26 Nov

Managers as Scrum Masters

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I recently started and participated in a threaded discussion on the LeanAgileScrum Yahoo Group. Although the complete thread is available here, I will condense it here to share what I consider some genuine highlights of this discussion involving a sub-thread with non other than Mary Poppendieck. Yes, that Mary Poppendieck.

Anyway, I have heard much discussion on the point of the manager’s role in Agile over the years. I share this to further muddy the discussion. 

David Starr (me)

I understand all situations are unique, and I am looking for what general prescriptive guidance you would give someone about using team managers as Scrum Masters. Specifically, I am wondering about personnel managers who will have direct supervisory relationships to many of the team members.

This is what Esther Derby has to say on the subject:

Mary Poppendieck

I think that the ScrumMaster role (as canonically defined) usurps the job of a good first line supervisor / team lead.  When supervisors / team leaders understand that their job is to solve problems (remove barriers), preserve knowledge (act as teachers), and grow people (help everyone reach their full potential), the organization probably doesn’t need processes leaders. 

David Starr (me)

I want to follow up on this with all due respect and as a admirer of your work. Have you genuinely seen this come to complete fruition in an organization with over 50 people?

Is it not fair to see the role of personnel supervisor and that of SM as having separate accountability?  To be frank, it is sometimes necessary in the course of human events to tell a team of people what to do.

While one team may embody self organization and emergent behavior, an identically empowered team in the next room may tend toward entropy. The difference hinges on the individuals who compose the teams.

Mary Poppendieck

Hi David,

Here’s what I’ve seen work very successfully in an organization tens of thousands of people engaged in product development:

People are hired by and report to supervisors or managers  who are responsible for their training and career development and supplying them with leadership in an area of a technical specialty. Supervisors are competent to act as technical leaders in the area they supervise, since they have technical expertise in the area themselves.  They understand that their job is to create and preserve knowledge in their field and “grow people” who are competent in the field.  (Think of a major professor at a university, but in a company.)

People are assigned by their supervisor or manager to work on a product teams, which are led by a competent technical leaders who also has a deep understanding of the market and are responsible for the business success of the product.  (We called these people product champions.)  The champion provides team leadership, while supervisors assign people to the team and makes sure they have the guidance, technical support and backup when they need it.  The champion is not a ScrumMaster in the sense of being a process leader, because champions also lead the team in accomplishing most of the work Scrum assigns to the Product Owner:  getting a good sense of what customers really want, deciding how to prioritize the work, etc.  In addition, they provide the technical guidance of a technical architect, or make sure that such leadership is in place.

In some companies the champion is more than one person, but if so, the people in this role are “joined at the hip” in the sense of working together to accomplish the job of a champion. 

In this kind of an environment, a process leader might be needed when a new process is introduced, but over time leadership devolves to supervisors – who grow people –  and champions – who grow businesses. 

David Starr (me)


That makes perfect sense and sounds like Nirvana for many of us reading, I imagine J.  Your previous comments left me thinking you advocated a completely flat organization structure with no reporting structures in place. This is a wonderfully succinct description of a well functioning organization and I will be forwarding this conversation to the executive staff in my organization.

Thank you.

See, Kevin! I told you she wasn’t a communist :).

Mary Poppendieck

Nah, I’m a firm believer in leadership – generally things go better that way. 🙂