Empower your Scrum Masters

It is all very well people talking about Agile and how great it is, but giving good advice on how to take steps to get there, without being there, is difficult – and there is a good reason, change is a hugely personal, context dependent issue, therefore advice without an intimate understanding of your situation can be damaging. However I have recently aligned a few thoughts in my head following personal experiences, discussions with others and some powerful presentations I have attended, and believe that there are a few generic steps that can help.

There are three concepts that I think neatly reinforce each other: 

Firstly there is an acceptance that an empowered team is a positive force; Dan Pink’s work gives credence to what many Agile deliveries have empirically shown in recent years, but how to achieve empowerment? You can think of power as points, you can only redistribute them, not change the quantity as it is the ratios of power that are important. So giving more points to the team means that they are coming from somewhere, and that is usually the first hurdle – people don’t like ceding power.

Secondly, related to this, is the quandary that traditionally minded organisations have with how to promote a Scum Master. People have to move up, there are levels… and typically each level dictates to a greater or lesser degree to the level below. That DICTATION implies a lack of empowerment at the level below. Some organisations attempt to navigate round this by promoting Scrum Masters to Agile coaches; whilst this is a possible career path I think this unsustainable and it requires great patience and abstraction to be a good coach – so as to not become an “Agile” dictator, that imposes lots of good processes but fundamentally misses the point, disempowering the teams under their CONTROL.

A better answer to the Scrum Master promotion question, is one that starts to challenge the traditional hierarchy, instead of actively moving the person up, instead, remove the person above them. Now the Scrum Master retains their team awareness but can bring the responsibility and authority of the higher level to the team, it is like a vote of trust. It resonates with the concept that you promote a Scrum Master to a better Scrum Master.

The final point is one of MANAGEMENT. Management as a concept is really born out of Taylorist Scientific Management from the 1910s – 1920s. Fundamentally it separated the thinking from the doing. It aligns with McGregor’s 1960’s Theory X and Y premise, where X type people dislike work, prefer to be directed and often have to be forced.   When applied this made sense, a large majority of the workforce was uneducated and most work was functional rather than creative.  The auditors of Theory X can be labelled middle management, a swathe of most organisations that are responsible for “managing” or directing and coercing the work that others are doing.  

Many people (far better and more respected than I) have suggested that (at least here in Western Europe and the US) that the workforce and nature of work have progressed to a point where this approach is no longer appropriate and that the associated trappings such as strict hierarchies, work allocation, and most project controls are a legacy hangover. This is the age of Theory Y, where work is natural, people thrive in self direction,will actively seek responsibility and where achievement is its own reward.

I recently worked on a very successful project as a Scrum Master without a Project Manager, now there were lots of things that needed doing – many of them would fall into the project manager role description but a key thing that wasn’t missing was Management, we could have done with help on project timesheeting, project account keeping, project reporting, project risk and issue logging, all of these collectively could be called project administration, but not project management. The team was self managing, and it would have been detrimental to have imposed external management onto them.

So where am I going with this… I would suggest that if we accept that empowered teams are desired, and that Scrum Masters need some sort of career path and that middle management is a legacy of Taylorist ideology then… when approaching an Agile adoption, empower your teams by removing as much middle management as possible from around them, and critically from above them. However to cushion the transition and keep the rest of the organisation comfortable then supporting your teams with a project administrator may be a sensible move.