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Is the Scrum Master a Full-Time Role or Not?


Scrum Master concept boardThere is always a lot of debate about if Scrum Master is a full-time role.  

And I mean a lot. 

Some camps reference the Scrum Guide, others refer to LinkedIn posts, and yet others base their opinions on this question purely on experience. 

So, who’s right? Does this role require someone to be dedicated full-time? Can they be a “developer” on the team? Can they support multiple teams?

Predictably….it depends.

Let’s answer this question by first asking another. I promise I’m not just channeling one of my favorite Greek philosophers right now. I ask this question because we are asked these questions by our clients all the time. 


Is the Scrum Master Role Really Needed?  

The simple answer is yes, and here is the why. 

We are beginning the process of changing, not just the way we work, but the way we think. 

I’m a sucker for the occasional sports metaphor, especially when they’re as applicable as this one from the world of basketball. Getting five athletic people on a court does not make them a basketball team. Not if you want them to be remotely competent and competitive anyway. 

You need someone there to help coach them on the fundamentals of the game and guide their efforts to get better each day. 

Add in the benefits of someone dedicated to removing impediments so the team can focus on 'playing and learning' and suddenly you wonder why we didn’t have this role a long time ago.

By the way, many teams and organizations who start without someone in that Scrum Master role often quickly find they wish they had. The overall learning curve and rate of improvement are faster with someone dedicated to those things as opposed to hoping we remembered.

Now, does this require a full-time position? 

Well, ask yourself this: if you wanted your basketball team to be competitive and improve quickly, would you feel comfortable placing that responsibility into the hands of a part-time individual? 

I’ve been coaching individuals, teams, and organizations for a long time. If there is one thing that has remained consistent it’s that the team will only improve at the rate the Scrum Master (or team Facilitator) can apply themselves. This has been true with very little variance.

What that tells me is it’s best to have someone dedicated to that role, at least as a team starts. 


Let’s Game Out Four Scenarios

So, what might the permutations of some in the Scrum Master role look like? I’ve seen four common ones worth examining. Each with specific trade-offs depending on what you’re comfortable with the results being. 

     1) The Ideal: You hire someone with experience facilitating this kind of environment. They are dedicated to that team while they improve and get used to the framework and personalities. Eventually, they become empowered around them and become more empowered around the team's continual improvement. 

         Downside: You have to hire someone, and they don’t know the org landscape or players involved.

     2) The Somewhat Ideal: Someone in the company shows the willingness to step up and learn the role and we dedicate them to that role. 

         Downside: They probably need training, they will be learning along with the team (like a want-to-be basketball coach learning coaching 101 so they can eventually lead a new team) and you probably have to backfill their old position.

     3) The Less Ideal: Someone on the actual team takes on that role, in addition to being a “developer”. 

         Downside: They have to split their time between Scrum Master activities and development work. Someone in this role (or roles really) are stuck having to prioritize whether to spend time removing blocker X for someone else or completing that feature\deliverable they’re committed to. 

You’re essentially getting half a developer and half a Scrum Master who is having to context switch between the two. And you know how context switching affects productivity.

     4) Worst Case: We pass the role around the team so it never lands on one person full time. 

         Downside: Where do I begin…it will eventually land on someone who despises the idea of having to do this. Guess how much effort they will put into it. Outside teams have no idea who to work with consistently. No one ever gets into a comfort zone in the role. We question the overall value because no one does it well. A more honest way to say all this is to ask ‘what is the upside?’ It doesn’t exist. 

Every organization will have the ability to embrace this role in different ways, much like the Scrum framework as a whole. You have to work within the constraints you find yourself in while, importantly, not making excuses for why we cannot give the Scrum Master role the best chance to be successful. 

Are we not hiring the role because we don’t consider it that important or don’t have an HR embraced title? Don’t understand it well enough? Guess what, we can hire the role under those same circumstances and simply not provide them the support, trust, and environment to be successful. That won’t work either!


Bobby’s Advice

Start by understanding why the Scrum Master role is there in the first place. Take a deep look at the impact of that role, when done well, on the team and their ability to deliver value and improve faster. Understand the trade-offs involved in someone not being dedicated to that role and be prepared to give them as much support as needed if they are wearing multiple hats. 

Most importantly, be patient with their learning curve and the impact that learning curve is having on how the team can deliver.

If I’m going to take on a role, I want to be the best I can be. I have a feeling many out there feel the same. Hopefully, I get the support I need and the proper expectations are set because I want my team to be “champions”.