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What was your worst day as a Scrum Master and why?

I don’t generally have bad days, nor do I take things personally enough to consider certain days harder than others but there certainly are experiences that stand out.

My worst day as a scrum master was more of a series of bad days that culminated in me being fired as a contractor despite my best efforts to do a great job as a scrum master.

20th Century Style of Management and Leadership

Over the past 100 years, management and project management have evolved considerably.

In the beginning, there was a belief structure that workers were commodities and easily replaceable whilst managers and senior managers were incredibly valuable. In essence, managers were bosses who told workers what to do and supervised their actions to ensure that they did as they were told.

In many studies and research papers produced over the years, it emerged that most corporate companies consisted of fiefdoms where managers built small but loyal groups of mid-managers and junior managers around them and focused mainly on the acquisition of power and resources.

In essence, departments formed unspoken agreements not to step in each other’s territories and operated as independent, autonomous silos under the strict rule of the most senior manager in that department.

In this autocratic style of working, senior managers are incredibly powerful and operate with multiple hidden agendas with an incentive to acquire more power and resources.

It isn’t the kind of place that values productivity, collaboration, and creativity. It instead rewards diligence, obedience, and conformism.

21st Century Style of Management and Leadership

In 2001, the Agile Manifesto was the start of a movement that placed greater value on people and their unique ability to produce creative, powerful, and influential work.

It also focused on producing the kind of work that truly delighted customers. Customers within and outside of the organisation.

Flat structured, hyper-productive teams with strong leadership empowered individuals and teams to unleash their creative potential and perform their work with passion.

In the 21st Century style of management and leadership, teamwork is considered both essential and more valuable than lone wolves. People collaborate effectively and through their combined efforts, a little bit of magic is produced that empowers the company to continuously improve.

In this environment, a team is measured by how valuable their work is and how productive they are in consistently and frequently meeting the goals and objectives as defined by the organisation.

In essence, the complete opposite of traditional style management and project management.

The conflict between the old and the new

As a scrum master, I was working in a team that were experiencing very real issues with getting things done.

They were a great team. Committed. Hard-working. Creative. Collaborative.

They simply came up against organisational policies time and again that impeded their ability to achieve the team’s goals and objectives.

As a scrum master, it was my role to identify these impediments and have conversations with people throughout the organisation to resolve those issues.

At the time, a new director was appointed to the organisation.

His primary objective was to make a splash and position himself as being an ideal candidate for promotion and progression. As with many old school style of managers, he wanted to make a name for himself and shine as early as possible.

He hadn’t had time to fully understand how the team worked, nor did he have an understanding of how certain actions and policies were making it impossible for the team to get work done.

As I had conversations moving up the corporate ladder, I came across managers and individuals who could only shrug their shoulders and refer me to someone more senior to address the issues with.

Eventually, it turned out that I needed to meet with the new director.

We assembled data to demonstrate the impact of the policies and processes the team had to endure, and we crafted a story that would help the director understand why change was both necessary and valuable.

Armed with data, evidence, and passion I met with the director and came up against a brick wall.

The director had no interest in what we were campaigning for, nor did he care that these changes would have a significant impact on the team, their morale, and their productivity.

It was his way or the highway.

The perils of being naïve

Resilience, courage, and persistence are incredibly valuable traits for a scrum master and agile coach.

The team need you to doggedly pursue opportunities for growth, improvement, and development.

That said, you also need to have an understanding of how power works.

You need to understand that people have hidden agendas and powerful motivation to engage in office politics. You need to understand that your assumptions can be incredibly dangerous to your career and progression.

My mistake was thinking that the director shared the team’s values, principles, and goals.

My assumption was that the director wanted the team to produce their best work, collaborate creatively and effectively, and rapidly overcome any obstacles to productivity and progress.

I doggedly pursued even more data to prove our case and set up a meeting with the director to demonstrate a line of reasoning, based on data and evidence, that would influence him to make the changes necessary for the team to thrive.

Instead, I was told to pack my things and leave a few minutes after the meeting started.

The director had zero interest in our data, our request, or engaging with us around any ideas for improvements. What he had put in place super ceded anything that the team required.

It was a powerful lesson.

You need to balance idealism, values, and principles with a strong knowledge of how things work in the environments you serve. You need to balance the old with the new and appreciate that whilst things may be in transition, old habits may die hard, and a greater degree of finesse is required.

You need to balance being a passionate evangelist with being a coach and skilled practitioner.

If you like the idea of being a scrum master, visit our Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you are already a scrum master and want to upskill, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to both validate and certify your professional skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master course page.

If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Agile Coach Academy.

If you have identified coaching as a valuable skill to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to Coaching course page.

For more information on John McFadyen, visit