Culture Follows Structure or the Misunderstood Scrum Master

From his decades of experience with the agile transformation of organizations and in particular with the introduction of the LeSS framework developed by Bas Vodde and himself, Craig Larman has summarized several observations as “Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior“. These “laws” nicely describe in various facets the inertia of hierarchical structures that implicitly always tend to preserve the status quo of middle and top management and established power structures in general. This hits the misunderstood and underestimated role of the Scrum Master particularly hard.

Larman’s Law of Organizational Behavior

Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

Craig Larman. Larman’s Law

In the most basic case, the transformation simply remains half-hearted: alibi-agility with a few agile teams and a few agile projects in an otherwise unchanged organization. But even many agile teams and many such projects within an otherwise rigid structure and unaltered processes still lag far behind the possibilities. Something that sooner or later will of course become apparent.

Source: Geek & Poke

Then follows the phase of label fraud and cargo cult. Roles and processes are mercilessly relabeled to agile terminology. The project manager becomes the product owner, the Project Management Office (PMO) becomes the Scrum Master and the loose collection of specialists in the project team becomes the Feature Team.

And because people are already enjoying the ride and because agile methods are so hip, everything gets an agile coating: agile steering committees, agile management teams, agile process model development, etc. Instead of questioning the encrusted structures and processes, they are “agilized”. Same same but different. Maslow’s hammer sends its greetings. Accordingly, the first corollary of Larman’s Law reads:

As a corollary, any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

Craig Larman. First Corollary

The Misunderstood Scrum Master

In the later stages of the agile transformation, roles and their sharper differentiation in the sense of a separation of powers are also discussed. Instead of mixing everything up in the one role of the boss, the following aspects of leadership are distinguished: The team organizes itself as much as possible and does not need a manager, the product owner takes care of the direction and the purpose and the Scrum Master takes care of the team, its cooperation including its productive integration into the rest of the organization. The line manager in the disciplinary sense does not occur in Scrum and the degree to which he becomes obsolete can certainly be seen as a measure of the agility of an organization.

For various not least formal reasons it will need a disciplinary line manager. And he can also take on a very valuable function in the game, namely to take care of people and their individual growth in the sense of the Manifesto for Human Leadership. While the Scrum-Master helps the We, the boss serves the I and the Product-Owner takes care of the proper Why. And the team remains responsible for the How.

In the course of the diversification of leadership into these four dimensions, Larman’s Law strikes mercilessly and hits the role of the Scrum Master hardest. Not because it is more difficult to understand, but because it is the least familiar. Functional leadership is common in projects and thus people identify the product owner as the former project manager. Teams have always existed, albeit less autonomously, and for the manager the previous tasks are the same minus the functional leadership and minus the self-organization of the team.

If one now adds the Scrum Master to this equation, it turns crucial for the self-esteem of managers who have been socialized in hierarchical organizations for years. Accordingly, in the worst case the Scrum Master is degraded to a secretary, maid or PMO (administers JIRA, writes protocols and removes impediments) and in the best case to an extended arm of the boss as a “team leader” (because the boss has to lead more people now due to his reduced tasks).

If the Scrum Master and the team have the same boss (being also the Product Owner’s boss) he will never be able to vigorously take the systemic perspective that the Scrum Guide explicitly attributes to him for good reason: “The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.” There is a vicious circle because those who should optimize the system and collaboration are not allowed to. In the unlikely case that some bold Scrum Masters recognize and address this, Craig Larman also has an appropriate corollary:

As a corollary, any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, “religion”, and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.

Craig Larman. Second Corollary

Advanced agile organizations share three characteristics. The first is a high degree of subsidiarity in the sense of the product owners’ freedom to make their own decisions. Secondly, a high degree of autonomy for the teams. And thirdly by a high independence of the Scrum Masters, which have to be separated as much as possible from the rest of the hierarchy (like the court jesters in the Middle Ages).

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Originally published at on April 12, 2019.

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