The harmfulness of Scrum Master double roles and what you can do about it

The other day I had an intense conversation with managers about the topic of double roles of a Scrum Master. One of the managers was also a Scrum Master. He and his superior defended the viewpoint that it is a great idea to have one person being the line manager for the teams and at the same time being the Scrum Master for the same team. Based on my observations about the typical dysfunctions created by this kind of set-up, I express my thinking that the Scrum Master must be a dedicated role if the organization is seriously wanting to introduce Scrum. As a result, I was labeled kind of religious and “inflexible to adapt to their thinking”.

My first learning was that it is pointless to convince others of your view and the statement “own versus rent” has proven itself once more. People need to generate those insights by themselves and not be told by a “guru”.

I dug up some of my old work on this subject and I present you with an overview of different combinations I have seen during my work life including my view on the pros and cons.

Combination

Pros

Cons

A team member has the additional role of SM for the team (often this person downgrades to a “team & tool secretary” => not recommended)

No additional headcount. SM might be very engaged and involved in the work, really part of the team

Potential conflict of interests, and Scrum implementation might suffer from lack of attention. There may be a conflict especially between doing the team tasks and working with the organization. Further, it might result in situations of having a “facilitator with an opinion” (one person having both facilitator and contributor roles).

The PO has the additional role of SM for the team (not recommended!!!)

 

 

 

 

 

No additional headcount. PO has a high interest that teams deliver and perform

Potential conflicts of interests. PO has a significant role in e.g. Product backlog refinement and planning sessions, and might not have the time and interest to take the facilitator role. In any case “facilitator with an opinion” contains risks, and the PO should also make decisions => too many roles for one person: facilitator, contributor, decision-maker. Who protects the team from PO? Scrum master should protect the team from interruptions from e.g. the PO and this might be difficult to do. The PO might become the team leader and hinder the team from becoming a self-managed team.

The team members’ line manager has the additional role of SM (IMO the cons outweigh the pros thus not recommended)

No additional headcount, the LM has a high interest that the team performs (and often in coaching the team to become self-managed). Very often the LMs have facilitation skills. This might work if the LM has already a coaching attitude.

Potential conflict of interests, Scrum Master role might not be fully aligned with other roles of the LM. LM has rewarding and coercive power and this typically will make team members less open to discuss and express problems. Again facilitator with an opinion and (some) decision-making power. LM might hinder the team from becoming self-managed, especially if the LM has made most decisions in the past.

The line manager has the additional role of SM for another team (IMO the cons outweigh the pros thus not recommended)

 

No additional headcount. The LM is more neutral towards the team and the focus of the Scrum implementation might be high. Maybe less conflict of interest as the LM is not rewarding the Scrum team members directly.

Potential conflict of interests; which is the true team for the LM – “Scrum” team or line team? LM might have no interest in helping the “Scrum” team or might not be enough present for his own team. The trust might be easily broken if a team perceives the situation that their SM listens more to his other LM colleague than to the team. Thus some kind of implicit and/or perceived rewarding and coercive power might still be in place.

Conclusion

I can not recommend any of these combinations as the cons in all those combinations outweigh the pros. Most companies do the combination for saving money, and this is in IMHO the wrong place to start saving money. Having a dedicated Scrum Master allows this person to fulfill the role of an SM without conflicts of interest, and support, coach, help the teams, the PO, and especially work with the organization (in collaboration with the managers) to create the environment in which teams can succeed.

What to do about it?

The biggest hurdle seems that organizations need to do their own learning. Therefore I suggest you make experiments in your organization. Try out a dedicated Scrum Master in comparison to the combination you face in your organization. Reflect after 2-6 Sprints on the results, and then adapt based on your findings. Yes, this will take time and energy. The easier way might be to follow the principle of Shu-Ha-Ri and adopt the collective learnings from the past 15 years (and e.g. the empirically-created LeSS rule): The Scrum Master is a dedicated role.

The harmfulness of Scrum Master double roles and what you can do about it
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