Quitting as a Scrum Master

White FlagAbout a year ago I felt miserable at work. Being a scrum master felt like repeatedly slamming myself face-first into a brick wall. I researched what happens when scrum masters quit and couldn’t find anything anywhere. There are tales of SMs getting fired – viewed by some as a badge of honour – but there’s next to nothing about them quitting. Most peculiar. Could I really be the only one struggling?

Now that I’m finally writing this article I’ve googled again and still nothing. Even though I’ve heard from a change management trainer that it is NOT uncommon for SMs to resign. Draining yourself in an effort to bring about organizational change seems to be a common theme among scrum masters after all. He likened it to the first quality managers, who were crushed by being given a lot of responsibility but no footing at the manufacturing lines.

This comparison rings true. In my workplace the SMs were toothless. No formal power whatsoever. That can be exactly what you want – for mature teams. But on the chaotic stage (when teams have a low drive for self improvement) a coach or lateral leader will most likely fail.

So, why is there nothing about quitting SMs in the interwebs? Maybe for the same reasons it took me more than a year to publish this article:

  • No one likes to admit failure
    Maybe someone else could have altered the circumstances; would have thought of and executed $anyNumberOfSmartThingsIJustDidn’tThinkOf …
  • Not wanting to be perceived as unreliable, stupid, not good, …
  • Ultimately I don’t want to ruin my chances of being hired

I once read that as long as it’s taboo to talk about something, there’s nothing you can do. If you want to make things better, you have to turn it into something you can talk about. So, let’s talk about it. Why did I step down?

When I’m entrusted with something I want to do a good job. I got into systems thinking and realized that, given the circumstances, I could not do a great job. I tried to change the circumstances several times, coming at it from several different angles – to no avail. Eventually I gave up. I’d only been a half-time SM and went back to doing UX full-time. [I didn’t manage to keep my hands off scrum mastering for very long: When a Kanban team asked me to be their “Kanban master” I accepted. And in my current job I’m half project manager, half agile coach.]

When the next stumped scrum master contemplates resigning, I want them to find that they are not alone. Organizational change is not easy and not necessarily rewarding. Some things that might help:

  • Find a group in which you can cheer each other on
  • Go to meetups to learn that other people and companies share many of your difficulties. That realization can be a huge relief. (“Alle kochen nur mit Wasser” = “Everyone’s cooking with water”) Also you can trade tips and tricks 🙂
  • Learn more about the “craft”. If you can, hire a an agile coach to coach you and / or the team
  • Organizational change takes a looong time. If you’ve got the feeling that nothing’s changing, look at what’s improved over the last 3-6 months.
  • Be a SM full-time. Otherwise you’ll always have conflicting loyalties.
  • Try to change yourself and / or the circumstances. If it doesn’t work, try something else. A vacation is great to come up with new angles.
  • Know when it’s time to give up and then either learn to be happy in the current circumstances or leave. You can’t slam your face into a wall indefinitely…

How do you keep yourself motivated? Have you ever stepped down? How much power do you think scrum masters need to work effectively (in a chaotic setting)?

8 Comments Quitting as a Scrum Master

  1. Kurt Häusler

    I don’t think a ScrumMaster ever needs formal power. I would imagine there are things you can do with a “chaotic” team, like supporting and protecting them, allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them, building trust and leading them informally. But that is probably a lot easier to write than do 🙂 I would be interested in hearing other comments about being a ScrumMaster for such a team.

  2. Dexter

    Absolutely great and honest post! I have a feeling that especially in a world of hardcore Scrum it is not so easy to admit to fail, even if agile is about learning from mistakes. On the other side you can find many publications about unsuccessful Scrum or Agile implementations. Nevertheless those articles rarely say what has happened with people involved including Scrum Masters. Psychology I guess. It’s easier to describe a fail and keep a (personal) distance from a center of it! 🙂

    1. Corinna

      Actually, I wouldn’t say that that agile transition was / is a failure. At all times scrumming yielded better results than the previous non-existent “process”.

      When I resigned as SM motivation and progress had been low for a while and kept being low for a few months. But recently I heard (I’m not working there anymore) that they’ve juggled a lot of elements and that motivation is really high right now 🙂

  3. lilysonherway

    What an honest post! There’s nothing easy about transitioning to Agile for an organization or transitioning from a PM to an SM. “Organizational change takes a looong time. If you’ve got the feeling that nothing’s changing, look at what’s improved over the last 3-6 months” is especially true. You may (or may not) enjoy my blog agileyammering.com If nothing else there are retro ideas in there for you!

    1. Corinna

      Hi Lily!
      Indeed, I like your blog 🙂 Yet, I only found one retrospective activity (“Expectations”). Should I have found more?
      Anyway, I really like “Expectations” and will add it in the the “batch” of activities 🙂
      Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  4. Proquotient

    Failure is a part of growing and like the article tells we see many success articles on Scrum but there is rarely anything on failure or quitting. Sharing experiences such as these are not demotivating but instead very informative which will help other people. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Ricardo

    Thanks for the honest post. If more people would dare to write about what they perceive as a failure many people could learn from this kind of experiences.

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