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Why Scrum Masters Need to Know About Business


Why Scrum Masters Need to Know About Business

I’ve been fired twice by CEOs. 

This happened to me when I was a Scrum Master in two different companies. In both scenarios, this happened not because the Scrum Team was doing a bad job, but because what we did not align with the strategy of the company. That’s how I learned to care about business as Scrum Master.

Learning a valuable lesson 

The first time it happened, I was working at a Chinese startup, the second largest in China with more than 8,000 employees. I reported to the regional head, and we worked with the team to come up with plans to speed up our product launch in Hong Kong and also to set up the base to cover the Asia Pacific region. 

As Scrum Master, I tried to stay focused on the technical aspects, making sure we covered the technical requirements and had a scalable architecture. I started hiring a team in Hong Kong to work with our China counterparts to make it happen. It went well until a week later when I was suddenly fired and was told I did not need to show up to work the next day. I still remember the moment when I got the call. It was the first time I had ever been fired. How could this be? 

It turned out to be that the CEO only wanted to set up up Hong Kong as a front to be used for an IPO. The CEO wanted to keep the absolute minimum running; he didn’t care about making money or about expanding into Asia Pacific. What we did in Hong Kong did not align with his strategy. In his own words, he had no idea what I was doing. That’s when I learned the first lesson: what we do at the Scrum and product level need to align with the business strategy of the company.

Product Vision

The second time it happened, I was working as a Scrum Master in a local startup in Hong Kong. We had a great team with great teamwork and technical excellence. We were able to have a weekly sprint and deliver an integrated increment with iPhone, Android, web-backend and backend every single week. We only encountered one failed sprint due to some technical issues for a whole year. 

But there was a problem. The CEO, Product Owner kept changing his mind. He came up with new ideas and want to completely change direction nearly every single day. We were able to proceed with his changes every single time, but we struggled to find a product-market fit because of this. 

The CEO would kill the product completely every 3 months and come up with a total brand new idea, but we were still able to support him and proceed with the new direction no matter what. At least, that was until a year later when he fired me for not providing a long-term vision for the product and the company. I took it hard, of course, and I thought that it wasn’t my job as a Scrum Master to provide the vision of the company. But, later on when I reflected, I realized that maybe I could share in some of the blame. I failed by not coaching the Product Owner, CEO and CFO about strategy and Product Vision, and that’s what led to my being fired.

Delivering real business value

So in my later roles, I learned that I am not only responsible for Scrum and technical aspects; that is just the bare minimum. I need to also care about business strategy. It may not be my main job as a Scrum Master to craft one, but I need to learn the basics and to be able to speak in “business language” so that my team can use less time and deliver more value while delivering what the business and end-users want. 

I needed to learn to coach Product Managers and Senior Management about vision, strategy and alignment. Sometimes, all you can do is highlight the fact that we do not have a business strategy or vision and support the rest of the team to craft one. Otherwise, even if the technical teams are doing a great job, we may not be able to deliver real business value, and that is part of the job of a Scrum Master.

Lorenz Cheung