Functional Managers Acting as Scrum Masters: Not a Good Idea

I often meet people who are transitioning to agile, and they decided to pick Scrum, because it’s a helpful project management framework. Ok, that makes sense. But then they decide that they no longer need project managers, and that the development manager can act as the Scrum Master.

The Scrum Master is not a management position. The Scrum Master protects the team’s process and removes the team’s obstacles. For me, the Scrum Master is analogous to the project manager. (I’ve never believed in command-and-control PMs.)

There is still a need for managers, but a little differently.  I don’t see the need for functional managers. The agile team needs a manager who champions that whole team. That means that the champion managers need to understand all the functional parts in the team, so they can help each team member.

But the real issue is that it’s a bad idea to have a manager be a Scrum Master. Here’s why:

  1. The Scrum Master is a part of the team, and the manager, because of his/her titular authority can never be a part of the team.
  2. People are reluctant to take a risk in front of their managers. (Bob Sutton in Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company cites data about this.)
  3. Managers set direction, which is more strategic work. They do this with managing the project portfolio, looking at the makeup of the teams, seeing if they need more people. Scrum Master work is tactical, about the day-to-day work of the project team. If you have to choose between strategic work and tactical work, which one will win? (Tactical, all the time.)

So what does happen to the managers when an organization transitions to agile? They help teams self-organize. They manage the project portfolio. They provide feedback and coaching. They champion the team. They take the lead on hiring.

Managers, do your management job. Project teams, including the Scrum Master, do your project work. The two types of work intersect above the project, not in it.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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7 Responses to Functional Managers Acting as Scrum Masters: Not a Good Idea

  1. Well written…

    The scrum master should not have any administrative authority

    :-)
    Anders

  2. Hans Hartmann says:

    I fully agree. However, I don’t know whether the European understanding of manager is similar to the American one.

    Nevertheless, it seems to be quite difficult to spot really good scrum managers.
    And actually it does not only adher to SCRUM. Any agile method lives on its champions. “Lives” is the keyword. You can not impose a method you must live it.

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  6. Ryan Burlage says:

    What if a functional manager try’s to impose a standardization that is in the works?

    Background:
    Company I work for went agile and scrum, so now we have scrum teams with Devs, BA’s, and QA personnel.
    We are all learning to be able to do each others tasks.

    Before the change each of these team members had direct managers, these managers have been converted into functional managers to assist with individual needs, career paths, and objectives.

    Situation:
    There was a directive to start automating a lot of the work teams do.
    One of the functional managers has been put in charge of a 3rd party company to create an automation solution. It has been 4 months with almost nothing delivered.
    Also at the time it wasn’t communicated what was going on regarding this automation tool and who was heading the initiative.

    The team I am on is becoming a role model team because our velocity is increasing and we have huge improvements. We are very open and discussing everything and work well together as a team.
    A few of us found an open source technology that would allow us to automate our testing in just a couple weeks. This solution would help push us to the next level in becoming even more of a high performance team.
    The functional manager found out about this and pulled 2 of her employees she managed directly aside that are on our team and told them basically that our solution is wrong and that we need to conform to the standardization that this 3rd party company is putting together that she is managing.

    I am all for standardization, however the way I felt things went down is that she squashed any movement for our team, by leaving nobody to bat for our team because she imposed her power and said we were wrong for doing what we started to do.

    I believe this runs counter to the continuous improvement ideals underlying scrum.

    I think this is a pretty common experience, and I am wondering how the best way to handle a situation like this would be?

  7. Hi Ryan, Well. You have a number of issues here.

    The manager who is trying to standardize on something else, is quashing your self-management. Even if she is correct about the tool, she is doing it wrong. And, if that 3rd party hasn’t delivered anything, why is she staking her future on them? Makes no sense.

    I wrote one of my management myths about this. See Who Solves Which Problems?.

    You are correct. She is not living the agile culture. Which means you are not able to, either. Which prompts the next question: Have you provided her feedback? Have you explained what she is doing?

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