Team Leaders and Scrum Masters

When adopting Scrum, a common concern for both teams and managers is “What do we do with the Team Leader role?”. We discussed this delicate issue earlier this year at the AgileWorks meetup in Timisoara. There were still unanswered questions after the first meeting, so we had to schedule another one.

In this blog post, I will give you my opinion on whether the Team Leader role is still needed. The short answer is NO. For more nuance, keep reading.

The Team Leader (TL)

This role is rooted in command and control thinking, and it’s often seen as the first step on the corporate ladder. This is the reasoning behind it: “We need a person to be responsible for the team’s results. Not everybody on the team is trustworthy, so we need the TL to keep them in line. She will be the team’s interface with the outside world. She will make the technical decisions. This will be very effective.”

Unfortunately, having a team leader reduces team involvement, which increases the need for a team leader. See the diagram below.

team-leader-feedback-loop

The more managers rely on the TL to get the job done, the more there will be an imbalance in the team between the TL and “normal” team members in terms of knowledge and motivation. This will ultimately lead managers to increase the TL’s authority and further cause demotivation in the team. As a result, the total value generated is less than what the team is capable of.

So, how does Scrum solve the problem?

The Scrum Master (SM)

Scrum does away with the Team Leader role but proposes the Scrum Master. Often times, TLs become SMs, but the two roles are very different. The SM role assumes servant-leadership, a way of leading people without having formal authority over them. The SM resorts to setting a shared vision, involving everyone in the decisions, coaching the group and the individuals and works with the rest of the company to remove impediments.

This leads to a quite different team dynamic.

agile-team-feedback-loop

Because there is no longer a central decision point, all team members are asked to contribute equally. The increased motivation and responsibility lead to better results which, in turn, increase the trust and management’s willingness to treat the team as a whole.

So, do we still need the Team Leader?

Every TL is different, and her responsibilities, as assigned by management are different. Here are the main ones I’ve seen:

  • Assign tasks
  • Make technical decisions
  • Provide estimates to management
  • Talk to outside people

When transitioning to Scrum, task assignment, and providing estimates become team responsibilities. Talking to outside people is done both by the SM (for removing impediments) and the team (everything else). The only question left is who makes technical decisions.

Many agile coaches suggest that Scrum team members should have an equal say when it comes to technical aspects. While I agree with it as an ideal, my experience was that even in agile teams one or two technical leaders emerge. Everyone else defers to their judgment and experience when it comes to tricky technical problems. I am fine with that. My only request is that they dedicate a big chunk of their time to coach the other team members and thus grow the collective knowledge.

Getting there

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Lao Tzu

The team dynamic I’ve described in the second diagram is not something that magically happens overnight just because you adopted Scrum. If the team was not used to making estimates or having a say on technical issues, you can safely bet they won’t start doing it just because Bob suddenly became a Scrum Master.

For the first few weeks, tasks will probably still be assigned and technical decisions made by the ex-Team Leader. This ensures that work still gets done while the team adapts to a new style of working.

Bob should not despair though because there are a lot of tools that he can use to get people to participate. Here are some of them:

  • Ask people what they think, both in private and in group meetings.
  • Coach people on how to think about technical issues, or bring in someone that can do that.
  • Use Planning Poker during the Sprint Planning meetings.
  • Ask other managers or customers to talk directly to the team members when it’s faster this way.
  • Ask: “Who would like to do this task?” while planning. Then wait, wait. And wait some more. Someone always volunteers. That’s a first step on the path to a responsible team.

Conclusion

The Team Leader role is not needed in Scrum. For teams that currently have this role and are transitioning to Scrum, the Scrum Master should use various techniques to get everyone involved. Some informal technical leaders are expected to emerge, however.

What about you? What is your experience with Team Leaders and Scrum Masters? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


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(Photo credits: euthman)

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9 thoughts on “Team Leaders and Scrum Masters”

    1. Alexandru Bolboaca

      To support diversity, we like to use gender neutral language. There are three ways we found of doing that: alternate ‘he’ and ‘she’, use ‘he/she’, or use the singular ‘they’. We rarely used the second option since it gets repetitive, so we tried the first for a while. Today, we prefer the third one as it’s shorter and easier.

  1. Jacob Lorensen

    I am noticing these exact dynamics and don’t know how to fight them.

    I’m in a small software development company (<30 people total). GUI/front-end group. We've been doing Scrum to the best of our abilities for a bit over a year when finally the long-awaited reorganisation pulled in new roles… "Product Lead", "Team Lead", and some others.

    Since I was spearheading our Scrum efforts, being the Scrum master, I sought the Team Lead role. Now, 5 months later I can see these dynamics: When discussing architectural issues, my team members' goal is to convince ME, not each other. When build systems need attention (automated tests etc. boring tasks) we no longer volunteer, and some tasks lie idle until I explicitly ask someone to do it.

    This is very unfortunate, and I don't know how to fight it.

  2. Bullshit as the whole Scrum. Scrum is good only for those who came from absolutely freestyle teams but not for those who work in absolute professional way. There are much better agile approaches.

  3. Hello Flavius,

    Thanks a lot for sharing, this is an excellent article which make a lot of sense for anyone practicing Scrum.

    I still faced some understanding about empowerment subtilities at work. Your post help to materialize concepts which are difficults to explain.

    @Ozzman, I would recommand you pmbook (1990 edition)

  4. Thanks a lot for this article, it make a lot of sense for anyone practicing scrum.
    Matter here is empowerment, a subtel transformation process which not well understood.

    I still face misunderstanding within the enterprise on TL / SC differences, not easy to explain.
    @Ozzman, I recommend you to take a look at PMbook (1990 edition).

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