It is not hard to find blog posts, whitepapers and books that describe Agile transformation. Many focus of the start point and then discuss the benefits that the transformation created. Often much of the detail in the middle is skipped giving the impression the time between the start and the end is insignificant.

In practice many organisations find themselves in a hybrid state, not one thing or another. They realise that they need to change and have started on that road. On the flip side, whilst many changes have been implemented, that same organisation would not consider themselves lean or agile. Whilst in this state valuable characteristics will emerge but it is just as likely that aspects will emerge that are the worst of both worlds.

This post is about a hybrid role that is sometimes found in this middle ground. The role of a Scrum Master / Tech Lead Roles

Context

The organisation is not yet convinced of Agile delivery. They have heard of Scrum but they can’t see why they need at full time person to coach each team. And the rates this person charges are so high they’d better find thing else for them to do in the copious down time they’ll have!

Technical Lead

If you search for the term technical lead you’ll find many descriptions that range from project manager, architect to programmer. When you focus of on the common verbs in these descriptions you’ll find

  • Leads
  • Manages
  • In charge of
  • Accountable
  • Responsible

In a nutshell the Technical Lead often is expected to tell the rest of the team what to do and make all the technical decisions. Good technical leaders have the humility to delegate this to their team members but the results is the same, the rest of the organisation see the technical lead as the team

Scrum Master

The Scrum Master on the other hand helps the team to understand the processes and frameworks they should use to reach the state of a self-organising team where they themselves make the decisions and work out what they need to do. Rather than leading from the front they are a Servant Leader help the team become self-sufficient.

Conflict of Interests

As a team are learning the way of any Agile framework they can be very fragile. During a transformation they will be asked to fundamentally change and yet still deliver at a sustained rate. Change can be stressful at the best of time but it can unbearable while you are under deliver pressure.

So, when the team is being coach by a Scrum Master who is also the Technical Lead that individual will have a very fine balance to find. They will be encouraged when their coaching effort generates visible improvement to the team. However it is invertible that the point will come where some stakeholder will lean on the Technical Lead part of the role. The incumbent will have to step in to “take charge” due to some pressure or other perhaps to avoid a costly mistake. There is a good chance that this action can undo many of the team’s improvements. This intervention can shatter the team’s illusion that they are accountable and they fall back to the relative comfort of being told what to do.

A Scrum Master is trying to make the team accountable The Technical lead is the only one accountable. Hence the conflict of interest.

When forming a new agile team it is important that the coach is dedicated and his not expected to be the defacto team leader. I would recommend to always have a dedicated Scrum Master but not everyone sees eye to eye with me on that. In that case it might be acceptable to give the Scrum Master role to one of the team members but only when they are a self-organising team for some time.

 

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