Over the past few months, I have asked dozens of Scrum Masters for their inputs on the top challenges that they face as a Scrum Master within or without an Agile organization. What keeps them up at night? What is one problem if solved would make their jobs much easier?
The list below is compiled from their answers, with commentary and advice from me.
#1: Scrum Master as Extra Role Instead a Contributing Member
This new role can be confusing and misleading, especially the name – Scrum Master. This person is not the boss of Scrum or the team. Instead, he or she is an enabler and roadblock crusher that allows the team to become excellent at what they do.
ADVICE – Get the confused individuals and managers to watch the video entitled “Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell” to clarify the magnitude of Agile and how the Scrum Master is needed to achieve excellence in product development with knowledge of the product as well as the approach.
#2: Scrum Master as Admin
Often the Scrum Master is tasked with booking meetings, scheduling events, taking notes, and inviting people to ceremonies. This may happen but it is not the primary function of the Scrum Master. This role is all about making or enabling the team to be awesome.
ADVICE – Begin to broaden your work by connecting with those upstream and downstream from the team. Start to communicate and share learning from those discussions. Become known as someone who is courageous and able to solve sticky problems. Identify key problems that people want fixed and begin making the problem become less impactful.
#3: Scrum Master as Not Necessary
When an agile team is first formed, a dedicated and talented Scrum Master can quickly help a team overcome and go through the four stages of a team development. Plus, this person can greatly enhance the team’s ability to get the mechanics of Scrum to become a habit. This is needed at the start. Once the team is fully operational, then the Scrum Master shifts the approach to system-wide thinking, organizational culture, and scaling of agile to other willing groups.
ADVICE – Connect with other Scrum Master to learn how they helped their management and teams to see their true value. There are some great LinkedIn groups.
#4: Lack of Commitment from Senior Management
I have seen this one at almost every single company that I have for as an employee or as a consultant. Too often did one person determine that moving to agile was the solution. And this is done without buy-in from most of the senior management group.
ADVICE – Forget about talking to senior management about agile. Instead, find out the problems that they are trying to solve and then use agile to help.
#5: Long-Term (or Collocated) Teams over Resources that can be Moved
This one is quite hard. It requires a new way of thinking about people. People are not resources. People are not money, trees, or computers. We have value beyond our employee id. And, there is a belief that is commonly held which states that a collocated team is not important because the work changes, so must the people change. This is incorrect.
ADVICE – Share data-driven articles on the value of long-standing teams by companies such as Google or Apple. Then have an open and constructive conversation with HR and senior management. Discuss the value of experienced team members over training new members.
#6: Fear of Transparency
A common management mistake is to accumulate power at the expense of their staff. This is all too present in large global companies where the size and power of your empire (those that you control) is seen as an asset and positive for personal performance. This is a mistake. Transparency does not sit well in this environment.
ADVICE – Identify keys areas that senior management would like to get visibility into. Then slowly build on those areas through regular discussions and input. Describe how this transparency will help each leader in making more-informed decisions that will aid his/her group and the company.
#7: Team Success Conflicts with Individual Performance Reviews
One critical aspect of a good Scrum Master is to help the team succeed. As the team succeeds, the perceived individual value of Scrum Master diminishes. This is problematic when you are working at a company that praises and pays its staff based on individual goal accomplishments.
ADVICE – Work with your direct manager to create team/individual performance goals. Then connect with HR to further establish this shifting approach. This will take some time.
#8: Conflicting Expectations from Management
It is common for one manager to expect the Scrum Master to make the team work harder, another manager to expect statistics, a third wants higher productivity, and a fourth to support the team’s ability to solve problems. With all of these conflicting messages, it can be tough for the Scrum Master to be successful.
ADVICE – Ask for clarity from your direct manager and the key sponsor on what you are expected to do in this role. Then ask for what is out of scope for your job. Make these two lists visible and refer to them when discussing with all other managers and teams.
#9: Lack of Agile Training for the Teams
As the Scrum Master for the team, you would hope that some or all of your team members have foundational agile training. This would aid in your ability to have meaningful conversations and be able to get on the same page. However, this is usually missing when the Scrum Master is added to the team.
ADVICE – Start training the team yourself. There is a reasonable expectation that the Scrum Master has more expertise in using agile than others on the team. Doing this training will also build credibility with your team members as well as other stakeholders that you will invite to your training sessions.
#10: Lack of Agile Understanding Between the Doers and Others
An agile team quickly gains abilities, skills, language, and concepts that are foreign and potentially scary to those not on the team. This gap can quickly become a problem as the team moves farther away from the pervious approach to doing work.
ADVICE – Invite others to agile training sessions, have them observe your agile ceremonies, ask for their input doing planning sessions, and create info sessions to make this new language and approach easier to understand.
#11: Time Boxing of Agile Meetings
A key aspect of agile ceremonies (aka meetings) is to restrict the maximum amount of time allowed to focus the team or group on completing the goal of the ceremony. This is true for all major meetings in the various agile frameworks. Unfortunately, they can be derailed easily by unfocused participants, lack of clarity of its intended purpose, distractions, and individuals who take-over the meeting.
ADVICE – Start with one of the ceremonies (such as the Daily Scrum), explain that your team will experiment with following a strict time-box for this meeting. Then share this with all surrounding individuals. Once this is successful, expand into the other ceremonies.
#12: Managing Scope Changes
Technically, it is not the job of the Scrum Master to manage the flow of work – this falls on the shoulders of the Product Owner. However, since it is the job of the Scrum Master to enable the team to be the best that it can be, he or she should help out as much as possible. It is common for work to be thrown at the team throughout the Sprint and without much warning.
ADVICE – Proactively work with the Product Owner to collect incoming requests daily, if necessary, from the stakeholders. This can reduce the noise for the team members and you can also help those stakeholders to understand the value and shift to this agile way of working.
#13: Scrum is Not Only for Development
Since Scrum was created from those doing development, it has that flavor and focus. However, it (and many other agile frameworks) have been used in diverse industries such as community building, transportation, media, and education. This misunderstanding makes people believe that Scrum is a project management approach instead of what it really is – a highly effective learning framework.
ADVICE – Research how other departments (that your company has) have used Scrum (or other agile frameworks) – share this with your stakeholders and connected departments. Introduce simple practices that are useful for others to establish such as a Kanban board or the Daily Scrum.
#14: Getting Timely Resolution from Outside the Team
Since those around the team often don’t understand the value of an agile way of working, they often don’t understanding why a timely fix to a problem has a big impact on the team’s ability to deliver. The team’s ability to delivery each Sprint can be quickly hampered by obstacles. And, it is the Scrum Masters job to make sure that these obstacles are removed as soon as humanly possible.
ADVICE – Seek out connected groups and individuals to build up relationship of trust and common understanding. Do this early in the adopting of agile. this can greatly reduce the amount and severity of obstacles that affect the team.
#15: Unhealthy Relationship Between the Scrum Master and the Product Owner
The Product Owner and Scrum Master are meant to be partners in supporting the overall goals and needs of the team. Unfortunately, unhealthy dynamics such as competition, animosity, power struggles, and a breakdown of communication surface in this new relationship. This can greatly harm the health and success of the team.
ADVICE – Find common ground and opportunities to support the success of the Product Owner. Build a kind, supportive, healthy, and mutually beneficial relationship with this person. It must be genuine and consistent.
#16: Shifting Mindset from Waterfall to Agile
Once a company starts on the path to using an agile framework, it creates tension between this approach and the more traditional (or waterfall) approach. This tension often manifests in conflict, misunderstanding, power struggles, and dismissive behaviors.
ADVICE – Demonstrate real value to those around the team. Present videos of the benefits of agile, demonstrate hard data on your team’s success of delivering products and involve them in your process and your progress.
#17: Lack of Team Space
One element that greatly excels the adoption and effectiveness of an agile approach is a dedicated team space/room. I have seen some amazing examples of team spaces that allow for team discussions and at the same time noise reduction for those around the team. Most often, a team space is considered a luxury and not prioritized since the team is often not seen as long-standing. I once observed a senior manager give up his office and the one to next to it for a team to have a dedicated space – this showed true buy-in for the agile transformation.
ADVICE – Seek out an advocate for agile in senior management. Get them on board to pilot a team room to see the value of doing this experiment. Get support for this to last at least 3 months to gather sufficient data and agree on how the two of you will measure success.
#18: Agile Meetings Not Valued
Meetings can be seen as necessary evils within an organization – sometimes this is true. However, the core agile meetings are high-value and simple. They are meant to give the team time to collaborate, solve problems, and be prepared for upcoming work. When done well, the meetings have the ability to accelerate learning which in turn improves productivity, quality, and employee satisfaction.
ADVICE – Present the purpose of each of the agile meetings and how they differ from status meetings, update meetings, town halls, and other common meetings. Then slowly improve each meeting while seeking feedback from the participants.
#19: Absent Product Owners
This happens way too often. The Product Owner is “busy” with things that don’t support the work of the team and/or misses the core agile meetings regularly. This behavior can cause confusion, mistrust, quality issues, and an unwillingness by the team members to give agile a fair chance to succeed.
ADVICE – Build a strong relationship with the Product Owner. Learn about this person’s schedule and responsibilities. Work closely with this person and their manager to clarify the goal and purpose of the Product Owner to enable success for the team.
#20: Multiple Teams Supported by a Scrum Master
The most effective agile teams had a single Scrum Master (at the beginning) to accelerate learning and productivity of the team. It requires plenty of lift by the Scrum Master in the areas of education, support, advice, mentoring, training, obstacle removal, transparency, and communication. However, many companies have part-time Scrum Masters that are unable to fully realize and enable the potential of their teams.
ADVICE – Work with your management to shift most of your time to a single team and then work closely with a single team member on the second team to shadow you and take on the Scrum Master responsibilities on a temporary basis.
#21: Constraints, Constraints, Constraints
At every company, there are perceived constraints (ones that can be removed if a shift mindset and purpose occurs) and real constraints (that may or may not be removed with great effort). Some of these constraints are around people (thoughts, behaviors, and styles), process (reporting, hierarchy, and steps), and technology (tools, applications, and systems). Each of these could block the Scrum Master’s ability to enable the success of the team.
ADVICE – List out the perceived and real constraints that slow down or block the team’s ability to deliver value. Prioritize them through discussion with others and then begin to remove them. Seek out sponsors and leaders that can help.
Which of the above challenges do you face as a Scrum Master? Did I miss one that is affecting you or your colleagues?
All Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, Product Owners, and Change Leader face challenges and obstacles to their goals. Many of these issues are related to the learned behaviors and structures of the organization. many are quite hard to overcome. At the same, don’t become complacent or accept these challenges – if you do, then it might be time for a real change or a new company to call your own. On the other hand, seek out like-minded change leaders and participants that value empowerment, transparency, and other values that are core to your person then work together. Unity and collaboration bring about positive change in one’s life and environment.
Thanks and continue to look for opportunities to be real, use agility as means not the end, humility, and kindness with all those around you.
Paul J. Heidema