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The value of a Scrum Master

The role of Scrum Master is a debate that has been been raging for over a decade. It is hugely misunderstood term and abused all over the world.

I am grateful that this term crossed my life. If it wasn’t for this term “Scrum Master” I would never have truly learned what being a coach means, and how much difference it can make to a team.

Think back to the best manager you ever had. What did they do differently to your other managers? Mostly, when I ask this question, the answers are about listening, understanding, caring and helping. So very few managers take the time to do this. And very few have the time to do this with all their other responsibilities.

Think about a school sports team (maybe soccer or football). They usually have a part-time coach that they work with a few times a week. And they improve slowly. Now think of a national soccer or football team. They usually have a team of coaches working with them on every tiny aspect of what they are doing and how they work together. The coach doesn’t run onto the field to help the team win a match. Instead they observe, make notes, adjust training plans – all to make the next match more successful and to help that team become the best they can be.

The same goes for a team coach. If they are part time whilst having another job, then you are at the school level and you will see small improvements. If they have a few years coaching experience and they are full time, your team will flourish.

Over the last 10 years we have run this following experiment at many companies, large and small.

We explain the Scrum Master role, and ask for a volunteer who would like to try the role for 6 weeks (3 sprints). For those 6 weeks, being a Scrum Master is their full time job, they need to give up their previous job responsibilities (whatever it was) for this 6 week period. It doesn’t mean they can’t share knowledge and pair with others, but their primary responsibility becomes being the team’s coach.

Over that 6 weeks, we work closely with these Scrum Masters, mentoring and coaching them. Often we use the pattern where we take lead for the first sprint, and they observe, For the second sprint we pair with them and work together, and in the third sprint they lead and we observe. We have created a range of training material for new Scrum Masters to help them on this journey. A big part of their role for the 6 weeks is their own learning through following this material, and being coached by us. This material is a good starting point, but having someone experienced to learn from is an accelerated learning experience.

Every time we have done this experiment, within 6 weeks, the team is delivering more in 2 weeks than they even thought possible. In one case we had a team complete all the work they had scheduled for the next 6 months within 6 weeks! Everyone in the team can see the value of a full time Scrum Master, and understands the value of the role. Sometimes the person who volunteered for the role, decides it’s not for them, but whenever that has happened there has been someone else in the team who is eager to try the role, and ends up being their Scrum Master. The increase in productivity and morale of the whole team from a full time Scrum Master, more than covers the salary of an extra person being a Scrum Master.

Consider the following. Assume you have a Team of 5 people all earning $100 per sprint. The total team cost is $500, and their productivity (assuming you could measure it accurately) is X. Remove one person from that team to be a full time Scrum Master. The team still costs $500, but only 4 people are “doing the work”. The other person is focused on helping those 4 people become more productive. Each team member only has to be 25% more productive for the output of 4 people to be equivalent to the output of 5 people.

Now imagine you had someone who’s sole job was improving productivity, and removing things that slow you own. How much do you think they could improve your productivity? What if all your meetings started on time, and were well facilitated? What if information was freely available? What if external dependencies were removed? What is access to customers exactly when you needed them was available? What if every time you had a questions about if you should do x or y, you could get an answer within 5 minutes? What if whenever you were stuck there was someone to talk to to get you unstuck? How much more productive would you be? 25%? 50%? More?

Now, someone new to a coaching/Scrum Master role might not be able to do all these things in 6 weeks, because they are learning and don’t have the experience. But, in 2 years time, this will be the level they are at.

So when I hear that people can’t afford a full time Scrum Master I think to myself, you can’t afford to increase in productivity? If you don’t want to try the experiment above, you can do it another way. Hire an experienced coach or Scrum Master for a short trial. Take the same team that costs $500 per sprint. Add a Scrum Master that costs $100 per sprint. Your costs just went up 20%. It should be simple to tell if the team delivers 20% more value over a short period like 3 months. (Big caveat about being careful to measure value not some proxy of value that can be easily gamed like velocity! But then any decent Scrum Master can show you how to do that.)

What do have to lose? 20% of your team cost for 3 months? What’s the potential upside? A massive productivity and improvement in value delivered? Is this something you can afford NOT to try?

P.S. If you want more details on a team doing the experiment of having 1 team member become a Full Time Scrum Master, be sure to read our Guest Blog Series by Jamie Sands.

P.S.S If you would like to find out more about being a Scrum Master, use our Scrum Master workbook – it will take you on a 15 week journey to understand the role.