Sunday, June 28, 2015

What to call the Scrum Master of a Kanban Team?(Guest Post by Mike Longin)

Prateek and I recently presented an experience report at the Lean Kanban North American conference. And as we went through session, it became clear that one of our biggest challenges was helping our audience understand our deep-seated use of homegrown terminology, specifically surrounding job titles. For example, the title we use to refer to our Kanban “Scrum Masters” at Ultimate Software is “Iteration Manager,” or IM.

To be honest, this challenge isn’t new. Prateek and I often find ourselves using a few terms interchangeably – Iteration Manager (IM), Lead Process Engineer (LPE), and in some cases, Scrum Master. We’ve used these three titles to describe one position that has not changed that much since Ultimate Software’s original Scrum implementation in 2005.

In Essential Scrum, Ken Rubin defines the scrum master position like this:
“The Scrum Master helps everyone involved understand and embrace the Scrum values, principles, and practices. She acts as a coach, providing process leadership and helping the Scrum team and the rest of the organization develop their own high-performance, organization-specific Scrum approach.”

A key takeaway here is that a Scrum Master is the leader or the manager. It is their job to lead the team through the trials and tribulations of product development. And to that end, we empowered our Scrum Masters by making them responsible for the product the team is producing. If the need arose, the Scrum Master provided course corrections to keep not only the process, but also the product on point.

As we transitioned from Scrum to Kanban in 2008, we recognized that there was a need for a similar position – a leader who would empower the team to own the process and product they’d created. Similar to a Scrum Master, the leader would not have people management responsibilities. However, they would be responsible for the products and processes of their team. A new title was created—the Lead Process Engineer (LPE). The title emphasized the fact that our LPEs would make process management a major part of their day-to-day responsibilities. But the down side was that it under emphasized their responsibility for the team and its people.

In 2012 we made a process reversal, and roughly 25% of our teams returned back to a highly customized version of Scrum. But instead of calling team leaders Scrum Masters, we went with the term Iteration Manager (IM). These teams worked in parallel with our Kanban Lead Process Engineers, but we eventually adopted the IM title to cover all team leads, regardless of the process being used. Although the name itself was a bit of a misnomer as the job still derived its responsibilities from leadership qualities, not people management.  Thus the term “manager” is still a bit confusing to those outside the company. And once again, the title also highlighted the iteration (process) aspect and downplayed the people and product.

So what is a better name? After a bit of soul searching, I realized that whenever I spoke about my position to someone outside of the organization, I always used the term Team Lead. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this term is the best fit for the position. While an agile team is self-empowered, I believe there is always a single person who should hold final responsibility. After all, when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. That person is not a “master” of the team, but is instead the “lead.”

The Team Lead interfaces with outside parties and helps the team remove impediments. They may or may not lead internal team meetings like standups and retrospectives, but they are the person who ensures the team is making those ceremonies a part of their process. The lead is responsible for the team’s process, people, and product. And while they are not necessarily the team’s manager, they are empowered to help individual team members, and the team as a whole, succeed.

Personally, I also like the title because I believe it speaks more to the position itself than any of the previous names. Where Iteration Manager, Lead Process Engineer, and Scrum Master all highlight the process; Team Lead highlights what I believe is the most important aspect of the position – team. Now an interesting question could be whether Product Lead is a better title since that highlights the goal of any team, which is to ship a product.

Lead also speaks better to the position than Manager or Master – both of which imply the team works for the position itself rather than the position being one of responsibility. Team Lead highlights what makes this position the position it really is. You are neither a manager nor management. Instead, you are the team’s leader. You are responsible for leading them to success, which is just not conveyed with Scrum Master, Iteration Manager, or Lead Process Engineer.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I think the title also speaks more to the outside world. When we interface with customers, titles like Iteration Manager, Scrum Master, and Lead Process Engineer do not convey our personal responsibility to that customer. Team Lead, however, speaks to the responsibility we have to that specific customer while also helping the customer recognize who they are speaking to.

So what’s the next step? Obviously new business cards are in order (it may be time to buy stock in VistaPrint to keep up with the demand). Second is to get further buy-in from the Kanban community and Agile community as a whole. While it seems like a small thing, having consistent titles is an important part of helping a methodology mature. It also makes it easier for successful team leads in Kanban implementations to find work outside their company. Take a look on Monster and you’ll notice that there are 1000+ job openings for Scrum Masters. But to be honest, I have no idea what I would even search for to find a position at a company practicing Kanban.

So all of you Team Leads out there, what do you think? Is Team Lead the title you use (either publically or internally), or do you have something better? Let me know in the comments below, or you can reach me on Twitter at @mlongin.


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