Scrum Master Anti-Patterns — An Introduction
An Excerpt from the Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide (1)
The reasons Scrum Masters violate the spirit of the Scrum Guide are multi-faceted. Typical Scrum Master anti-patterns run from ill-suited personal traits to complacency, pursuing individual agendas, and misunderstanding the role itself.
The Scrum Master According to the Scrum Guide
Before we start dissecting probable reasons and manifestations of Scrum Master anti-patterns, let us revisit how the Scrum Guide defines the role of the Scrum Master:
The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum, aiding all in understanding its theory and practice.
They are responsible for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness, enabling practice improvements within the Scrum framework.
Scrum Masters act as servant leaders for the Scrum Team and the larger organization.
They serve the Scrum Team by coaching self-management and cross-functionality, focusing on high-value Increments, removing impediments, and ensuring effective Scrum events.
They aid the Product Owner through effective Product Goal definition, Product Backlog management, promoting understanding of clear backlog items, enabling empirical planning, and facilitating stakeholder collaboration.
Serving the organization, Scrum Masters lead Scrum adoption, plan and advise on implementations, promote understanding of empirical approaches, and remove barriers between stakeholders and Scrum Teams.
The keystone of the Scrum Master role is leadership1. (Too bad, it is officially no longer called “servant leadership;” I found that description to be better suited.)
Unfortunately, in many cases of Scrum Master anti-patterns, it is precisely this idea that an individual does not meet.
Possible Reasons Why Scrum Masters Leave the Path
Some often-observed reasons for Scrum Masters not behaving as intended are:
(1) Ignorance or Laziness: One size of Scrum fits every team. Your Scrum Master learned the trade in a specific context and is now rolling out precisely this pattern in whatever organization they are active, no matter the context. Why go through the hassle of teaching, coaching, and mentoring if you can shoehorn the “right way” directly into any Scrum Team?
(2) Lack of Patience: Patience is a critical resource that a successful Scrum Master needs to field in abundance. But, of course, there is no fun in readdressing the same issue several times, rephrasing it probably, if the solution is so obvious—from the Scrum Master’s perspective. So, why not tell them how to do it ‘right’ all the time, thus becoming more efficient? Too bad that Scrum cannot be pushed but needs to be pulled—that’s the essence of self-management.
(3) Dogmatism: Some Scrum Masters believe in applying the Scrum Guide literally, which unavoidably will cause friction as Scrum is a framework, not a methodology. Nevertheless, teaching Scrum that way feels good:
Team members come and ask for help; now, the Scrum Master has a purpose.
When Scrum Team members follow the rules, the Scrum Master has influence or authority.
Being among the chosen few who interpret the Scrum Guide “correctly” secures status and respect among teammates and the broader organization.
The Scrum Master may easily attribute the Scrum Team’s progress or success to their teaching; now, they also have proof regarding their mastery of Scrum.
Finally, their mastering of Scrum is a convincing argument for the organization to keep the dogmatic Scrum Master on the payroll; apparently, the Scrum Teams need an interpreter of the Scrum Guide to reap the framework’s benefits.
(4) Laissez-faire Turned into Indifference: Pointing the team in a direction where the team members can find a solution for an issue is good leadership. However, letting them run without guidance all the time sooner or later may turn into indifference or an I-do-not-care mentality.
(5) Dolla, Dolla, Bill Ya’ll—the Scrum Master Imposter: Secretly, the Scrum Master believes that this Scrum thingy is a fad but recognizes that it is well-paid: “I will weather the decline in demand for project managers by getting a Scrum Master certificate. How hard can this probably be—the manual is merely 13 pages?”
(6) Frustration: The Scrum Master has been working their butt off for months, but the team is not responding to the effort. The level of frustration is growing. There are many potential reasons for a failure at this level:
The lack of sponsoring from the C-level of the organization,
A widespread belief that ‘Agile’ is just the latest management fad, and thus ignorable.
The team composition may be wrong, some team members despising Scrum,
There is no psychological safety to address the team’s problems,
The company culture values neither transparency nor radical candor, or
Individual team members harbor personal agendas unaligned with the team’s objective—to name a few.
Ultimately the Scrum Master cannot solve this issue by themselves; its fixing is an effort of the whole Scrum Team.
(7) The tactical Scrum Master: The tactical Scrum Master: These Scrum Masters drank HR's cool-aid that Scrum Master is a position, not a role. Moreover, there is a career path from Junior Scrum Master to VP of Agile Coaching. Consequently, they constrain their work strictly to the Scrum Team level until being promoted.
(8) Lastly, the rookie: If you apply Occam's razor2 to the situation, you may conclude that your Scrum Master has not yet defected to the dark side. They might merely be inexperienced. Given that we all need to learn new skills regularly, cut them some slack in this case, and reach out to support their learning effort. Scrum is a journey, not a destination, and no one on the team travels alone.
Starting next week, we will explore several specific Scrum Master anti-patterns, from the “Agile Manager” to “Tracking Flawed or Useless Metrics” to “No Slack Time” to “Defining Technical Solution.”
If you have any questions, please let me know.
Ken Schwaber & Jeff Sutherland: The Scrum Guide — The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game, 2020.