Scrum master anti-patterns 

scrum master antipatterns

Scrum masters are continuously looking for anti-patterns to help guide their team back onto the path of agility. But what if the anti-pattern originates from themselves? That’s what we will talk about today.

Anti-pattern 1: I’m the King of Scrum

Become a martyr to the holy cause of Agility. The first rule of being a Scrum Master is, “To help your team, you must first survive.” Ignoring your security and becoming a martyr serves only to puff up your ego.

Complaining loudly about how management isn’t doing Scrum correctly won’t be effective. They will not respond the way you expect, but most likely will respond with resentment. And once your management has made a decision, they are not likely to contritely retract it and follow your advice. What was the cost to you in political capital?  More importantly, what was the opportunity cost in not affecting changes you might have implemented?

Nor is it effective to ignore your management’s decision and do it your way. Once the team realizes they don’t have managerial support, they will be hesitant to follow that path. In hierarchical organizations, managers are tasked with making decisions. After management has made a decision, it’s naive to think that subverting, ignoring, or arguing about a practice won’t go unnoticed or without consequences.

Anti-pattern 2: The Apostle of Scrum

As Scrum masters, we’re tasked with being an advocate for Scrum.  To be a teacher or a mentor is a noble thing, but it requires patience. If your mantra is, “I, Scrum master, am the keeper of the faith,” then remember, it’s one thing to be the champion of Scrum but quite another to be its zeal.  There are plenty of disbelievers out there. Many have good reasons, bad experiences, or alternatives they are willing to share. While extolling its virtues, you should also acknowledge its limitations. Listen and ask questions about why they were not exactly thrilled over their last experience.

Anti-pattern 3: A Scrum master is just a project manager in disguise

Have you turned the daily Scrum meeting into the daily status meeting? Status reporting, rather than discussing impediments, may hide deeper issues with the user stories, such as issues with complexity, design, or dependencies.

Are you collecting metrics on individual team members? Are you using their sprint story point counts or estimates vs. actuals to be transparent, or as a hammer? Do you need to seek management approval for every initiative the team takes?

Subordination to the bureaucracy will strip away the team’s self-empowerment and desire to act independently.

Anti-pattern 4: Kneel before Zod

Are you attempting to dominate your team or the conversation? Are you hypercritical of your team? If you tend to shoot down new ideas that aren’t your own, then maybe it’s more about control than consensus. Regardless of the intent or constructiveness of the critique, this will not encourage them. This will stifle open conversation and restrict the natural flow of ideas. Don’t make yours the final word.

Do you tend to channel your questions to a select few? Cronyism is counterproductive and even the quiet ones have something to offer. Keep this in mind. If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, then you aren’t!

Anti-pattern 5:  Are you the impediment?

Are the retrospective action items unfinished because they belong to you? Are user stories dragging on because you need to investigate an issue? Make sure you are actively pursuing solutions to issues that historically impede your team instead of becoming the impediment.

Anti-pattern 6:  Creativity will be channeled through structured design

Are you converting Scrum into waterfall phases, such as user stories separated into design, development, and testing? Maybe you are augmenting Scrum with structured tools, such as work breakdown structures or Gantt charts? Are you requesting that all user stories have a standardized set of tasks to stabilize the process? Are legacy design documents required to be completed before the sprint to estimate the current sprint user stories? These aren’t helping the team channel its creativity. It’s destroying it.

Anti-pattern 7: Everything is a teachable moment

A Scrum master is also a coach, teacher, and mentor to their teams, but mentoring is different than instruction. It’s a collaborative experience. Assuming your team is in a classroom can become annoying to them. A team with Scrum experience may not react positively to constant criticism. If you use every deviation from Scrum principles as a “teachable moment,” your team may start to resent your efforts to enlighten them. Instruction on concepts, provided in special break-out sessions, will be much less intrusive.

The ultimate anti-pattern: So long and thanks for all the fish

A scrum master who demonstrates these anti-patterns may soon find themselves an ex-scrum master. If you find yourself falling into any of them, it may be time for some self-reflection or an open conversation with your team. That will not be an easy undertaking. It is difficult to separate the critique from the criticism. As a Scrum master, you need to be cognizant of your contributions to the team dynamic.

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They may not represent the opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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Donald “Mark” Haynes

Donald “Mark” Haynes

I’m a renaissance man trapped in a specialist’s body. My degree is in biologist. That’s why I’m in IT. I’ve worked as a software developer with an elegant language for a more civilized age. I became a QA guy because breaking things is therapeutic. I became a process specialist because it’s easier to negotiate with a terrorist than a Methodologist. I have been working as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach. I have drunk the…

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