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  • Brian Hall

What's the Value of a Scrum Master?

In January of 2023, Capital One made the decision to remove more than 1000 Scrum Masters and agile coaches from their payroll. They simply did not see the value that they brought to the organization. Many in the agile industry were surprised by this move. Maybe they had hired many of the wrong ones. Maybe they didn't attempt to measure the value... or maybe they were correct, and they were not bringing that much value to the organization.

I don't have any inside information as to why Capital One took this course of action, nor do I know how much, if any, value the Scrum Masters were providing to that organization. What I do know, however, is how much value a Scrum Master can provide, and how much value they have provided organizations that I have been a part of... because we measured it. There's lots of ways to measure value, and they all come down to what is valuable to the organization. Predictability? Velocity (or one of its derivatives)? Quality (e.g., escaped defects)? All of these, and more, are probably important, and it really doesn't matter which one, or ones, you choose, if they make sense to you.

Without knowing exactly how Capital One went about their agile journey, I would venture a guess that it went something like this:

  • They have seen the engineering community achieving great things using this thing called agile.

  • Leadership declares agility is a priority and fully funds the transition.

  • It is determined that they need Scrum Masters, because they have been told (or have read) that Scrum Masters are an important part of being agile.

  • So, they decide to hire Scrum Masters... a lot of them.

    • How do they know if they a hiring good one? Great question! How about only hire certified Scrum Masters? Becoming a certified Scrum Master is a pretty easy process -- pay a trainer a few hundred dollars to take a 2-day course and pass a test (80% is good enough).

    • They hire a whole lot of certified Scrum Masters

  • Those Scrum Masters conduct and run agile "ceremonies", and everyone pats themselves on the back about being agile.

So, what went wrong? Here's a hint -- the value of a Scrum Master isn't in having someone running the ceremonies. Those ceremonies are merely the medium in which the Scrum Master achieves their real goal -- building a high-performance team. In that way, Scrum Masters are team coaches, and their value is contained in the teams that they build. They are leaders and strategic thinkers.

I'm not against certifications, but let's be real about this. A 2-day course in the mechanics of SCRUM (or any agile framework) simply isn't enough to be a coach for a team of professionals. Just imagine a situation where you could attend a 2-day class on your professional sport of choice, pass a short exam, and then declare yourself a capable coach of professionals in that sport. Sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn't it? About the only thing that you could say is that the 2-day course taught you the rules of the game. It in no way prepares a person to effectively coach a team of professionals. It's true for both sports coaches as well as Scrum Masters. That training might prepare you to start coaching young teams that are just starting to learn how to play the game, but skilled players and teams would quickly need to graduate to a more experienced coach, or risk having their growth being stunted by someone who is incapable, or ill prepared, to coach at a more advanced level.

In 2015 I ran an experiment because I was curious. I was responsible for the folks who were taking on the role of Scrum Master for the 12 or so teams that we had at the time. All of them were team members who had volunteered to take on the additional role of SM. Most were QA folks, but a few were Developers. Some teams did okay. Some teams were a bit dysfunctional. There was a developer on one of the teams that expressed an interest in being a full time SM -- in other words, he would no longer be a developer, and only be a team coach. So, we ran an experiment. I gave him 2 teams to be the full time SM for, and I chose which teams very carefully. I gave him the one team that everyone considered to be our most agilely mature team, and I also gave him our most dysfunctional team. At the time, I don't believe he knew that I was running this experiment, and the measure of productivity we used was a derivative of velocity. Now, I know what many of you are thinking -- points and velocity are easily manipulated -- and I agree. We did some relative-sizing exercises with the two teams after the experiment to determine if there had been a significant shift in pointing policies on these teams, and there was negligible point inflation.

The results of this experiment surprised me. Our most agilely mature team increased their productivity by 33%, and our dysfunctional team turned things around to the tune of a 750% increase. Even if we ignore the improvement of the dysfunctional team, the 33% increase for a team of 6 (4 developers and 2 QA) paid the SM's salary... twice. In other words, for every dollar we invested in the SM, we got two dollars of increased productivity from the team (without hiring additional engineers. That's one team. If you expanded the coaching responsibilities to a second team (we learned that 2 teams are about as much as a single SM can reasonably coach), that productivity gain is really getting four dollars for the one dollar invested in the SM. Based on those results, we did the only sensible thing we could think of -- we immediately embarked on hiring and training an entire team of full-time SM's.

I took these lessons to my next employer, and although there wasn't an entire team of SM's, we were able to increase the productivity of one department's teams by 67% while facing the headwinds of high staff turnover during the pandemic... and we were also able to accurately predict delivery of future projects far in advance because the team was able to see through a certain amount of ambiguity and provide reasonable estimates due to the coaching they had received.

So, what is the value of a SM? I suppose it really depends on the skill of that SM, just like it matters in the skill level of any coach. You get a different level of results based on the abilities of the coach. You may be able to make improvements with an inexperienced coach with minimal coaching skills, but if you want truly exceptional results, you need to seek out and hire the truly exceptional coaches. They're out there... they talk about how well their teams flourished under their care, because they're proud of their teams. But you must ask yourself, what is the value of productivity increases? What is the value of visibility for the product roadmap? Why wouldn't you spend $150k to get $300k (or $600k, or much more) in productivity gains plus have better predictability in your deliveries?

Maybe Capital One didn't hire the right Scrum Masters. Maybe those Scrum Masters did a poor job of highlighting their value over time. Or maybe their business leaders didn't really understand why they were hiring the Scrum Masters in the first place. If your organization is hiring Scrum Masters simply because leadership has declared that they want to become an agile organization, you're starting off on the wrong foot. Agility is a path towards providing more value while being able to respond to unforeseen impediments as you move forward. Hire coaches that teach teams to be better teams, and your productivity will follow.


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