The Paradox of the Tough Scrummaster

by Peter Borsella

The Scrum movement has fairly consistently promoted the awareness of command and control behavior compared to inspect and adapt behavior.  ScrumMasters are often advised to be more supportive, to ask thought provoking questions, and to uphold the values and practices we’ve agreed upon.  For example, while upholding the values and practices, one might hear a ScrumMaster say to their team, “Sorry, Team, I know you’d rather meet once a week, but we are going to have a Daily Scrum every day.

Have you ever seen an effective ScrumMaster who uses strong language, maybe even command and control behaviors, with their team outside of the values and practices?  I have, and what I saw made me think of my parents.

Of all the things expected of the characteristics of a good ScrumMaster, let’s talk about the idea of the ScrumMaster being a parent figure.  A parent helps their child grow towards greater levels of confidence and independence.  How does a parent do this?

There was once a day when a parent would not get in trouble with the authorities for allowing their small child to touch a hot stove.  The child approaches the hot stove repeatedly, and the parent repeatedly says, “No - hot!”  Eventually the parent decides that the child might learn more by proceeding with their desire to touch.  Once the child does this, the parent need never worry about saying, “No - hot!” again.

That same child has attempted to run out the front yard into heavy traffic.  No matter how many times the parent has to stop this from happening, they will never reach a point of thinking that maybe the child might learn more by proceeding with their desire.  The parent will always step in front of the child and keep them from certain severe harm.

Similarly, the ScrumMaster helps their team grow towards greater levels of self management and independence.  There are times when the team will want to pursue a course of action that the ScrumMaster knows is not the best path.  The ScrumMaster may decide that it is better for the team to proceed with their desire, knowing that they will suffer in some survivable way, like touching a hot stove, and learn a lesson that will make them wiser in future decision making.

There are also times when the team wants to do something that is the equivalent of running into heavy traffic.  The ScrumMaster knows this, and also may know that this team is at a level of maturity where they would learn more by having someone look out for them and keep them from severe harm.  “No, STOP.  The lesson you will learn is not worth the cost you will pay, and as your ScrumMaster I will not standby and watch this happen,” may be the appropriate response.

Someone observing this ScrumMaster giving the team specific, commanding direction might think this is a poorly behaving ScrumMaster, but judgement should be reserved until all the details are understood.

So, while the most correct answer might be “B” like so much of life, it depends.