Is the Scrum Master dead?
Recently I've started to see a lot of post on social media from other agilists out there claiming that it's time to finally get rid of the Scrum Master role. They claim that this is an old holdover that has outlived it's usefulness and that all the cool kids are no longer using Scrum Masters. Side note: why are there so many whose only contributions to Agile is to simply tear down what other people have found useful? Never understood that one.
Are they right? Is the Scrum Master just waste now and teams no longer need this process expert? Is it time to fire all the Scrum Masters and finally just have developers?
If you can't tell, my emphatic answer to this is no. In fact, I have seen first hand multiple organizations that minimize and de-value the Scrum Master role only to find themselves swimming in issues whose root cause is that, you guessed it, they have de-valued the Scrum Master role. I thought it might be good to look at some of these downstream issues and point back to the root cause to show how a good Scrum Master could help prevented these issues from ever occurring.
One symptom I see is when teams have no understanding of how to use the Scrum framework in practice. They may have attended training and have had enough knowledge to pass a test but when they get in their day-to-day lives on their teams, the framework breaks down and they devolve back to their previous work habits.
Scrum Masters are the process experts. They coach both the Development Team and the Product Owner to get the most out of the framework. They help a team improve, grow their sense of teamwork, and raise their quality standards. Scrum Masters raise the temperature of everyone on the team. Contrast that with hiring a new developer who takes months to get up to speed and start contributing code. A good Scrum Master will start improving everyone on the team from day one with no ramp-up time. The ROI of a Scrum Master, in my opinion, far exceeds that of hiring more developers for a team. If you want your teams to understand the process, you need to have a process expert on the team. That's exactly what a Scrum Master is, by the way.
Another symptom I've seen is the events start to lose their meaning and have no purpose. Teams start asking if they can just skip them because they don't see the point. When they do have them, they are so short that they are not productive. Teams might even start combine two or even three events into one just to get them over with.
In every event in Scrum, the Scrum Guide says that one of a Scrum Master's responsibilities is to make sure that everyone understands the purpose of the event. When Scrum Masters aren't present or when they don't know enough to help others understand the purpose of each event, the events become pointless. Having a good Scrum Master in place serves as a guide through these events and teams get the maximum benefit from them.
Lastly, I've seen teams that are interrupted in their work so often that they rarely can meet their Sprint commitment. Life is a stream of constant interruptions from stakeholders and customers who demand attention on their hot button issue of the moment and teams drop what they are doing to address the issues. The cost of context switching is enormous as developers are constantly shifting gears and are not allowed to focus on one thing at a time.
Scrum Masters are servant leaders to the team. Part of that role is being a shield for the team. Scrum Masters step in and protect the team from outside distractions from their Sprint Goal. If an issue isn't identified as a top priority issue (think Sev 1 issues), it should always go through the Product Owner and be prioritized in the Product Backlog. Scrum Masters are the traffic cops that step in and direct those interrupters to the Product Owner. When they are not present or are not effective, the team can live with constant interruptions.
There are many more that I have seen and all can point back to the fact that organizations try to cut corners with the Scrum Master role. They try to hire the cheapest person they can find for the role or they combine it with someone who is already on the team doing another role. I've even seen organizations who have refused to have Scrum Masters and when they encounter these issues, they are puzzled as to why they are happening.
A good Scrum Master is priceless and the best investment you can make in your teams. If you want to succeed with Scrum, you need good Scrum Masters. They should be your first hire, not your last.
So yes, Virginia, Scrum Masters are still alive and kicking and the need for them is just as strong as it's ever been. If you've been de-valuing the Scrum Master role in your organization, run a test. Hire one very experienced Scrum Master for one of your teams and watch what happens with that team. It won't take long before you'll be making sure the role is never de-valued again in your organization.