Agile methods like Scrum are increasingly gaining ground at German companies. Scrum is rated especially highly in the eCommerce environment, where a short time to market and continuous product improvement can be of crucial importance. Yet in spite of the high esteem in which the method is held, among the staff the Scrum Master, who plays a central role, repeatedly comes under pressure to justify himself. Why exactly is this the case?

The Scrum Master has always been an integral part of the Scrum Framework. In contrast to the Development Team and the Product Owner – the other two prescribed roles –, however, the need for a Scrum Master is frequently discussed. In staffing processes in particular I regularly find the Scrum Master’s role to have been reduced to the function of organizing and moderating meetings. That is why, in order to cut costs, consideration is often paid to whether the Scrum Master’s tasks might not be performed on the side, as it were, by another member of the team.

This is due especially to the fact that the Scrum Master’s remit is difficult to define. His work is indeed explicitly perceptible mainly at meetings, which he has to prepare and follow up intensively and which he must also moderate. For outsiders in particular, however, it is not always clear which tasks the Scrum Master performs in what are in some instances lengthy phases between meetings. In fact the preparation, follow-up and moderation of Sprint Planning, Review and Retrospective take up only about a quarter of the Scrum Master’s working time. So that goes nowhere near to outlining the full extent of his role.

The Scrum Master Ensures Process Improvement and an Increase in Productivity

As soon as an attempt is made to define the Scrum Master’s role one frequently reads the sentence “The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring the success of the Scrum.” With this assessment I fully agree. To understand this statement one must visualize the basic idea behind the Scrum method. The primary objective is continuous improvement. The main aim is usually to optimize the product, which is the focal point of complex product development. But the product is only one side of the coin. To make a real success of agile product development the processes and the team itself must also continue to develop.

The need for process and team development is especially clear in eCommerce projects. Few industries are as fast-paced as online retail. Decisions that seem right today can be totally wrong tomorrow – literally tomorrow. To hold one’s own in this challenging environment in the long term, let alone to play a leading role in it, efficient processes and team members who critically question approaches taken and flexibly seek solutions are of decisive importance. These are the points where the Scrum Master comes into his own.

To take the optimization of processes and the further development of team members forward he ensures that there is a good atmosphere and a working climate in which the team members can develop freely and work independently. He exemplifies the agile principles and values, advocates the team’s decisions externally and defends and protects it from interventions. In addition, he ensures that obstacles are eliminated and motivates the team to try new approaches for a change and to reverse them again if need be. He also holds talks at team and individual level to resolve conflicts and serves as a mentor to take each individual and the team forward. He puts his creativity to targeted effect and creates magic moments in order to boost the team spirit and utilize all the power of a well-functioning team for product development. In short, the Scrum Master lays the groundwork on which the team can build. He enables them to enable themselves, as it were.

The Scrum Master’s Role is not a Part-time Job

But must the Scrum Master really be on call all the time and support the rest of the team round the clock? Ought the team, in keeping with Scrum principles, not to be able to organize itself once the Scrum rules have been introduced and taken to heart? The objection that one must surely be able, especially with experienced Scrum teams, to cut back the Scrum Master’s role is often heard. The counter-argument is the often cited but nevertheless true wisdom that humankind is a creature of habit. Members of a Scrum team are no exception. They too tend to make themselves at home in a status quo and to follow established procedures.

Just like a clock mechanism a Scrum team needs repeated impulses if it is to maintain its efficiency and its open view.

For an agile approach that is disastrous. Just like a clock mechanism in which all of the cogs interlock but which sooner or later grind to a halt if it is not wound up, a Scrum team needs repeated impulses if it is to maintain its efficiency and its open view. So a Scrum Master who constantly reminds the team of the rules of the game and calls entrenched habits into question is the best way to prevent a blinkered attitude to one’s work. A Scrum team can only be successful in the totality of its components.

As can be seen from these brief remarks, much of the success of the project or product depends on the performance and casting of the Scrum Master’s role. Admittedly, this lion’s share is not always apparent. Even so, I always find it fascinating how much responsibility the role bears and how often its justification is called into question within organizations.

In my view that is a great mistake. A Scrum team’s lack of efficiency can, after all, have very specific repercussions for a company’s business. Every day counts and the later, say, the launch of an online shop is delayed by an inefficient Scrum team, the more possible revenue the organization forfeits day by day via this sales channel. This amount can quickly exceed the cost of a Scrum Master. In that case it would simply have been a false economy.