Top Challenges Faced by Scrum Masters | David Tzemach

Over the past few months, I have asked dozens of Scrum Masters to describe the top challenges that they face Scrum Master before, during and after the transition to an Agile environment. The list below is compiled from their honest answers, with some comments from me.

A leader without authority

The first thing that we need to remember is that the SM is the facilitator of the team (at least in theory). However, the SM does not have any formal authority as we would expect to see for such an important role. In fact, the Scrum Master can be any member of the team.

Back in the old days of traditional management, authority was one of the job requirements for managers, but because Scrum teams are supposed to be “self-organized” and based on the day-to-day activities of the Scrum Master, there is simply less room for the use of authority (although it can be helpful on some occasions).

The Scrum framework assumes that each individual in the team has natural creativity, an ambition to succeed, and the power to act without the need for a manager that will use his authority to push him or her to perform.

As a servant leader, the Scrum Master can lead the team without the need for any authority. Here are just a few examples that can explain this:

  • Scrum motivates people by allowing them to share their thoughts while creating a constructive ground that avoids criticism (we can criticize ideas, but not people).

  • Team members take an active part as decision-makers, which increases their natural motivations and personal commitment.

  • The team has the final decision regarding the amount of work they will commit to in each sprint.

Keeping the timeboxing of meetings

A key aspect of all Agile meetings is to restrict the maximum amount of time allocated for the team to successfully complete a specific goal. Unfortunately, keeping the Scrum meetings within a defined timebox is just one of those annoying tasks that no one likes to do.

Managing and predicting conflicts

The Scrum Master has the responsibility to manage internal conflicts within the Scrum team and sometimes external conflicts related to team integrations with external stakeholders. The Scrum Master is expected to have the personal skills to predict and handle these conflicts, to help the team focus on the sprint goal and deliver high-quality deliverables.

Dealing with unrealistic management expectations

It is sadly a common thing to see different management expectations related to the role of the Scrum Master, which only makes the Scrum Master’s life even more challenging than it already is.

While some managers understand this role and its limitations, other managers rely on their old management habits, and expect their Scrum Masters to make the team work harder (leading to over commitment), or using measurements that are not relevant to this work environment (leading to more useless pressure).

This makes the life of the Scrum Master really challenging, as he needs to protect the team (especially in the earlier phases of implementation), while at the same time setting the right expectations that will harness them as key contributors and as the leaders of the project.

Finding the right mix of team members

One of the main objectives of the Scrum Master is to assist his team to become “self-organized” which is quite a challenging task on its own. Building a self-organized team that has the right mix of members can take months and even years. And yes, it’s the Scrum Master’s main responsibility to help them to become a coherent, dedicated, goal-oriented team.

Scrum Master as facilitator

One of the main responsibilities of the Scrum Master is to facilitate the different Scrum events. In that context, the Scrum Master’s challenge is not to become the team admin, scheduling meetings, inviting people and taking notes.

This may happen at the earlier phases of the transformation when the team is still not mature, but it is simply not the primary function of the Scrum Master, who should focus on enabling the team and let them take ownership on their day-to-day activities.

Lack of commitment from management

I have seen this one in almost every single organization I have worked with as a consultant. A single person determines that moving to Agile is the direction that the company should embrace to achieve one goal or another. And this is done without buy-in from another member of senior management, which naturally leads to a lack of commitment to the process and more challenges for the Scrum Master.

Communicate a new style of leadership

The Scrum Master's role is unique to the Scrum environment and presents a new way of leadership. This can be confusing and misleading for some people that don’t understand its real meaning. The Scrum Master is not the manager, boss or owner of the Scrum team. Instead, he is an enabler that allows the team to succeed at what they do.

Team success conflicts with personal success

One critical aspect of a great Scrum Master is to help the team succeed. As the team becomes self-organized, the perceived value of the Scrum Master diminishes. This can be problematic for the Scrum Master if he works in an environment that praises its employees based on individual goal accomplishments.

Lack of collaboration with the Product Owner

As part of his day-to-day activities, the Scrum Master needs to ensure that there is a productive collaboration between the relevant stakeholders. This is especially important between the team and the Product Owner. This can become increasingly challenging when the Product Owner (PO) is not responsive to the team’s questions, or when the PO makes decisions without consulting the team.