Reluctant scrum mastery

Another question from a reader today:

As a front end lead you might find yourself stretching out into scrum master-esque tasks - sprint planning, backlog grooming, running retros, all that planning and management stuff - is this normal, or should a product manager be doing this? Or, should it be someone else entirely?

Short answer: Yes, it’s pretty normal for a tech lead to get involved in scrum master activities, but whether it’s right or wrong for your situation (as usual) depends.

According to this Agile Alliance glossary description, these are the responsibilities of the scrum master role:

  • Clearing obstacles
  • Establishing an environment where the team can be effective
  • Addressing team dynamics
  • Ensuring a good relationship between the team and product owner as well as others outside the team
  • Protecting the team from outside interruptions and distractions.

None of those responsibilities directly reference Scrum rituals like planning, backlog grooming and retrospectives.

For me, these rituals are collective team responsibilities, but can each have different owners.

For example, a product manager will probably own the backlog, but must share responsibility with other team members to groom it effectively. The scrum master can help to clear any obstacles that prevent that from happening.

The overall sprint plan (created during sprint planning) can be owned by the scrum master, but the team takes on collective responsibility for delivering the work taken into a sprint.

On the other hand, the technical approach for each user story (which can also be set during sprint planning) can be owned by the tech lead, but again, engineers, testers, designers and others can contribute to it.

The Agile Alliance glossary entry also describes different approaches to staffing the scrum master role. For example, it can be rotated around the team sprint-by-sprint. One person could take on the scrum master role on a part-time basis. Or the team can have a dedicated full-time scrum master. The best approach will differ for each team, depending on team size, experience with agile and how established the team is.

The key point is to be explicit about how this is done. If you ‘find yourself’ in a scrum master role by default or by accident, it’s time to have a discussion with the whole team. This can make an excellent discussion for a retrospective, but you may also need to take it outside of the team and discuss it with wider engineering leadership folks.

All the best,

– Jim

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