Why I’m Dropping the Term “Scrum Master”

A broken chainIt was a dark moment, that day I realized many Agile advocates do not, in fact, “get it” regarding “self-organizing teams.” One indicator is the term used for people who facilitate Scrum ceremonies. For that reason I had already been thinking about changing the name, and then I started attending diversity and inclusion events. These drove home two other reasons to make the change. Therefore, I am removing the term “Scrum Master” from Full Stack Scrum™.

I detailed earlier the evidence the role should not be full-time, nor a job title. To summarize, both scientific evidence and my personal experiences with “self-directed work teams” prove the superiority of SDWTs to similar groups that have team leaders, in most circumstances. Those I trained had instead a “facilitator” role rotated among some or all members, who ran the meetings in a disciplined way and coached members to follow the team’s practices. Reading Agile Software Development with Scrum[1] in 2008 led me to the Agile Manifesto and this principle: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

“FINALLY,” I thought. “Somebody gets it!” I was so glad to learn an influential group of leaders understood the power of empowering teams. However, I was living in denial, quite literally. First, I missed that the book considered the Scrum Master a management role. This is despite the fact SDWTs were experiencing a revival at the same time Scrum for software was being developed. Second, it was years before I realized most Agile coaches are recommending the hiring of team leaders in the guise of Scrum Masters. I say again, per the earlier post: A team with a full-time organizer is not self-organizing.

I presume Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland chose the term in the sense of someone with mastery of a process, like a Six Sigma “Black Belt.” This is ironic. It takes the better part of 10 years to “master” most activities or to become a martial arts “master,” yet you can get SM certification in one day without having done the job. From my discussions with hundreds of non-SMs who have served on nominal Scrum teams, it’s clear the job is being enacted more like another definition of the word “master”: “one having authority over another.”[2]

The most extreme example of that definition leads to my second concern. By listening at diversity events, I’ve learned that a broad range of barriers prevent a company from making everyone feel truly welcome. The diversity speakers told numerous stories of minor, usually well-intended statements by co-workers that made them feel out of place despite their qualifications and competence.

Thus it matters that the word “master” has a horrible history for African-Americans. Harvard Univ. dropped “the word master from academic titles due to its racist connotations and links to slavery” in 2015.[3] The term is losing favor in the homebuilding industry for the same reason, which is shifting from “master bedroom” to “owner suite” or similar. (I wonder if  “owner” minus the “home-“ prefix is problematic, too.) This is also because of the gender exclusion in the word, master being a term for a male.[4] It has always felt a little odd to me as an ex-journalist to call a woman a Scrum Master, but Scrum Mistress adds other connotations! Either word choice leaves out other gender identifications, also.

It doesn’t matter whether you think a word is problematic, or that people are “too sensitive and should get over it.” Setting aside the moral arguments, from a strictly pragmatic viewpoint the fact a significant percentage of the people we want to adopt an Agile mindset don’t like that word makes this a reasonable concern. And word changes are cheap fixes. Switching the terms mostly requires only a brief explanation in a company meeting, a little time changing intranet and Web sites, and breaking the verbal habit. As for printed materials, you don’t have to scrap them; simply update the term when you need more printed.

Combining all those reasons, I am going back to the term “Facilitator” for the role I’ve been calling Scrum Master. This word carries no inclusion issues as best I can tell, is gender neutral, and better expresses the limited duties of someone who truly believes in trusting motivated individuals to self-organize teams. I will start changing the FuSS™ site shortly.

I hereby gently challenge Mr. Schwaber and my friends at the wonderful Scrum Alliance and Agile Alliance to join me in making Agile more inclusive. Whatever alternative term you choose, facilitate the end of “Masters.”

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[1] K. Schwaber and M. Beedle, Agile Software Development with Scrum (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001).

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/master.

[3] Mail Online. “Harvard University Removes ‘House Master’ Title,” February 25, 2016. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3464182/Harvard-University-removes-word-master-academic-titles-protests-slavery-considers-changing-official-seal.html.

[4] “In Residential Real Estate, Bid Farewell to the ‘Master Bedroom,’” Baltimore Business Journal, accessed October 31, 2019, https://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/news/2013/04/16/homebuilders-scrap-racist.html.

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