Is your Scrum Master playing the right role?

Is your Scrum Master playing the right role?

4 years ago 0 0 1237

The Rugby World Cup was on in Japan recently. It was a fabulous tournament with the South African team triumphing in the end. Rugby is renowned for its teamwork and tough play, and the idea of the ‘scrum’ in the world of agile working was taken as an analogy from Rugby Union. As such, it is interesting to reflect on what we can learn from the real game of Rugby to make scrums in your business work better.


  • The analogy that created ‘scrum’ can teach us much about the roles of those involved.
  • Scrum master is a role that does not exist on the rugby pitch. Its closest analogy is the ‘referee’.
  • Understanding how a referee controls and manages the scrum can inform best practice for ‘Scrum Masters’ in the agile workplace, and help Scrum masters help their teams play better games.

As I was watching the matches of this recent World Cup , some scrums were incredible, and others simply collapsed. Great teams rallied and use the scrum to change the game. Other teams capitulated and their weak scrums saw them lose on the scoreboard. Does this remind you of perhaps what happens with agile practices in your workplace? Does your team ‘dig in’ and win the scrums, or give up when the heat is on?

One of the things that stood out to me as an observer of the game was the role of referee – who was actually the closest role to ‘scrum master’ on the pitch.

Yes – the scrum master on a rugby pitch is the referee. So the referee in your business has to be the scrum master. Here is why:

In rugby, there is no position called ‘scrum master’. There is no ‘product owner’ and there is no ‘backlog’ or ‘burn-down chart’. All of these are things which have stretched what should have been a useful metaphor – perhaps stretched it too far. These are artifacts created to make the analogy work (in principle) in supporting an agile work concept.

The Scrum master in most ‘Agile’ businesses knows the ‘theory’ of how to run a scrum, but often does not get the opportunity to delver brilliant performances through great scrums. In my opinion, often the wrong person is scrum master, they don’t truly understand their role, or they are not properly supported by the organisation to fulfil their role to maximum effect.

So perhaps its time we return to the rugby pitch and see how a true scrum master operates – by studying their natural counterpart; the referee.

In a game of rugby, there are times when a scrum is set. This can be because of things that have happened in the game dictate it, or it can be the choice of the controlling captain. A scrum involves a particular structure of players working together. Depending upon their position (front rower, second rower, flanker, etc) there are very specific positions that they take up in the scrum.

Take home lesson – everyone has to know how they fit into the scrum, what they do, and how they collaborate.

The goal of rugby is not to win the scrums, but to win the games. In some instances, a team with a hopeless scrum can win against even the best scrum, because the game is more than just the outcome of the scrums. However, a great scrimmaging team can go a long way to setting the foundation for a team victory.

Take home lesson – A great scrum is useless if it does not help the overall objective of the business.

The referee (the scrum master) controls how the scum is formed, and then ensures that it proceeds correctly. Great referees are not rushed – they get the teams into position, call ‘crouch, bind, set’ to get things organised – then referee the result. In a workplace, the scrum master has to control how the scrum sets up – how it gets itself organised, what it plans to do, how it will do it and then set everything moving. A great scrum master will do all that is required and take the time that is needed to get the scrum set correctly so that it works. They make sure everyone is in the right place, doing the right things. Then they stand back and let the scrum commence.

During a scrum, the referee will stop the scrum and reset it if need be. They will also call a penalty if players are deliberately (or forced) into ruining the scrum. The whole scrum has to push straight at the goal line, not wheel around (in the workplace, akin to changing the scrum purpose on the fly), and players in the scrum cannot simply collapse and bring the whole scrum down (scrum members not contributing or collaborating).

The great referees will be clear and concise in their instruction – “set yourself higher”, “dont hinge”, “Push straight”. If the players don’t take the message, then a penalty is called against them. A scrum master has to retain the ability to sanction (give a penalty) to any ‘player’ who fails or wilfully works to collapse or wheel the scrum.

Take home lesson – A great scrum master will not be afraid of holding the players to account.

The Scrum master must be empowered by the organisation to ‘blow penalties’ – call out behaviours that are impacting the scrum, and have the authority to hold them to account. Too often people are set up to fail as scrum masters because they lack this support or capability.

Part of the art of the scrum is delivering the ball into the scrum, then either driving forward, or creating an opportunity to move the ball back and then through the hands of other players to advance the play. Knowing what your scrum is trying to achieve, as part of the bigger game plan, must be known by all.

Perhaps I have stretched the metaphor too far – but I see many scrum masters trying to be part of the playing group, rather than the referee. I see too many scrums that could benefit by a thoughtful ‘referee’ who sets it right, gets it going, and ensures that it does not wheel or collapse due to the actions of some of the players.

This means that the Scrum Master needs the skills and the support of the organisation to be referee, and not act as some run-on water-bearer, to really make each scrum support the organisation crossing the goal line.

Questions to consider:

  • How is your scrum master being a referee?
  • What can they do to better get the scrum driving toward the goal line?
  • How could you help your scrum play a better scrum, and deliver a better game?

If you would like to find out how to make a better scrum, or use scrums better in your business to really make a difference, then contact Phil Owens, at The Bigger Game, now.

Leave a comment