Balancing Scrum mastery with line management

Photo by Denise MattoxIf you are both Scrum master and line manager to your team you face a challenge in balancing your responsibilities. The role of a Scrum master is to coach and help. It is very much focused on letting team members discover solutions for themselves, and very much not about telling them what to do. The role of a line manager is compatible in many ways, but is much more focused on the individual rather than the team. Also, when you need to deal with under-performance as a line manager, you may do so in a much more direct manner. Sometimes you must do it directly, and that is entirely counter to the Scrum master’s rules of engagement. Under-performance is probably the most challenging area for the Scrum master-line manager. If you are in this position, how can you best resolve this conflict?

I approach this problem initially from the point of view of signalling your role. Sometimes you are Scrum master, sometimes you are line manager. It needs to be clear to a team member at any time which role you are playing, otherwise they won’t be a good position to act appropriately. If they think of you as Scrum master their immediate concern is primarily with delivering their commitments; if they think of you as line manager they will have more concern with how well they are doing their job. Certainly this isn’t either/or for the team member, but undoubtedly how they perceive the person present will affect their behaviour.

Given that your role needs to be clear at any time, the next question is how to signal either. Some situations are clear-cut. For line management the primary event is the one-to-one, plus (less frequently) the quarterly/annual/wheneverly appraisal. For the Scrum master it is the stand-up, the retrospective, and so on. Everything in between is potentially grey, but the reality is that the major focus of everyone in and around the team will be delivery, so the default role (from the default expectation) is Scrum master for all that other time.

In general, then, one-to-ones are particularly important, because it is the only time you are clearly playing the role of line manager, and therefore the only regular time you can be sure of having a line-managerly conversation. On top of that you can create ad hoc times, by asking a team member for a conversation “as your line manager” or “with my management hat on rather than my Scrum master hat”.

In summary:

  • It needs to be clear which role you are in at any time;
  • The default role is that of Scrum master;
  • One-to-ones are a clear time you can act as line manager, but you can also create clear ad hoc times, too.

There is another discussion to be had about whether it is sensible to be both Scrum master and line manager. I believe there is no single best setup, that each option has its downsides, and the best setup depends on the organisation and people involved. But that’s for another day…