The Scrum Master's Umbrella

To entirely mis-quote a recent production of Cosi Fan Tutte, the idea that it is the Scrum Master's role to protect the team from outside influences is something akin to the Lost City of El Dorado - frequently talked about, but seldom seen.

It is, of course, part of Scrum orthodoxy that this be the case. The Servant-Leader ensuring that the team is able to progress its work by removing any impediments encountered, and ensuring that distractions from elsewhere within the organisation are controlled. The reality, however, often seems somewhat different.

It be former Project Managers finding themselves re-roled as Scrum Masters. Introducing Scrum or other Agile disciplines into an organisation that isn't used to it. Or even contractual constraints that were written on the assumption of a Waterfall approach. There are any number of competing pressures the Scrum Master is going to have to deal with over the course of a project.

In my experience, both as a team member and a Scrum Master, the 'Servant' side of the equation almost always seems to come more naturally. The 'inward-looking' part of the role should be easy - an empowered team, once it gets into flow, should be relatively low maintenance. This is the Scrum Master as a guide, mentor, and offering the occasional push in the right direction. As long as everyone is headed in the same direction, the team should almost take care of itself.

There are, as previously noted, two sides to the equation, and it is on the 'Leader' side that weaknesses tend to appear, as this is where the pressure is being applied. Depending on the organisation this may be with other teams, from management above, or even directly from customers. Co-ordinating resources and handling interruptions is usually a management or organisational issue, and can generally be taught and/or learned. It's in handling the pressure from above that the Scrum Master is really going to have to earn his money.

The problem with pressure applied to a team from above is that it's almost always comes with an element of authority to it. Be it Line Management or project funding related, there will almost certainly be an assumption by the person making the request that they're entitled to do so. And it's here where the Scrum Master must lead rather than manage - being able to stand up to someone that is potentially much higher up the corporate food chain (and may be directly responsible your progression within the organisation), is not necessarily something that comes naturally to people. But, being able to hold that umbrella up and protect the Scrum team is something that will pay dividends in terms of delivery (and indeed developer happiness!).

It is often easier, in these circumstances, for the Scrum Master to follow the path of least resistance - "Sorry team, my hands are tied - this has come from above" is a refrain I know I've heard more than once. But by adopting that position, the Scrum Master is basically ducking the 'difficult' part of their role, and allowing their team to pay the price. Yet this is exactly where the role adds most value.

One of the values espoused in the British Army is of having 'Moral Courage' - that we do what is right, not necessarily what is easiest or most convenient. It's a standard that the Scrum Master should also hold himself to.

About the Author: Chris is an experienced Software Developer, having been cutting code for organisations large and small since graduating in 2000. He currently specialises in building simple, secure, and elegant Java-based backend services. An Agile enthusiast and Certified Scrum Master, you can find his professional profile at LinkedIn. Away from work you'll probably find him playing football, training for various obstacle course and endurance events, or with his feet up having injured himself doing one.