8 Scrum Master Antipatterns that May Impair Your Team

The following are Scrum Master antipatterns that may impair your team:

1. Excessive Tailoring

While some deviation from the standard practices is usually not a big deal, excessive tailoring of the defined process in terms of scope and frequency can lead to problems such as change fatigue by the team. For example, constantly changing the duration of the sprints or sprint events, changing the location of daily Scrums, modifying the frequency of the backlog refinement meetings, etc. Even though some changes may seem very minor on the surface, unless there’s a good reason to implement the change, team members can begin to lose confidence in the team’s ability to execute due to the unnecessary distractions.

2. Complacent with Status Quo

In contrast to the first point, a Scrum Master who doesn’t like change, or avoid change at all cost, will also create problems for the team. The key is to achieve a delicate balance of the magnitude and frequency of process improvement ideas. Scrum encourages the Scrum Team to “inspect and adapt”, but it does not say how often or how much; it is up to the team to decide what changes are meaningful and digestible, and will lead to positive returns. It is the Scrum Master’s job to encourage this mindset and to be open to trial/error.

3. Solves Problems for Others

Very often, a Scrum Master is considered to be “effective” when he/she solves problems or does work that the team should own for themselves. This mindset is often a result of the Scrum Master having previously served as a Project Manager, who is accustomed to taking ownership of issues and addressing them. This behavior can be counterproductive because it trains the team to pass off issues instead of owning them and resolving them, which allows them to learn from the experience and improve as a team.

4. Competes Against Other Teams

I have personally witnessed Scrum Masters who attempt to motivate the team by citing the performance of other teams within the same program or organization. This is an easy trap to fall into, but is potentially very damaging to team morale. Motivating by fear or stress may reap some gains in the short term, but will likely to cause more harm than good in the long run. Trying to out-perform other teams is a natural inclination by high-performing teams that like to feel the sense of “winning”; this can be especially highlighted when an organization imposes a distribution system for compensation increases which creates an inherent competition amongst peers. The Scrum Master’s job is to motivate the team through a sense of accomplishment and mastery, not by fear.

5. Avoids Conflict

It is human nature to feel a sense of security and safety, especially in a group setting. This explains why some Scrum Masters often avoid conflict instead of finding ways to resolve it. This is especially true if the Scrum Master does not have a lot of experience with conflict resolution. If the same issues/conflicts continue to surface within the team, it is very likely that the Scrum Master needs help to address them.

6. Follows the Same Retrospective Format Every Sprint

After a team has been working together for several sprints and is able to deliver successful outputs, it can reach a point of complacency (or plateau). This condition is exhibited in many ways, and one way to identify this is that Retrospectives become very stale or repetitive. If the Scrum Master always follows the same format to conduct Retrospectives, it can create a sense of repetition that stifles innovation and new ideas. To avoid this, challenge the Scrum Master to change the format at least every two sprints so that team can leverage the Retrospective to continue improving.

7. Does Not Like to be Challenged/Questioned

Some Scrum Masters are not used to being challenged by the team or external team members because they see this as an attack to their domain knowledge instead of an opportunity for improvement. This can occur as an aftermath of excessive process tailoring that does not include explanations on “why” certain activities are done. If this behavior is identified, one approach to address this is to coach the Scrum Master to provide more context when decisions related to process is made, which will help clarify the rationale.

8. Assign Tasks to Team Members

Another common mistake that Scrum Masters make is to assign specific tasks to team members instead of enabling them to take collective ownership of the work. This is especially likely to occur if the Scrum Master comes from a Project Management background where the work is delegated from the top down using a “command and control” approach. Since the team has the best understanding of its capabilities, they are in the best position to know who can take on certain tasks. There may be situations when a less experienced team member may choose a task that is too complex for his/her skillset; if this occurs, it’s the Scrum Master’s responsibility to bring this to the attention of the team and help them assess whether there are better alternatives to this approach.

Have you observed any of these antipatterns from your Scrum Masters? If so, it may be time to reset expectations and provide additional guidance to ensure team performance is optimized. Don’t let these common Scrum Master antipatterns affect your team’s ability to produce value.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai