I have been involved with three organizations in the recent past where there have been some major debates about whether teams need a full-time Scrum Master (SM) to be successful. Many of these discussions have involved senior leaders in the company feverishly arguing why one approach will work better than another. And in all these cases, I have found them coming out with strong reasons supporting their viewpoints – all based on their own personal prior experience.

In all these discussions, everyone has been clear on one thing – and that is the fact that a Scrum Master does indeed make the team more productive. If someone can help remove impediments, mediate with PO on requirements and priorities, resolve resource or dependency issues on behalf of the team etc., the team is able to focus 100% on what they do best and so obviously becomes more productive. But the key question is whether this is a full-time job for a team and is economically justified.

Firstly, the answer to the question on having a Scrum Master for a team is not binary  – that is either have a full-time Scrum Master or have no one playing that role. The argument that some people use for not having a Scrum Master is simple – in Agile, teams are expected to be self-organizing so why do we need a Scrum Master? Let me give a recent experience to illustrate this.

In one of our engagements, a person playing the role of the Scrum Master for a team went through our Agile Awareness session where we talked about self-organizing teams. A week after the training, when the team had missed out on a commitment and he was asked by his management on what happened, his response was truly Agile (!) – that he thought that he did not have a role to play since he expected the team to be self-organizing!! We had to intervene as part of our coaching session with him – and help him understand his role as a Scrum Master in getting the team to be self-organizing.

So what then is the answer for whether a team needs a full-time Scrum Master? What factors determine when we need a full time Scrum Master and how do we economically justify it for a team?

If one were to look at a recommended checklist of responsibilities for a Scrum Master  it would be obvious that it takes up a substantial part of one’s time to play that role effectively. Especially for teams that are beginning their Agile journey, the role of the SM in ensuring that the team understands and internalizes Agile/Scrum values and principles and implements them in action is a huge ask. To add the responsibility of resolving impediments and coordinating with other teams and concerned stakeholders would mean substantially more time on the SM’s part. To make the team self-organizing, the SM has to sense how the team is working together and collaborating on various aspects and provide timely inputs to help them work better with each other. All this for a team that is starting out could mean a near full time responsibility. In our experience, even for teams that have some experience working with Agile, a SM would typically need to spend at least 50% of their time for all these responsibilities. So if you do have average or slightly above average teams in terms of Agile maturity, a full time SM could perhaps handle two Scrum teams at the most as a Scrum Master.

So the follow-up question is “Can I have a person within the team – either a developer or a tester – play the SM role if it demands only 50% of a person’s time to play that role – assuming my team is fairly mature with Agile”? The answer is yes, provided the person chosen has the required traits and skills to play the SM role. It is also important that the SM role in this case is the primary responsibility for that person. Invariably, the person may devote substantially more time to the SM responsibilities initially and as the team becomes mature with Agile behaviour, the time spent on the SM role would reduce.

What if I have a three or four member team? For such small sized teams, you don’t need too many formal processes for them to function effectively. They could share some of the responsibilities that a typical SM does or take turns to do whatever minimum that needs to be done for them to function effectively as a team.

Finally, there is the question of whether a manager can be a Scrum Master for his/her team? Given the reporting conflict involved, it would be very difficult to expect a team to become self-organizing if their own manager was their Scrum Master. There may be exceptions to this but in general it is recommended that the SM role be separated from the role of the Engineering Manager.