In meeting with students or those that come see me speak, I often hear some version of this question:
“Is being a Scrum Master really a full-time job?”
This is an interesting question, and worth discussing.
Much of the reason WHY this question gets asked is that an organization doesn’t have a shared understanding of not just not the role of a Scrum Master, but an understanding of Scrum as a whole. Often one of two scenarios arise: A Scrum Master must regularly justify their position, having to answer, “What do you do all day?” They are under pressure to do more “real work,” instead of that soft, fuzzy, people-related stuff. The other scenario is the “manager” Scrum Master, where success for their role may include that icky word “utilization,” or otherwise making sure their team is doing enough “real work.” If either of these describe your situation, I’m in your corner.
So let’s look at some real numbers. I’m not going to be giving a class on Scrum here, there is plenty of reading out there on what Scrum is and if you want to learn more, please feel free to reach out to me (shameless plug). For this exercise I’ll use a two-week Sprint as an example.
A huge part of what makes Scrum a great way to work is the focused discussions that teams have with one another, the Sprint Events: Backlog Refinement, Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective. As a Scrum Master you may find yourself needing to prepare some for these sessions before they start, and with some discussions or post-event actions. This is in addition to connecting with team members before and after events. All of this sounds familiar, right?
Ever had one of those important after-meeting watercooler sessions about what to do next? This is the time I’m talking about. Let’s call all that energy event overhead for right now, and I’m going to assume that around each event there is some time before and after dedicated to these activities.
This overhead does not include the events themselves, as outlined in the Scrum Guide:
Backlog Refinement is a continuous activity where Scrum Teams add the appropriate level of detail, estimates, and ordering to items in the Product Backlog. Teams should spend approximately 10% of their sprint capacity working on this activity.
For a two-week sprint, a team could spend one hour on eight of the ten business days of the Sprint working on refining the Product Backlog. Imagine having conversations centered on 3 to 4 backlog items each day, not unreasonable at all.
Sprint Planning is the first activity that happens in a Sprint, and teams are time-boxed to 8 hours for a 4-week sprint.
I like to use a rule of thumb that teams spend two hours together planning for each week of a Sprint, so for this example a team would spend four hours creating their Sprint Goal and Sprint Backlog for a two-week Sprint.
The Daily Scrum occurs every 24 hours. Team members have a conversation with one another (aka, not a status meeting) to align activities that enable them to meet the Sprint Goal. This is time-boxed to 15 minutes each day.
The Sprint Review is the event where the Scrum Team demonstrates the increment to attendees, questions are asked and answered, and collectively the group figures out what to do next. This event is time-boxed to 4 hours for a four-week Sprint.
For this example, let’s say our Sprint Review takes 2 hours for our two-week Sprint.
The Sprint Retrospective is the important conversation where the Scrum Team identifies areas they are awesome in as well as ways to get better. Teams then make a short plan that they can use to improve in the next Sprint. The Sprint Retrospective is time-boxed to 3 hours for a four-week sprint.
By using approximately 45 minutes for each week of Sprint length, for this example let’s say our Sprint Retrospective will take 90 minutes for our two-week Sprint.
In summary, here is a quick snapshot of how these events could align using two-week sprints. Note: The Sprint starts on a Wednesday and finishes up on a Tuesday:
Considering the timing of the examples above, here’s how the breakdown of Sprint Events would look like in a table:
Not too unreasonable, right? PLENTY of time to get some of that “real work” done as a Scrum Master… But let’s dig a little deeper.
Being a Scrum Master is about creating an environment where others can be successful. Some of the responsibilities that most Scrum Masters would perform regularly are:
Actions from the Sprint Retrospective to help the team improve
Removing impediments preventing team members from meeting the Sprint Goal
Shielding team members from distractions
Coaching members of the Development Team, one-on-one or in small groups
Coaching the Product Owner
You may be reading this saying, “I do a whole lot more than that for my team!” but for this example, let’s just use those five things as part of your normal day-to-day routine.
It’s reasonable to expect to spend about 15 minutes a day working on actions that the Scrum Team came up with during the Sprint Retrospective. It’s also reasonable to spend about 15 minutes a day shielding others from distractions, on a good day!
Let’s assume that your Scrum Team is in that sweet spot of 5 to 9 members. Each day, any of them could raise their hand and say, “I need some help”. For this example, imagine if four people a day ask for help, each of them might require about 30 minutes of your time. This can often occur immediately following the Daily Scrum but can really happen whenever. So, four team members ask for help, needing half an hour, adds up to 2 hours of your time. Again, not that unreasonable huh? I think you see where this is going, but stay with me it gets better 😊
The person I found myself interacting with quite a bit as a Scrum Master was my Product Owner. Throughout the day, a Scrum Master could support their Product Owner in a variety of ways and for this example let’s say they do this 30 minutes a day.
All of this “real work” that a Scrum Master performs can be summed up here:
Again, not too unreasonable but there’s plenty of time to do all that “other stuff” … right?
There’s yet another part to the role that you may not be considering. Being a Scrum Master includes a lot of responsibility for their teams, but also supporting the development of an agile organization, and continuously looking to improve.
Let’s assume a professional spends some time learning, reading or writing blog posts, creating additional content, doing research, or designing a talk for a conference. They also may spend time helping the organization - helping to facilitate user groups, centers of excellence, cross-team information sharing, or training activities. For this example, assume 15 minutes a day for yourself, and another 15 minutes on the organizations (seems painfully low to me…)
Finally, there are a few “hidden” things. These activities you may or may not have thought about, but let me ask a few questions:
Do you eat? I assume you do if you are reading this, and it’s not out of the question to assume a professional takes 45 minutes a day making sure their bodies have the fuel they need.
Do you move around at all? Walking from place to place, to coworkers or meetings? You likely do. Let’s assume you need about 15 minutes while at work moving around.
Lastly is the time-sink we never seem to consider, and that’s context switching. Ever try to write an email, while taking a conference call, and debugging that issue on the dashboard? It takes energy and brain space, and people need time to wind up / down and switch to the task at hand. This can absolutely destroy some days with so many different activities. For this example, I’m going to be super generous and say you only spend 45 minutes of your day context switching, it’s likely even more.
Here’s how these activities look, summed up:
I think you can see where this is going. What does ALL OF THAT above add up to? Let’s put it all together:
510 minutes, or 8.5 hours a day 5100 minutes a week, or 85 hours.
Let that sink in. That’s a lot of time!
Now, some of you may be saying “That isn’t how long it takes in my org!” Take a deep breath and think about this example. NONE of this is unreasonable for a Scrum Master. There are busy times, and slower times, but for illustration purposes it’s close to what people experience on a regular basis.
Know what’s missing? All that “real work” that people ask a Scrum Master to do. Anything that isn’t mentioned here. Even if it’s only a couple items on a Sprint Backlog, there already isn’t enough room! Keep in mind this doesn’t consider bathroom breaks, reading up on the latest sports story, joking with co-workers, etc. A Scrum Master has PLENTY on their plate, and this assumes things don’t go sideways and something BIG happens that needs their attention!!!
Now that I’ve got you thinking, it’s up to you to take this article and do with it what you will. Some of you may use it for a conversation in your organization that you need more support in your position as a Scrum Master. Others may look at this and have the realization that the folks you are supporting really DO have a point when they say they are too busy! Others may want to get the calculators out and look to tear apart things minute-by-minute, and if that’s what you need to do, go for it.
My point is this: Being a Scrum Master takes a lot of work, dedication, time, effort, energy, emotion, and commitment. Asking someone to perform the job laid out in the example shown above is asking a lot and its importance cannot be overstated.
So, to answer the question “Is being a Scrum Master a full-time job?”, I think you already knew the answer. If you have any questions about Scrum, Agile, or anything else please do not hesitate to reach out to our team at SparkPlug Agility and we can get the conversation going. Thanks for reading! - CL