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Agile & Product Management

Are Scrum Masters an undervalued role?

Since the introduction of Scrum Master roles, many in the tech community have questioned various aspects of the job, often wondering, “Are they just project managers?” Or, “Do I really need a Scrum Master?” 

We’d argue that the Scrum Master role is too often undervalued and misunderstood despite their importance in unlocking the full benefits that Scrum promises. To verify this, we went out and asked a few agile experts to help us dig into why it might be the case that Scrum Masters are undervalued and why they shouldn’t be. Let’s dive in. 

Common misconceptions that de-value Scrum Master roles

To investigate why this role is undervalued, we began by asking experts what the common misconceptions were about Scrum Master roles. “Oh, there are lots of misconceptions,” said Pedro Catoira, Sr Director of Agile Delivery at Lotlinx. Well, we’re so glad we asked!

Project managers, assistants, and managers…or not?

From the outside, it’s easy to judge a Scrum Master by the work you see them do and not by the work they actually do. Because of this, “some people see Scrum Masters as the people who book their meetings, and others see them as their “managers” who will solve all their issues and tell them what to do,” says Pedro. 

This is why he says, “It is key for any Scrum Master to understand the job before taking it, why people are asking for Scrum Masters, the expectations.”  Just because someone is hiring a Scrum Master doesn’t mean they understand the role. 

Another common misconception Karen Fomafung, the CEO and Founder of BeingAgile Consulting, tells us is “seeing them [Scrum Masters] as just project managers with a different name.” She tells us that this misconception can “harm their value by missing the full potential of fostering an agile mindset and optimizing team performance, improving team dynamics and delivery processes.” 

They don’t contribute to “real work”

Recently, Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, announced cuts to roles that were focused on “supporting work and doing work around the work rather than contributing to opportunities with real impact,” he claimed. Many believe that Scrum Masters and other agile and project management roles fall into this category. 

The belief that they don’t contribute to ‘real’ work’” is a common misconception, says Klaus Boedker, Owner of Inner Agility Academy. This can “lead to undervaluing the Scrum Master’s contributions or burdening them with responsibilities across multiple teams, diminishing their effectiveness.”

Clearly, in many tech companies, there’s a real issue with only considering outputs like features as “actual work.” But, developers don’t have the time and often the knowledge to be relied upon to determine what customers want them to build and when. “This, in turn, hampers the team and organization’s success in consistently delighting their customers,” says Klaus. 

Do Scrum Masters feel undervalued?

Given these misconceptions, do Scrum Masters feel undervalued? Short answer: often. 

“It can be a bit challenging when the higher-ups don’t immediately see the direct return on investment,” Karen says. “It requires patient communication, explaining the long-term benefits, and helping them understand the value that an agile coach brings to the team. It’s a process of continuous education and advocacy.” Agile isn’t a magic bullet, so if stakeholders are impatient to see improvements, it might impact how they value Scrum Masters. 

Sometimes, being undervalued is a consequence of resistance to change: “In one organization, the agile teams were progressing in ways that weren’t advantageous to the overall goals. I proposed an agile maturity model to guide their growth, but some leaders hesitated. Consequently, the model’s introduction was briefly halted. But, after 3 months of ongoing discussions, they became receptive,” Klaus explains.

So what’s the takeaway? For Scrum Masters: set expectations early–make sure your employer knows it may take time to see results and to be comfortable with change. For employers–know that ROI might not come as quickly as with other hires but that it will be worthwhile.  

So, what’s the greatest value a Scrum Master can offer their organization?

It’s rare that we get unanimous agreement from multiple experts on an open-ended question. Still, when we asked experts what the greatest value of a Scrum Master is, it was unanimous that it is a Scrum Master’s ability to foster continuous improvement in a team. 

“It changes how people see things and behave,” says Pedro. “I am talking about the idea of making things visible, empowering people to make it better, removing waste, innovating, etc. That engages people to bring their best. If you have the right environment and great Scrum Master(s), you should expect to experience fantastic changes.” It makes sense, after all, when everyone is so focused on getting things done, who else is thinking about improving how things are done?

For Karen, it’s about organizational transformation: “The Scrum Master goes beyond the surface tasks, working to transform how the entire organization approaches problem-solving and innovation.” Innovation is such a critical part of both an organization’s and the economy’s growth. Without advocates for this, it’s hard to expect it will be fostered on its own.  

And innovation for innovation’s sake (and not the customer’s) is no good for anyone either–which is yet another critical piece of the puzzle a Scrum Master plays. “When an agile team actively listens to customer feedback and promptly implements the right updates and new features, the outcome is evident–delighted customers,” says Klaus. “Therefore, the ultimate contribution of a Scrum Master to their organization lies in the indirect but profound impact of consistently delighting customers.”

Final thoughts: are Scrum Masters a luxury or a necessity?

It seems that the criticality of having a Scrum Master depends on whether or not the role is actually understood and not aiming to be something that it’s not. “It is a necessity in a Scrum scenario, in an “Agile-Friendly” environment. Otherwise, it will be proven to be a luxury,” says Pedro. In other words, if your team is doing Scrum properly, you probably need a Scrum Master. 

Want to make Scrum even simpler? Schedule a demo of Zenhub to see how. 

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