What is a “junior” scrum master anyway?

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A discussion that pops up every now and then in various agile forums is whether there is something like a “junior” or “senior” scrum master, and if so, how do you tell if you are one? The junior/senior thing is often seen as a hierarchical approach, and possibly an agile anti pattern. One of the ideas with the silly title of scrum master was that it was supposed to be a break from traditional hierarchical titles. For a servant leader, is “seniority” even desirable? No matter your intentions, a “senior” title implies that you’re above the “junior” or vaguely defined “intermediate” people with the same role. 

My experience is that the junior/senior designation is usually applied by people with low agile maturity: recruiters who do not understand agile, managers who may lead agile teams but do not adapt an agile approach to leadership or management consultants with more diagnoses (PMP, SPC, CSM, DUMB, whatever) than agile understanding. These people are so accustomed to relating to others through their rank that they can’t grasp to the idea of a role without a hierarchy to determine people’s worth.

A starwars meme
Failing to become a scrum master, Anakin turns to the dark side!

So, is the habit of assigning degrees of seniority to scrum masters purely destructive? Perhaps not. While I do not believe in allowing command-and-control people to determine how good of a scrum master anyone is, I think different scrum masters have different levels of aptitude and experience in using the scrum master toolbox. Some of us have years of experience in successfully dealing with change-resistant (or outright hostile) team members, some do not. Some have successfully coached managers in adopting scrum, some have worked exclusively with the scrum team. None of these experiences and aptitudes necessarily predict performance for a given situation: a just-out-of-the-2-day-training scrum master can perform admirably in a friendly environment, but the 2 day training doesn’t exactly prepare you for dealing with people who have been burned on faux scrum, or who claim to want to change but secretly resist it. While I do not consider past experience a reliable way to predict future performance, I do believe that facing adversity will teach you something about yourself and how you deal with it, and having faced a challenging situation before has given you a better chance to learn how it will effect you. I’ve successfully worked with teams and in situations today, that I doubt I could have handled at the start of my career. There was no magic “experience” where I learned to cope with those situations; I didn’t cross over a mystical barrier at 5 years, where I became more senior than I had been before, and no-one gave me a magic pin when I became a “senior scrum master”. But having tested my limits a few times before (sometimes failing spectacularly) had taught me what I could and couldn’t handle, and knowing that has helped me in many difficult situations. I suppose I was a more “junior” scrum master 5 years ago, and have become a more “senior” scrum master now.

A yoda meme
With the scrum (and a light sabre), there is nothing you can’t handle!

Despite this, I have come to strongly disfavour the idea of using a junior/senior designation, as it invites all kinds of misunderstandings. In many organisations, it is a full time job to keep the role of scrum master from turning into the role of project manager with no formal mandate, and making sure that the PMO isn’t allowed to define what agile means. Allowing command-and-control managers (or even worse, traditional HR) to assign seniority to scrum masters is only going to make that worse. To keep with the theme of a “silly” title, and because I’m a huge nerd, I’ll just stick with calling less experienced scrum masters “scrum padawans”. Lets hope that doesn’t turn them to the dark side!

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