Can You Rotate the Scrum Master Role?

On average I provide two Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master courses a month. What’s great about these courses is that all of them are unique. Every participant shares his/her own personal experiences which lead to a broad variety of discussions. However, some questions are asked during every course.

In a couple of short blog posts I’ll share the most common questions. I’ll focus on the Scrum Master role and will provide an answer based on my personal experience as a Scrum Master. This for sure isn’t the ultimate answer, it’s how I’ve fulfilled or experienced the situation myself. I would love to learn from your experiences as well!

Previous week I’ve shared my view on the question “Can you be a part-time Scrum Master?“. This blog post will be about:

Can you rotate the Scrum Master role?

With rotating the Scrum Master role I mean frequently changing the person fulfilling this role. I’ve worked with teams that used to assign a new Scrum Master every Sprint.

Now I don’t like “it depends” answers. I prefer answering the question with a clear and maybe bold statement. This often triggers a nice discussing in which different perspectives can be taken into account.

So, can you rotate the Scrum Master role: yes!

Do I recommend rotating the Scrum Master role: no! no! no! 

Why “Yes”?

You are still doing Scrum by the book (or guide) if you rotate the Scrum Master role. The Scrum guide doesn’t state the role should be fulfilled by the same person every Sprint. So yes, from a purely theoretical point of view you can rotate the Scrum Master role. (And yes, if you’re going to read all the blog posts I’m writing about the most common Scrum Master questions; you will discover a pattern in the answers I’m giving…)

I’ve worked with a couple of organizations that used to rotate the Scrum Master role. To put it bluntly: they had a very poor understanding of what the Scrum Master should do. Based on what they considered the necessary tasks and responsibilities, it was no surprise this role was being rotated.

You probably want to rotate the Scrum Master role if your main responsibilities are…

  • Acting as a scribe during every Scrum event. Writing down the entire sprint plan, daily plan, refinement discussions and Retrospective commitments.
  • Planning all the Scrum events in everyones agenda.
  • Keeping the teams schedule with holidays and days off up-to-date.
  • Updating the Sprint Backlog, Sprint burndown chart etc. before and after every Scrum event.
  • Synchronizing the digital tools (JIRA, TFS etc) with the physical Scrum board
  • Acting as the chairman of the daily Scrum. Also known as the ‘ daily status-update meeting’. Ensuring everyone answers the 3 famous questions (which unfortunately have no connection to the Sprint Goal at all).
  • Ordering office supplies like sticky notes
  • Supporting the Product Owner by writing down all the Product Backlog items in more detail

If this is what a Scrum Master does in your organization… Please: rotate the Scrum Master role!!! 

However, a better solution is changing your perspective on what a Scrum Master should do. Although some of the described tasks might seem useful, you’re not really helping the Scrum Team by doing them.

Why “No”?

Straightforward speaking: if you rotate the Scrum Master role you won’t succeed with Scrum. However, you will succeed with Zombie-Scrum. At first sight Zombie Scrum seems to be normal Scrum. But it lacks a beating heart. The Scrum teams do all the Scrum events but a potential releasable increment is rarely the result of a Sprint. Zombie Scrum teams have a very unambitious definition of what ‘done’ means, and no drive to extend it. They see themselves as a cog in the wheel, unable and unwilling to change anything and have a real impact: I’m only here to code! Zombie Scrum teams show no response to a failed or successful Sprint and also don’t have any intention to improve their situation. Actually nobody cares about this team. The stakeholders have forgotten the existence of this team long time ago.

The Scrum Master plays a key role in preventing Zombie Scrum. By rotating the Scrum Master role you might have this role fulfilled on paper, but you actually don’t have a Scrum Master at all!

If you rotate the Scrum Master role, you don’t have a Scrum Master at all.

Without a Scrum Master, who will be…

  • Responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted?
  • Ensuring the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules?
  • The servant-leader for the Scrum Team supporting the growth of every individual?
  • Coaching the team in continuous improvement and the organization in truly collaborating with the Scrum Team?
  • Helping everyone understand the spirit of Scrum?
  • Providing clear boundaries in which the team can collaborate and self-organization can occur?
  • Managing impediments, eliminating waste, managing the process, managing the team’s health, managing the boundaries of self‐organization, and managing the culture?
  • Influencing the organizations culture in such a way the Scrum Teams can truly flourish?

Without a Scrum Master covering these tasks and responsibilities, chances are the Product Owner and Development Team will have a difficult time fulfilling their roles. If the majority of the Scrum Teams face this situation; the adoption of Scrum as a whole will eventually fail.

Therefore my advice is…

Don’t rotate the Scrum Master role but acknowledge the potential and embrace the many stances and its diversity. A great Scrum Master should act as a servant-leader, coach, facilitator, teacher, mentor, manager, impediment remover and change agent. A great Scrum Master is aware of these chances and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. Everything with the purpose of helping people understand the spirit of Scrum. Only by practising these stances every day you can become a truly great Scrum Master. Only great Scrum Masters can create a culture in which Scrum Teams can thrive (Geoff Watts).

For an organization to succeed with Scrum, a bunch of dedicated Scrum Masters are indispensible!

Closing

In this blog post I’ve shared my view on the question “Can you rotate the Scrum Master role?” My answer is “no, please don’t”. If you rotate the Scrum Master role, you basically don’t have a Scrum Master at all. Without a Scrum Master, you probably won’t succeed with your Scrum adoption.

What’s your view on this topic? Especially if you rotate the role in your organization I would love the learn from your experiences. Do you recognize my concerns? How do you deal with them?

PS: if you want to learn more about the Scrum Master role, check out the white paper I wrote “The 8 Stances of a Scrum Master“.

2 thoughts to “Can You Rotate the Scrum Master Role?”

  1. Hi!

    Thanks for a great article. Sat down with a Scrum team today at lunch where the scrum master role was rotated in the team. There was no energy in the team, they had missed yet another deadline and had a negative view of Scrum in general. The rotation of the Scrum master role was of course not the reason for this, nevertheless, as you stated in the article, with a rotation there was no one really responsible for this. No one to infuse energy into the team and no one to uphold the scrum principles.

    Have been working as a scrum master before, but would really like to take the next step to agile coach when I see teams like these.

  2. You nailed it, Barry. And almost by definition, if the role is being rotated every Sprint, then the team has a rookie Scrum Master every Sprint. It’s highly unlikely that a full-time developer taking on “part-time Scrum Master duties” is going to have a very deep understanding of the role. The amount of reading; research; and experience to become a good Scrum Master is not something easily picked up by a developer. It takes several years of focus as a Scrum Master before you have the level of expertise that’s usually needed on a Scrum team. Or (at the very least) several years of observing an experience Scrum Master in action. And the SM role is a servant *leadership* role – which is not usually the type of training and experience that the average developer has (unless perhaps he’s a been a “team lead” in recent past).

Comments are closed.