Illusion of Mastery

It was almost a decade ago. With two dozen of my colleagues, I was anxiously waiting in a dimly lit conference room. So, that was the big thing. The company was going Agile and we were chosen to be trailblazers, first group of Certified Scrum Masters to carry the torch… Ah, who am I kidding. We wanted to learn something new and score brilliant, shiny, and – back then somewhat exclusive – certificates to show off on LinkedIn.

Two days went like a blast. We got to pass balls to learn optimization. We’ve heard the story of birds pooping all over Washington Monument (I still don’t know if it was true…) to think about root cause analysis. We were moving post-it’s in silence learning magic estimation. We got to experiment with some games to spice up retrospectives. It was fun. Then I passed some test over the Internet and certificate arrived in my mailbox. I became certified master of something new and exciting. Cool!

There was only one thing left to do: update my LinkedIn profile. Along with my colleagues (all of whom passed the test), I did just that.

Little did we know, that (at least back then – I really don’t know, or care, how it looks like now) CSM trainings weren’t standardized. It meant that their quality varied wildly. Some were great. Some weren’t. And some were just unfortunate. It was all dependent on experience of the trainers. So, in my case? Well, the guys were clearly quite competent trainers. Experts in Agile? Hmm. No. They did teach us enough to pass the test – on the other hand, I’ve never heard of anyone to fail it. Like, nobody, ever, worldwide.

It became clear once we actually started to use Scrum at work. I mean, we did sprints, meetings, all the magic – on the other hand, we had projects, with full half a year (or more) of scope estimated and planned. We measured our progress with three-page long PowerPoint decks displaying projections of burndown months ahead. The most pathetic part was that I actually co-created these monstrosities. That was expected of me. I was certified to be master of something, hence it was implied that I should know. Given I was taught this particular chart to be all-in-one progress tracking tool, why wouldn’t I do it?

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I was the worst Scrum Master I’ve seen in my life. And, believe me, I’ve seen my share of truly horrible ones.

Soon enough, things deteriorated to a point when we were all sent to another expensive training – this time Professional Scrum Master, standardized around the globe. Now, mind you – I worked for outsourcing company, where both sides of each coin were thoroughly inspected prior to spending it. And yet, they spent another huge pile of money to train us again, properly.

I remember talking with one of my best friends shortly after this one. We were excited and humbled, along the lines of “oh, so this is how it should be done!” She made a remark that I remember to this day – that previous training felt like some very basic introduction compared to this one. Following another online test, we updated our LinkedIn profiles again and got to work. It went much better this time – though, admittedly, organization itself evolved over time.

Another year later, I got to participate in PSPO training. It kills me to this day, but I distinctly recall myself thinking “Had I known that as a Scrum Master, my life would’ve been so much easier.” At the same time, I had fresh memories of boasting with my certificate and allowing myself, my team, and my company to think that, well, NOW I KNOW THIS STUFF.

God almighty.

The name of the role itself brings a lot of trouble. Becoming master of anything after two days of training? Seriously? They cover no more than 5% of what you should know to be good at it. I mean, would you expect medieval kid to become master blacksmith after two days?

No. That kid would be an apprentice first. Few years later, he’d be promoted to journeyman. Then, maybe, one day he would become a master. After at least fifteen years of daily practice. Still, reaching the top rank was unlikely anyway. And with all things Agile, all the psychology, sociology, sales, personality traits involved – I dare to say it’s far more complex than smithing.

It’s not that the position name itself is the cause of all problems that occur. There are companies faking Agile. Others are faking not faking Agile. There’s a substantial training and certification business. There’s new commercial framework born every Tuesday. There are idiots pointing at practices that work and shouting “that’s not Agile!” There are others, recommending out of the box solutions to companies with very unique problems, saying “trust me, it’s Agile!” Sure, there’s all that.

You can say it’s implied that first two days are only the beginning of the path. I know trainers that actually say it straight. But others don’t. It’s bad for business. And if new adepts are not humble enough, they will not even know how their own ego has played them.

I was never a Scrum Master. Apprentice, at best. How about you?

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employers, customers, or clients.

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