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Scrum Without a ScrumMaster

24 July 2014

Saravana Bharathi
Capital One

I recently came across this question in Quora: Can a team function on its own, without a ScrumMaster? I thought I should put my thinking cap on.

Let us take a look at the ScrumMaster role.

Some of the key responsibilities of a ScrumMaster are teaching, coaching, mentoring the team, removing impediments, etc. He also acts as a protector of the team. The role is subtle; a lot of activities done by your ScrumMaster are invisible. He acts behind the scenes.

What other ScrumMaster responsibilities are there? He helps manage the product backlog, advises the product owner, facilitates various meetings, organizes, takes care of new team members, trains them on Agile principles and practices. . . .

Given all this, can a team be "Agile" or "Scrum" without a ScrumMaster? Yes. The building block itself, the team, should be self-organized and self-managing. However, can a brand-new team start with this? I strongly doubt it. It takes time. New teams should follow the Scrum roles, ceremonies, and everything else laid out as is. When they become masters of everything, then they can break the rules.

Su-Ha-Ri is a term originally coined by Akito and Alistair Cockburn. They used it as a way of thinking about how to learn these principles.

Su: This is your starting stage, when you don't know much yet. You just sat through two days of training, and you are going to start your first Scrum project. Just stick to the rules, don't even think of modifying them for your convenience. It can be disastrous. Bad implementation of Agile/Scrum will leave the team with a bitter experience. They may never again dare to try.

Ha: You are becoming a master, you are learning from thought leaders and others. You are translating your learnings into your practices.

Ri: This is when you can break the rules. You are beyond mastery; everything is habit now. No one needs to tell you how to do it. No one reminds you to have your stand-up daily. The retrospectives are highly productive, the goals are aligned with producing high-quality software. There's no bickering. Please keep in mind, for a team to reach this stage takes a lot of time, conviction, and commitment. I personally have seen very, very few teams at this stage. It is possible, but it takes time and patience.

So yes, there can be Scrum without a ScrumMaster -- but you cannot start that way. You'll have to go a long way before you reach this stage. What's more, why should you run the team without a ScrumMaster even if you could? You should have someone to protect the team, coach them, and mentor them.

One of my colleagues put it this way: A key component of the ScrumMaster role is playing the role of cheerleader. Grab your pom-poms, cheer, and support your team(s) to greatness every day! A ScrumMaster is successful when he works himself out of a job.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.7 (3 ratings)


G. Manto, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 7/24/2014 1:01:25 PM
Good article Saravana. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the following:

When a team transition from Su to Ha, what SM responsibilities do you see moving off of their plate and onto others (e.g. Team members, Managers, etc)?

Same question but now from Ha to Ri?

Thnx in advance for your insights.

Saravana Bharathi, CSP,CSM, 7/24/2014 4:02:10 PM

Great question. To best serve the team, and in the best interests of the team, SM stays with them throughout the stages. It would be his responsibility to support, coach the team through this process. He would be the best in a position to judge whether the team is ready or not to move ahead to the next phase or not, and what is needed to make this progress. Please let me know what do you think.
Tim Baffa, CSM, 7/25/2014 4:35:40 PM
Saravana, not to be picky, but it is widely known as Shu-Ha-Ri, not Su-Ha-Ri.

And it would indeed be quite rare to find a team even at the Ri stage that would perform just as well without a SM as with one. The team would not only have to be self-managing, but would also be passionate about learning (lot of reading!) and improving, and would have the organizational autonomy to remove impediments to team progress.
Sweta Paul, CSM, 8/1/2014 6:09:14 AM
A scrum team without a Scrum Master is akin to a sport team without a coach! Unheard of right?:) Even if the said team has just won a World Cup, do they fire their coach?

A Scrum Master doesn't just ensure that the team practices Scrum and gets their work Done as per the DoD. A good SM is always with the team, helping them reach higher, faster and emerge stronger!

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