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Secretaries Make the Best ScrumMasters

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Secretaries Make the Best ScrumMasters

Okay… so my writing is slowing down again.

I just spent the past few weeks preparing for Agile 2008 and now am in the thick of getting ready for the APLN Leadership Summit in Atlanta and preparing more presentations for talks coming up in the next few months. I have new found respect for folks that can write as a full time job. Being creative all the time is hard.

This article was my inaugural post for Artem Marchenko’s blog Agile Software Development. I’ll be writing for Artem twice a month. The posts I do for ASD will show up there first, and then a week or so later, I’ll share them on Leading Agile. If you are not currently subscribing to ASD, I highly recommend you fix that and add Artem to your RSS reader!

So… to get started, let’s kick this thing off with a question… are you ready? Do you believe the title of this post?

If you do, don’t feel bad, you are not alone. I have been working in project management and around project managers for years. Over that time, I have worked in traditional environments and agile environments. I have worked with PMPs and CSMs. It consistently amazes me the number of people that are converted into project managers for the sole reason they are good at following people around and asking them when they are going to be done.

Before I get into a full blown rant on this, and the potential is there because this issue really hacks me off, let’s be fair… a ScrumMaster is not the same role as that of a project manager. A ScrumMaster is more of an enabler of the team. They are there to remove impediments. They are there to be a facilitator and to make sure the Scrum process is being properly implemented. The team is self-managing, self-organizing, and empowered. The team works with the product owner to get the project done. The ScrumMaster is there to enable the Scrum process.

By design, this is a barely sufficient description of what it means to be a project leader. This perspective breaks down at scale and it breaks down with a team that is not prepared to deal with the full implications of what it means to be empowered and self-organized. On most project teams I work with, the ScrumMaster is a project leader, sometimes even a manager or a director. They have a degree of accountability for the project that is equal to or greater than any other individual team member on the project.

When I’ve got serious money on the line, when I have made hard commitments to the market, I need someone that really understands how all this works. I need someone that can set the context and coordinate between the team and the business. I need a leader that understands methodology, someone that understands what it takes to build software, someone who understands the business domain and how to work with executives. I want someone that can motivate people, stay focused on the vision, and communicate the right information, at the right time, and tailored to the needs of the audience.

A really good project leader, or a really good ScrumMaster, should be able to help the team [not only] remove impediments but anticipate impediments. They need to help the team stay focused and manage risk. They need to be able to broker complex conversations and help the team come to consensus when communication breaks down and egos get in the way. Most importantly, they need the breadth of experience to help the team devise situationally specific strategies for solving complex business problems.

We need to hold our project leaders to a higher standard. We need to nurture and develop leaders that can do more than facilitate a meeting and go get the pizza when the team gets hungry. We need seasoned IT professionals that know how to balance agility and discipline. We need people that have the experience and judgment to take what they know and apply it for the good of the team and the good of the project. We need people that can really lead a self-organized, self-managing, and empowered team. We need people that can hold them accountable.

None of this is easy, and the people that can do this are really hard to find. I am sure there are many great secretaries, that with the right training and experience, could do a really bang up job leading software projects. I have worked with one or two over my career that I would hire in a heartbeat.

As an agile community, I believe that we undervalue the role of project leadership and the breadth of background and experience required to do it well. Much of the problem though is of our own making. Project managers, and even ScrumMasters, have been applying stupid, simple processes for way too long. We have been operating as if we have all the answers and the team is there to do what we tell them. It is our own fault that people don’t generally want to have much to do with us. It is our own fault that we have people defining our role so lightly on agile teams as to make us irrelevant. The problem for us is that the ScrumMaster role is necessary but it is not sufficient.

As project managers, we need to focus more on servant leadership and situationally specific strategies. We need to focus less on checklists, Gantt charts, and documents that no one is going to read. Let’s establish the right balance of agility and discipline and create a context that enables great project teams to deliver great product. When project management begins to make sense again, we’ll start to see project managers recongnized as they professionals they are or should be.

And by the way… I am happy to go get the pizza and occasionally remove an impediment or two. Do you prefer peperoni or sausage?

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