Scrum Master: The Exam Versus Reality

Scrum; easy to learn, hard to master.

In an era of “digital transformations” (businesses finally boarding the technology train), every team is after delivery frameworks and new ways of working that will drive faster results. Scrum methodology has proven itself as a valuable self-organising approach to software development, and in recent years this has transferred across to product and service development. Consultancies and design agencies are on the hunt for Scrum Masters to implement the Scrum principals & rituals into projects, but is an online multiple-choice exam really a strategic way to hire your business leaders?

Let’s kick off with the basics – what is Scrum?

As the name suggests from Rugby, Scrum is a framework that enables teams to better work together. Scrum teaches teams how to continuously improve, providing a process for how to identify the work, who will do the work, how the work will be done and when it must be completed by. Scrum teams will always have a product owner (the end-user/client) who will create a product backlog, which is essentially a wish list that achieves the product’s vision. The team will work in sprints (typically 2 weeks of work) and will delegate the backlog items to the relevant team members for each sprint. The Scrum Master will focus the team, facilitate the sprint planning and the Sprint Retroview, as well as the daily stand-ups.

Scrum often gets confused with Agile, however, Agile is a philosophy. Scrum is a methodology that can deliver Agile.

Now back to the question at hand, what does the title Scrum Master mean? I was lucky enough to work in a Scrum team within one of Accenture’s innovation labs in the UK in 2017. We were developing a new Blockchain trading application and I was a (very elementary) UX designer. I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand how progressive and efficient working in Scrum can be when you have a talented Scrum Master. The experience of a Scrum Master (like any leadership role) is the critical component that determines whether the sprint is a success or utter chaos. A skilled Scrum Master can effortlessly enable a team of diverse skill sets to self-organise and to deliver iterative and tangible products/services. This requires a diverse range of business skills such as facilitation, negotiation, empathy, emotional intelligence, and systems thinking. None of these skills are assessed in the multiple-choice exam.

Welcome to 2019, where every Joe Blogs on this planet has achieved a Scrum Master qualification, and to be a ‘Scrum Master’ is now a well-established profession with competitive salaries. Digital consultants around the world have clocked on to the employment benefits of sitting this 400$ multiple choice exam, and equally, online training firms have jumped at the opportunity to distribute these certificates for a high fee. The 2-day course claims to explore “models of culture,” that guides young Scrum Masters into creating “high-performance organisations.” Having experienced this training personally, I can confirm that sitting in a classroom staring at a computer for 2 days does not enable someone to connect leadership behaviours with organisational culture, nor does it provide insight in how to overcome key Agile challenges. Some online certifications do not require paying participants to pass an online exam, the only requirement is class participation.

Similar to achieving your driving license, there are 2 critical parts to being a successful Scrum Master: the theory and the practical. To be granted access to the road it is a legal requirement to learn the rules of the road and the functionality of the car, followed by hours (for me years) of driving lessons with a practitioner. I believe that achieving a Scrum Master qualification should require the same pre-requisites (theory & practical) before driving cross-functional teams down business highways. Without practical learning from a qualified Scrum practitioner and development of diverse competencies and skills, it is a serious business risk allowing a multiple-choice exam to determine the quality of a leader.

Unskilled Scrum Masters survive by performing the minimum admin and process tasks, and I believe in an AI-first future there will only be a need for skilled Scrum Masters. Work planning, allocation, and assessment will be performed by bots. This may mean that the focus for Scrum Masters will shift from isolated Scrum rituals to agile growth mindsets and complex problem solving – which is a world where the multiple-choice exam will cease to exist.