The Case for Well-Rounded Scrum Masters

The Case for Well-Rounded Scrum Masters

I stumbled upon this discussion on LinkedIn about whether Scrum Masters need technical skills—in the most austere point, software development chops. 

I’ll capture the initial post by Stephanie Cully—

Take advice from people you actually want advice from. 👀

There is no research that shows that technical Scrum Masters make better coaches. In fact, in certain cases, having extensive tech experience can actually hinder your ability to concentrate on coaching and lead to excessive emphasis on technical details.

Carry on Scrum Masters. 👏

And then a response by Viktor Grgic—

Scrum Master has to know product development, since the point of the job is to help improve product development (which includes tech and more) through coaching. You can’t coach something without knowing the profession. Scrum itself is not a profession, and just really small area of required knowledge. Same for coaching itself. SM coaches product development. The coaching part is a skill and not the profession. SMs are not professional coaches. Too many SMs also assume the job is only about people or process. Ironically, this thinking leads to failure in both and not being taken seriously by both tech people and managers.

I don’t think we are helping anyone without clarity and encouragement to learn way more than rather limited view on what SM does or arbitrary personal preferences.

Tech experience doesn’t hinder anything. Overemphasis on tech does, but it has nothing to do with experience. In contrary, limited knowledge leads to overemphasis on some area at cost of others an SM is not familiar with.

“There is no research” is a flawed argument since there is no research of the opposite either.

And one final response from Huy Nguyen—

The converse (non-tech SMs make for good coaches) is also unprovable (or less provable).

Say what you want but it’s rare that there is an exceptional SM that has zero technical skill. Show me one and I will tell you that they’re a purple unicorn.

I will say that non-tech coaches have a huge blind spot that can cause them to fail that they likely won’t understand. Seen this myself over and over. You cannot coach what you aren’t (or at least grasp).

First, I want to applaud Stephanie for her courage in posting such a controversial topic on LinkedIn. I also want to celebrate her for reacting so well to the comments. What a powerful role model!

I surprisingly got emotional as I read many of the comments, as the majority seemed to be skewed toward the view that Scrum Masters need technical chops, without acknowledging the importance of other attributes or skills.

From my perspective, I think it’s a simple point—do more narrow skills or broadly well-rounded skills better benefit the Scrum Master role or accountability?

Here is a snapshot of my own experience observing, hiring, coaching, and interacting with Scrum Masters for the past ~20 years. I’ve personally witnessed—

  • Business Analysts who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Software Testers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Project Managers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Software Developers (front-end, back-end, full-stack, etc.) who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Teachers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Product Managers and similar roles who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Social Workers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Functional Managers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • DevOps Engineers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • UX Engineers who could either be great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • Pick your background or role…who could either be a great Scrum Masters or suck at it;

  • I could go on…

What’s the point? Technical, Product, or Business skills are NOT the sole prerequisites for success as a Scrum Master. Period! You can be great at any of those and still suck at being an effective Scrum Master (or agile coach for that matter).

Getting stuck on…a Scrum Master must look like this __________________ IMHO is a huge mistake.

I think the better view is to find well-rounded, experienced Scrum Masters who understand the expectations of their roles and who are—

  • Insatiably curious,

  • Continuous learners,

  • Humble, with a servant-oriented mindset,

  • Principled and ethical agilists,

  • Skilled across a broad set of competencies,

With a diversity of experience. These are Scrum Masters who deeply understand that “no one thing” will make them a great Scrum Master. These are craftsman Scrum Masters who are constantly refining and growing their skills.

No, this is not an academic study, and no, I don’t have reams of data to support my opinions or hypothesis. And, yes, this is solely based on my personal experience.

But all that said, the BEST Scrum Masters I’ve ever worked with were…well-rounded, and not all were “technical.” And, no Huy, none of them were Purple Unicorns 😉

Finally, and again, I want to applaud Stephanie for her courage in sharing the original post and her professionalism in handling all of the replies. I hope she continues to share her voice and experience.

I also hope that we as a community stop limiting ourselves as to who can operate in what role. We need a bit more open-mindedness when it comes to diversity of skills.

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

Postscript

Another post by Stephanie and here’s a post around the notion of Full Stack Scrum Masters, by Anthony Mersino.

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