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Johanna Rothman helps managers and teams solve problems and deliver products. Her most recent book is Manage your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects. You can read her blogs and other writings at Johanna is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 129 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Functional Managers Acting as Scrum Masters: Not a Good Idea

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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.

Published at DZone with permission of Johanna Rothman, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)



Matt Stine replied on Wed, 2010/06/30 - 8:33am


While I'm with you in spirit, I'm not sure that I totally agree with premise #1. I think that the misuse and abuse of role power on the part of many managers has created an environment where a manager can not be an effective member of the team. I firmly believe that if a manager appropriately and effectively uses the tools that you advocate (one-on-ones, feedback, coaching, etc.) that they can build the kinds of relationships with their team members that create a safe environment for risk taking (premise #2), etc. I feel like we have created an unhealthy, false dichotomy between management and individual contributors, and that as long as we allow "titular authority" to create a wall between them (though you didn't reference the term, it brings to mind the distasteful pigs and chickens analogy) we won't have the most effective organizations that we could have.

With that said, I do agree that in a setting with separate project and functional manager roles (I personally wear both hats), the functional manager acting as the "scrummaster" (not a role we formalize) is a bad idea. Much better to "annoint" a senior technical lead to play this role.


Johanna Rothman replied on Wed, 2010/06/30 - 1:13pm

Matt, I'm delighted that your experience is different from mine on point #1. It's fine that we disagree :-)

Matt Stine replied on Thu, 2010/07/01 - 1:18pm in response to: Johanna Rothman

Agreed. Otherwise there wouldn't be much used for dialogue. ;-)

Emma Watson replied on Fri, 2012/03/30 - 6:08am

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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