it when I was introduced to a team member as the new Scrum Master; "Oh, you're the new administrative clerk."... ...nice!

This comment was a sign to me that the role of Scrum master was utterly misunderstood. Still, somewhere he was right, and his statement was a painful wake-up call for me.

Let's take a look at how the role of the Scrum master has evolved in recent years.

In many companies that work with Agile Scrum, the Scrum masters often develop and do some Scrum Masterwork simultaneously. It is not a dedicated role. Based on the idea that being a Scrum Master is not a full-time job.


The question now is: 'How did this come about?`

Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, the grandfathers of Scrum, have clearly described the added value of the Scrum Master in the Scrum Guide. They recognized and acknowledged the importance of this role, the importance of the Product Owner role, and the importance of the team members, each as a separated full-time role.

To have a lasting impact on Scrum teams, it is essential that a Scrum Master also is a coach. A coach who facilitates the Scrum events and continuously stimulates team members to think outside the box, so the team keeps moving towards an Elite Agile team.


A coach who inspires team members to keep improving, again and again.


To achieve this, team members need to enter a continuous process of behavioral change.

A Scrum Master needs to have the required psychological background and tools at his disposal to do this. It is necessary that he receives the essential psychology educations. Using this theoretical background, the Scrum Master will, in time, become better and better to "see" which "Underwater" processes are at play within the team and organization.


Underwater processes determine how successful a team will be, not our IQ.


For example: In a starting Scrum team, the members are often still quite Agile. They are curious, and despite the turmoil, they are open to new things, the perfect Agile Mindset. During this first phase, it is essential that the coach (the Scrum Master) gives direction so the team learns quickly how the Scrum process works and builds trust in this new Way of Working (WoW). In this phase, the Scrum Master is more a mentor than a coach.

As a mentor, the Scrum master guides the Scrum events in the beginning. Explains what a Daily is and how best to do it. He supervises the Refinement process and the Retrospectives, the planning processes, and the Reviews. After a few weeks, the team members start to pick it up, and they become more and more independent; slowly, the Scrum Master can step back more and more, he becomes a coach.

This period of more intensive guidance, which I also call "the phase of the support wheels," lasts an average of three months.

After that period, a new habit has grown within the team, and a way of working is submerged, fitting for that team. However, when that point is reached, the Agile Mindset starts to disappear.

The team is doing Scrum, but the Agile thinking – continuously adapting to new circumstances – often fades, slowly but surely, away.

It happens without the team members noticing it themselves. They think that they are still working Agile. The Velocity is increasing; the quality is improving, the Scrum process is becoming more and more optimal, the customers are happier.

The team is great in Scrum, that's for sure. However, Agile thinking is slowly but surely disappearing because it has become a habit.


When habits come, Agile goes.


What happens is that the process has become a Lean process focused on Cutting Out Waste until the optimal Way of Working is developed for that particular team. Of course, this is great for the team and the stakeholders, nothing wrong with that. The velocity grows, and the quality increases. The team becomes more and more a reliable partner for its customers.


Agile is all about inspecting and adapting; when it becomes a well-oiled standard process, inspecting and adapting slowly fade away.


At this point, the coaching skills of the Scrum Master are essential to keep the team members in an Agile mindset and keep them thinking Out of The Box.

At this stage, it becomes really interesting for the Scrum Master;
now, he can show what he is worth.


The natural urge of the brain

The brain's natural urge is to automate behavior as quickly as possible.

At the start of a Scrum team, it is all-new, and Minds are open. The team members are willing to make an effort to think differently, to act differently. There may be some confusion and ambiguity initially, but over time that will diminish, and the team will become more aligned in this Way of Working. It becomes more and more a habit, a new habit. It becomes like, "This is how we do it" You do not need to think about it anymore; it goes automatic.


The brain automates everything as quickly as it can. Thinking costs a lot of energy.
When it is automated into behaviors or habits,
the brain does not need to think, and precious energy is saved.

Here our instinct is at work. It is our instinct and not our IQ that controls this critical survival mechanism.


Now it's time to get to really get to work with your teammates.

Now, while a fantastic foundation is created with the new Way of Working, the structure constantly improves itself automatically. To avoid the team falling into the Zombie Scrum trap, your Scrum Master coaching skills will be called upon.

Of course, you keep facilitating; you keep arranging things. But, in addition, you put extra emphasis on stimulating, challenging, and inspiring the team towards an Agile Mindset.

While the human instinct does not like change and likes to keep things as they are, challenging people to stay in an Agile mindset can create resistance, even a lot of resistance.


As a Scrum Master, now it is your moment to make a real impact.


Therefore, it is crucial that you are well trained in coaching skills and preferably already have experience with them, or that a well-experienced mentor coach guides you.


The coaching skills of a Scrum Master are the distinguishing factor that can make the difference so that the team remains truly Agile after the initial phase.


When you succeed in this, you will make a lasting difference, and the sounds will fade away fast about the doubts of the added value of a Scrum Master, with the nice side-effect that the Scrum Master does not become an administrative clerk.


The question now is: 'How did this come about?`



Danny Vermeeren | Senior Agile Coach/Senior Scrum Master

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The question now is: 'How did this come about?`