December 3, 2021

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I Have A Problem With the New Scrum Guide | by Willem-Jan Ageling | Serious Scrum | Dec, 2020


One of the most impacting changes of the Scrum Guide 2020 is the introduction of Accountabilities. Where the Scrum Master used to be a Role, it’s now an Accountability. The same applies to Product Owner and Developers. It isn’t merely a change of names. It is a deliberate attempt to underline self-management of the Scrum Team: they decide who does what, when, and how.

The new Scrum Guide puts the accountabilities at the centre. These former roles are accountable for aspects involving Scrum.

Scrum Masters are accountable for:

  • Establishing Scrum per Scrum Guide;
  • The Scrum Team’s effectiveness by enabling them to improve practices.

Accountability isn’t new in the Scrum Guide. Previous versions already mentioned the Product Owner was accountable for the Product Backlog. It also stated the Development Team was accountable for building the Increment as a cross-functional team.

The 2017 version of the Scrum Guide also said that the Scrum Master is participating in the Sprint Retrospective from the accountability over the Scrum process. Many choose not to over-analyse this statement. A Scrum Master coaches a self-organising team to use Scrum effectively. But a Scrum Master can’t force the team to follow her advise.

The Scrum Guide informs us that the Scrum Master is accountable for the two things mentioned above. But there are potential issues with both of them:

  • A Scrum Master doesn’t determine what the Scrum Team does.
  • There’s a potential contradiction between the two accountabilities.

Let’s dive into this a bit more.

Potential issues with influence on the team

One of the core Scrum principles is that the Scrum Team is self-managing. They manage their own work. This means they determine how they use Scrum.

But what happens when:

  • a Scrum Master identifies issues like a failure to use a Sprint Goal, but the team decides to leave the issue untouched?
  • a team has Sprint Reviews every second Sprint, moving away from what the Scrum Guide says?

The Scrum Master serves the team. She can’t force the team to implement Scrum practices. Instead, she helps everyone understand Scrum theory. The Scrum Master has decision power as a member of the team. No more and no less.

When the team deviates from the Scrum framework and disregards the advice from the Scrum Master, they impede the Scrum Master’s accountability.

The same issue exists for accountability involving the effectiveness of the team. Here’s an example:

A team consistently plans more work than they can chew. The Scrum Master has been presenting them the data showing how they were only able to finish 50% on average, despite working overtime a lot. She has advised to plan less or commit to less. But she only had two agreeing with her. The rest of the team wants to continue planning this amount of work. So nothing changes.

The team is less effective than it can be. The Scrum Master has been pointing this out and has tried to help in all kinds of ways. She doesn’t have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the team. She may be the leader who serves the Scrum Team. But when it comes to decision making, she is one of the team. Again, the team impedes the Scrum Master’s accountability.

The Scrum Guide makes Scrum Masters accountable for something they can’t control.

Accountability only works when people or teams have the authority to control it. Scrum Masters can’t control their accountabilities. This is an issue. As I see it, there are two ways to solve this.

Give the Scrum Master sufficient authority

One way to solve the issue is by allowing the Scrum Master to make decisions to meet her accountabilities. There’s a problem with this though. It violates a core concept of Scrum. The Scrum Guide 2020 says a Scrum Master should be a leader who serves her self-managing team. She should help the team understand what works and what doesn’t, aiming to improve their way of working. But the decisions are for the whole team. So, this potential way to solve the Scrum Master accountability issues isn’t a valid option.

No control — No accountability

Another way to solve the issue is by acknowledging the Scrum Master can’t be accountable for the team’s usage of the framework and its effectiveness. In the end, the complete Scrum Team is accountable, including the Scrum Master.

That brings us to the following: if we wish to define accountabilities for the Scrum Master, could we come up with examples the Scrum Master can control? I believe we surely can. Here are two I like better:

1 — The Scrum Master is accountable for promoting and supporting Scrum
A Scrum Master trains and coaches the team. She observes and advises. It’s perfectly logical to make a Scrum Master accountable for doing this properly. But in the end, the complete Scrum Team decides if and how it makes use of the advice of the Scrum Master.

2 — The Scrum Master is accountable for fostering the effective use of Scrum by Scrum Team
A Scrum Master should actively look for opportunities to improve the effectiveness of the team to deliver value. She should bring forward her observations or encourage observations from others and help the team to make the steps towards improvement. Also here, the Scrum Team decides what it does. If the team chooses to not follow the Scrum Master’s guidance, this is something they can do as a self-managing team.

These are accountabilities that directly relate to what a Scrum Master can do. It does not go beyond the Scrum Master’s reach. They are a call to action for the Scrum Master to act within their authority.

Scrum Masters need to ensure Scrum as per Scrum Guide 2020. On top of that, Scrum Masters need to ensure teams are effective.

What happens when Scrum isn’t helping the team, despite all efforts? The Scrum Master would be doing well on the Scrum establishing front but would fail in having an effective team.

The Scrum Guide doesn’t give the Scrum Master any leeway. She needs to be successful in implementing Scrum AND being effective.

But then there’s this line in the Scrum Guide:

“Scrum is simple. Try it as is and determine if its philosophy, theory, and structure help to achieve goals and create value.” — Scrum Guide 2020

I love this. The writers of the Scrum Guide invite us to experiment with Scrum to see how it fits. It is fully in line with the empirical nature of Scrum.

Everything in the Scrum Guide is about trying things out, learning from it and then adapting. With all of this in mind, it makes no sense that the Scrum Master can’t deviate from Scrum if this doesn’t appear to be the best solution for the team.

A team might be more effective while deviating from Scrum. With that, a Scrum Master would fail to meet her accountabilities.

A Scrum Team is a self-managing unit. The complete Scrum Team should be empowered to determine how they do their work. A Scrum Master doesn’t have the final say on how the team uses Scrum. She can influence the team by helping, coaching and training. The Scrum Master guides the Scrum Team in their experiments to improve their way of working.

I think it is a problem that the Scrum Master is accountable for the team’s usage of Scrum and its effectiveness. She doesn’t have direct control. She depends on the Scrum Team to meet her accountabilities.

I like that the Scrum Master doesn’t get a get out of jail for free card. Previous Scrum Guides described the Scrum Master as someone who helps the team to be effective with Scrum without any accountabilities. It allowed the Scrum Master to say she did her best, but the team or the organisation didn’t listen to her advice. The Scrum Guide addressed this by adding accountabilities to the role.

I, however, question the merit of the accountabilities as they are defined now. A Scrum Master doesn’t have direct control over them and they can contradict each other.

Also, if the team constantly puts aside the advice of the Scrum Master, then there is a big problem either with the team, the Scrum Master or both. This is an issue that the team as a whole should address. This can’t be the responsibility for the Scrum Master alone.

It would have been better to acknowledge the specific position of the Scrum Master, framing the accountabilities as:

  • The Scrum Master is accountable for promoting and supporting Scrum.
  • The Scrum Master is accountable for fostering the effective use of Scrum to deliver value.

This way, the Scrum Master is accountable for things she can directly control. On top of that, the two will not contradict each other anymore.

The Scrum Guide is crisper and cleaner on many fronts. But it also has introduced unclarity with the Scrum Master accountabilities. I’m afraid it will lead to misunderstandings and anti-patterns in the behaviour of Scrum Masters.

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