From Unloved to Essential: The Scrum Master Recovery Plan

Posted By - Geoff Watts


How Scrum Masters Can Reclaim Their Value…by Being more Product Owner. Enter the Scrum Master Recovery Plan.

In a world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) are the norms, I believe the role of the Scrum Master remains pivotal for many businesses. However, to reclaim their perceived value, Scrum Masters need to adapt. This article explores how they can do just that by embodying qualities of…wait for it…Product Owners.

First of all though, how have we got here?

We’ve all heard of the many anti-patterns of a misunderstood instance of the Scrum Master. I love Barry Overeem’s arty example below.


In a recent episode of The Agile Pubcast Nigel Baker described the Scrum Master as the first role explicitly designed for a VUCA world and as I don’t see our world of work getting any less volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous any time soon I would say the role (and yes I still do see it as a role) is as important as ever – if not more so.

So why am I even writing about it?

People have been debating the value of the Scrum Master for over 20 years. But recently the attacks have been stronger, louder and perhaps have had more impact and, dare I say it, greater merit.

How did we get to the point where respect for Scrum Masters is so low?

There’s no denying that the role has not quite lived up to the expectations that many (including me) had all those years ago. The reasons behind this are many but none of them, in my opinion, detract from the value that this role offers and thus how much it is needed in today’s world.

It seems we need a Scrum Master Recovery Plan.

The main reasons that respect for the role is arguably at an all-time low I believe are:

  1. The high number of surface-level Scrum Masters;
  2. The surprisingly resilient immune system of our organisations
  3. The pandemic

Surface Level Scrum Masters

Despite the knowledge of the anti-patterns around Scrum Masters, this hasn’t stopped the growth of ineffective servant-leaders. These people who happily took on the role of Jira Monkey, Manager of a Self-Organising Team, Meeting Organiser or Scrum Police rather than the transformative, challenging change agent they were intended to be.

This is partly because it is much easier to fall into that position rather than constantly push the team to greater levels of self-management and the organisation to greater levels of resilience and autonomy, and partly because they simply don’t have the skills or experience to be more effective.

The vast majority of Scrum Masters simply stopped their learning and development after a 2-day CSM or PSM 1 class. Indeed, I was so frustrated that only 4% of Scrum Masters pushed on past that point that I set up Agile Mastery Institute with a mission to make certification meaningful. Alas, it seems that the horse may have already bolted.

The Resilience of the Organisational Immune System

In my book Scrum Mastery I used the metaphor of a virus being attacked by the immune system of the host organisation. The Scrum Master and what the role represented has always been felt as a threat to the status quo…because it essentially always has been.

Because of this, the turkeys in the middle and higher levels of management saw greater autonomy as voting for the metaphorical Christmas and resisted so hard. This was to be expected. However, I genuinely believed market forces would win out quicker than they have. Devolved authority, cross-functional, self-managing teams using empirical rather than predictive planning was (and is) needed to thrive in a VUCA world so any organisation that resisted this would be handing their competitors a huge advantage.

And yet…many many companies continued to make huge profits despite not really changing their structures and culture. And when numbers are good, there is little need to change. The prevalence of SAFe has given that bureaucracy a safe place to exist and claim the value in essentially not changing.

The Pandemic

This was a game changer in so many ways and we are still seeing the fallout from it. There are too many aspects for me to cover here before I lose you to your limited attention spans…ooh Squirrel!

One thing that came out of the pandemic is the hybrid/remote working environment. Now, in essence this is not a bad thing but the resulting enmity I have noticed in so many companies that has resulted is a big factor in the retreat from agility.

I have described the atmosphere in many organisations as like a dysfunctional family where the parents are staying together because they have to. Everyone is unhappy but nobody sees a way out. The employers don’t trust their employees who they see as entitled, lazy and ungrateful. The employees don’t respect their employers who they see as micro-managing, opaque and unfeeling.

Agility requires trust, belief in human nature and time to nurture – factors that are in very short supply in many organisations I see right now.

So that’s how we’ve got here.

Do we need a Scrum Master Recovery Plan?

Why should we care about the situation we find ourselves in? Do we even need a Scrum Master Recovery Plan?

Maybe this is the market’s answer to the question of whether agility was ever needed in the first place. Personally I don’t think so. I think this is definitely a market correction but the need for more responsive discovery of value to real customer problems is greater than ever. The need for a wider range of skills to work together to uncover and deliver those solutions is also still great.

Do teams magically become great on their own? Not in my experience.

Do organisations naturally evolve to create the conditions for optimal team collaboration? Not in my experience.

Therefore the need is still there and the Scrum Master role (properly executed) is the best way I have seen to help achieve that. The problem then comes with the execution of the role.

So what is the Scrum Master Recovery Plan?

What do Scrum Masters need to do to become indispensable again?

We’ve had the What? And the So What?…Time for the Now What?.

We don’t need more Scrum Masters. In fact I would say we need fewer Scrum Masters. We just need more great ones. 2-day Scrum Masters won’t cut it because you don’t learn (let alone master) these skills in such a short time. We all know this but the companies, the candidates and the recruiters aren’t addressing it proactively.

So to reclaim their value and become indispensable I think Scrum Masters need to be more like product owners.

More specifically they need to be better at:

  1. Finding out the jobs to be done
  2. Adding value
  3. Marketing themselves

Find out the jobs to be done

Just as great product owners don’t build what *they* want their products to be, as a Scrum Master you shouldn’t be trying to be what *you* want to be. Great product owners research, survey, observe and test what their customers and users not only want and need but are willing to pay for. Similarly Scrum Masters need to ground themselves by finding out what their teams, their potential employers and their leadership want.

That’s doesn’t necessarily mean they will cowtow to suboptimal or self-sabotaging requests but they will find out what people are looking for and expecting. At least this way we can explicitly agree to meet these needs or not.

We know it’s not about “doing Scrum” or even “being agile” but using agility for business improvement. Are you aware of what your business actually needs?

Scrum Masters Need to Add More Value

We need people who really push the team past the natural reticence and fear of stepping into self-management.

We need people who speak truth to power with empathy and compassion not evangelical judgement.

We need people who will help everyone stick to principles of good working even when (or especially when) things are challenging.

We need Scrum Masters who truly believe in the power of agility to improve business results and understand the need to prove this quickly and continually. People who know their role is not to help create the most agile organisation at the expense of business viability but rather use agility to become an even more resilient, self-sufficient, profitable and innovative organisation.

Scrum Masters need to tie their support for agility to strategic goals and help leaders understand how to leverage (and avoid undermining) agility for their purposes. They need to really live the principle of continuous improvement and that part of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development that says “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer”.

But these people need to truly look past the basics of their role. They really need to invest in the tough skills in making this tough transition possible. They need to understand emotional intelligence, cognitive science, coaching for change, facilitation, negotiation, influencing, business, product development, communication skills, systemic problem solving and so many others.

Scrum Masters Need to be Seen to Add More Value

As difficult as this is to accept, part of the problem with Scrum Masters is a PR problem. They fall into the trap of many helping and enabling professions of failing to showcase their contributions. In a sense this is completely understandable because they are there to build up the competence and confidence of others. They are meant to be behind the scenes, invisible largely.

However, if the budget-holders and decision-makers aren’t aware of our role in the process is it any surprise that we are seen as an unnecessary indulgence when budgets get cut?

Bob Galen has spoken recently about how agile coaches need to take ownership of the value they add and Scrum Masters are no different.

Scrum Masters need to be really clear about the value they add. They need to be able to internalise it and then communicate it out confidently.

Often when I ask Scrum Masters what they do and how they help the business get better they struggle. They might be able to give me some idea about what *agility* does and how agility helps the business get better…but how they as a Scrum Master helps? This, they’re not so good at.

  • What would be worse if you weren’t there?
  • What wouldn’t have happened?
  • What is different, and better, because you are there?

Once you can answer this clearly for yourself, the job then is to help others understand this.

I firmly believe that the role of the Scrum Master is more crucial than ever. Despite the challenges and misconceptions surrounding the role, a well-executed Scrum Master role can drive significant value within organisations. By embracing a product owner’s mindset, continuously improving their skills, and effectively communicating their value, Scrum Masters can reclaim their essential place in the agile framework.

If you are a Scrum Master that wants to be part of the Scrum Master Recovery Plan and are seeking to enhance your impact and demonstrate your value, start by investing in your professional development beyond the basics. Focus on understanding your organisation’s needs, adding tangible value, and marketing your contributions effectively.

If you struggle to articulate your value-add and feel you aren’t getting the recognition you and your role deserve then get in touch.

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