This is a transcript of episode 166 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Vasco Duarte, master of Scrum, issues a call to arms for all scrum masters: you have nothing to lose but your estimates and feature factories! Noted Scrum sceptic Squirrel questions Vasco vigorously on what Scrum Masters do and discovers that Vasco’s view of the role is very different from the traditional one.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So today we have another special guest: Vasco Duarte, coming to us all the way from Helsinki, Finland. Vasco, welcome to Troubleshooting Agile.

Vasco: Thank you for having me!

Squirrel: I think you’re very brave, coming on to talk to us about Scrum Masters which I’m well known for not understanding. I’m really hopeful that you can explain this to me.

Jeffrey: Before we get into that, though, can you just give us a bit for our audience about who you are and why we should listen to you about Scrum Masters?

Vasco: Absolutely. Some of your listeners will probably have heard me on the Scrum Master Toolbox podcast, which is a daily podcast for Scrum Masters, inviting them to reflect, learn, and take action every day to make their part of the world a better place. Others might know me from the NoEstimates conversation, something that started in 2012. From then on, I started developing ideas and approaches that allow our teams to work and deliver reliably and frequently without spending all of that time in boring estimation meetings. That’s maybe a topic for another episode, though.

Squirrel: Oh it would be a wonderful episode! I’m a big fan of not estimating.

Jeffrey: One of things I find very intriguing here is as we mentioned, Squirrel is a bit of a skeptic about the Scrum Master role, and you use a very interesting phrase: you talked about the aspirations Scrum Masters should have, and you have a ‘call to arms’ for them. That sounds very radical and energising. What is this? What is your vision for what Scrum Masters could be that you don’t find common today?

Vasco: I’m sure you guys have worked with many companies that decide to adopt Agile. They start a transformation, typically with hiring consultants, Agile coaches that come in and help that transformation get started. So far, so good. The problem starts when the Agile coaches leave the company, either because the contract ends or they shift focus from the teams to working with leadership. Then the Scrum Masters are left to pick up the pieces. Now, if you are ‘lucky’ enough, there are no longer project managers in that organisation and Scrum Masters have to do all of that work, some of the work that was done previously by middle managers, and work that was done by Agile coaches as well, such as helping teams adopt the right technical practises. This is a lot of responsibility! Many Scrum Masters are not ready to take that responsibility. In some cases they didn’t learn those things are therefore unable to push those ideas and those conversations that the transformation requires forward. But the other problem is that they don’t really have visibility at decision-making levels in the company because all of that was going to the change agents and Agile coaches that were hired to start that transformation. Of course, after they left I literally heard a CEO ask ‘who are these Scrum Masters and why do we have so many of them?’ as he was firing them all because he had the same view that Squirrel has: ‘I don’t know what these Scrum Masters do.’ Well, if you don’t show what you’re doing to your decision-makers, they’re going to think you’re doing nothing. So we really need to wake up as Scrum Masters and understand that it is our responsibility to be part of that transformation conversation. To work together with Agile coaches while they are there, but then to continue that work with leadership, with middle management, and across departments to guarantee that the transformation doesn’t end. Because once all Scrum Masters go away, you know what happens next: you hire an army of project managers and they put you back into Waterfall because that’s how project management works.

Squirrel: A call to arms for Scrum Masters to be relevant is music to my ears, because I often find them irrelevant. I often find them in the late stage where maybe a bunch of them have been fired or they’ve given up and it’s really not working. But you haven’t convinced me yet. What do these people do concretely? What is different at the end of the day when an effective Scrum Master has finished his or her work? And I want to be clear, for folks who are listening, this is a genuine question. I simply haven’t found out what they do yet. So if you could help me, I’d really appreciate it.

An Acceptable 17 Billion Dollar Loss

Listen to this section at 06:16

Vasco: So, I wrote an article recently in the scope of an event I’m organising—the Scrum Master Summit—where I explain that Scrum Master is the role where future CEOs go to learn to be CEOs. That article is based on a podcast episode with Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing and Ford. When he was at Ford he famously helped the company turn around, and in the episode he describes a meeting where his results say Ford is about to lose 17 billion US dollars that year. His direct reports, all high-powered executives, and every one of them is giving green lights across the board. Now, you ask yourselves, ‘how is it possible that everything is a-OK and we’re still losing 17 billion dollars a year?’ Of course, that’s not possible. So what does a great Scrum Master do in that situation? This is not unfamiliar, where everybody is saying everything is fine and of course you know it isn’t. What Allen did was he patiently waited for the first team member to say ‘hey, I’ve got a problem and I need help’ and he starts clapping. He doesn’t do a big speech, he doesn’t chastize the people who didn’t share their first red light. He just claps. He rewards the behaviour that he wants to see from other team members. Because Alan Mulally is running a large business, he doesn’t actually do anything. It’s the people that work for him that do the work. That sounds exactly like a scrum master. He models and encourages the right behaviour, and of course helps the team collaborate and find a solution for that team member who was in trouble. And lo and behold, after that a lot more team members were happy to come forward and share their challenges and get help.

The Role of a Scrum Master

Listen to this section at 09:05

Vasco: One of the most difficult jobs of the Scrum Master is being patient. I understand why Squirrel thinks that some patient Scrum Masters might not do anything, but the role of the Scrum Master is not to do for the team what the team needs to do for itself. It is to create the conditions, start the conversations, ask the questions, and to look around and see what they can use to probe the team to actually take responsibility for the work that they’re doing. You ask me, Squirrel, what is the difference at the end of the day between a team with a great Scrum Master and one without? Let me give two cases. If you look at executive meetings, you will quickly recognise that they are not well facilitated meetings. They tend to go until the highest ranking person in the room says ‘OK, let’s adjourn. What are our next steps? Let’s meet again.’ They don’t tend to be very well structured in the way they address topics. They probably don’t have a backlog. It’s just whatever is important at that time. They define OKRs that they never follow up because OKR is a process that HR is pushing, ‘I manage my team my way,’ et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then you look at great Agile teams and they are exactly the opposite. They are very structured, the meetings are limited in time on purpose. For example, daily stand-up is limited to five to ten minutes. They are very responsible with the time, so much so that they plan their work in very clear time boxes. If you are doing Kanban, they have a very clear cadence and they stick to it. They are very disciplined about learning and how they improve their work. They tend to be very collaborative and solve each other’s problems. These are contrasting teams. One with no scrum master—I would argue that leadership teams are the ones that most need a scrum master—and another team that is very disciplined, that delivers regularly, that learns and listens to the people around them, whether they are stakeholders, other teams or even customers. That’s a difference a Scrum Master can make.

Squirrel: So if I understood you right, what the Scrum Master does is listen to the team, observe where there are challenges the team might or might not be aware of, help to clear those obstacles, make sure that the team runs smoothly, follows processes effectively, sticks to its values and delivers on time. Is that an accurate description? Did I miss anything?

Vasco: So I would say that that’s exactly what I said but it’s not the essence of the role. A Scrum Master does all of those things, but the way I would describe my role personally as a Scrum Master is to help teams reach a level of performance that they themselves didn’t think was possible.

Squirrel: So improve the team’s performance?

Vasco: It is not just improving performance because that gets us back to the language of you push on them something that they need to do, and that’s totally different from helping.

Squirrel: Very good point. So what we would add is that we help the team to achieve a level of performance they didn’t think was possible. Excellent. We’re going to stop right here in the middle of Vasco’s exciting points and my interesting debate with him and make you come back next week so that we can keep to our nice short format.