Scrum Roles — an abstraction

This article has been removed. An edited version appears in the book, The People’s Scrum, published by Dymaxicon, May 2013.
Read original comments…

I recently wrote an article entitled Simple Scrum where I attempt to describe Scrum in an industry-independent way.  I was dissatisfied by retaining the names of the Scrum roles, as they seem too industry-specific [more] or at least are loaded with meaning specific to current (often unsatisfactory) usage.  In considering a fully industry-agnostic Scrum, I have recast the roles to their essence.

The Roles in Agnostic Scrum

1. The What Voice
A single voice, possibly channeling many voices, with the aim of defining ‘well formed outcomes’ and prioritizing for the highest possible value in the given context.  The What Voice is also responsible for expenditure and any go/no go decision.

2. The How Tribe
A cross-functional group of 3-7 people who between them contain all the skills necessary to solve the problems given by the What Voice.  Only the members of the Tribe are empowered to make decisions as to how to do the work, requesting clarity and support from the What Voice as necessary.

3. The Joker
An outcomes-neutral facilitator, concerned with fostering a collaborative environment, guiding the tribe towards self-improvement and self-sufficiency, and challenging the containing organization to lead through release and honor, rather than control and mistrust.  The Joker acts as a servant to the team, and an agent of change within the wider organization.

These three roles constitute the Scrum Team; it is the pull in three different directions: profit, mastery and the greater good, that generates the healthy conflict and tension required to reach previously unimagined levels of innovation and creativity, and allows Scrum teams to deliver true value.

There is a fourth role in Scrum, outside of the team, but involved at regular intervals.  The role is essentially everyone else who cares.

4. The Audience*
Everyone who funds, uses or profits from the product, service or idea being created.  The Audience offer feedback at regular intervals, and should contain amongst them a handful of serious critics.

The What is the destination; the How is the pathway

Calling the first role the What Voice and the second role the How Tribe instantly sets the two aspects of creation aside from one another.  For self organization to work a team (or tribe) needs to be empowered, left alone and trusted.  Trusting is difficult when requirements are vague, and empowerment is impossible when the tribe experience continuous interference regarding the technologies, tools and practices being used.

We need a clear separation between what is being asked for —essentially a goal: an outcome of value— and the path we’ll take to get there.  People on the business end of the creative process need to define clear outcomes, that describe audience and value.  As they are likely not developing solutions themselves they need to be completely feet-off the solution pathway, unless specifically invited in.

Looking at the Scrum roles in this industry-agnostic way allows us to see the underlying principles and values on which the roles need to operate to be successful.  It is too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day implementation decisions, and lose sight of the greater purpose.

* I first came across the term “audience” for users and stakeholders in Matt Heusser and Chris McMahon’s recent ST&P article [Volume 6, Issue 10, Oct 2009] Performing the Software. I liked it, and thus borrowed it.  Thanks guys.

35 responses to “Scrum Roles — an abstraction

  1. Thanks for that interesting post. While I agree with everything you say about how the roles should be filled with live, what their purpose is and how they interact with each other, I disagree with the need that we have to introduce new names for the roles, in order to make them industry agnostic.

    I can see nothing industry or domain specific in the names Product Owner, Team or Scrum Master. In fact, there is nothing industry specific in Scrum itself, as you can either do software development, but also manage organizational change or household chores over the weekend.

    Maybe you can explain more what you think is domain specific about the names?

    • Hi Andreas. It is not so much that the names are inherently industry-specific —although they have become so by dint of their usage in one industry— it is more that they are worn out in certain ways.

      The role name ScrumMaster (with or without a space) has become burdened down with misuse. Apart from the inclusion of “master” which clearly the owners of the title rarely are, many people see the role as a senior team member, a project manager, a director, a development lead, and who knows what all else. To raise this role back to its true purpose a new name is almost certainly required.

      The role name Product Owner is rather specific in that it requires a product to be owned. Scrum can also be used for other types of work, e.g. research or services. The word “owner” here is also somewhat misleading. I considered Value Owner, but again the “owner” part was inaccurate. It is not about owning, but about giving.

      The role name Team is overloaded, referring both to the developers and to the larger Scrum Team (includes PO and SM). It dual use causes much confusion.

      In general I am seeking names that really describe the purpose of the role. I love the term Joker, and also Audience, but am less satisfied with the other two names. They are descriptive, but a little pedestrian.

      • I like “What voice” and “How tribe”. They don’t need to be imaginative names to inspire imagination. These names free my creativity.

        Response: Thanks Liz, I begin to think you’re right… and the names grow on me 🙂

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  3. I really like your use of tribes and voices. It’s a great way to think of a team.

    It’s also really great to see more people talking about audience, something I’ve been bleating on about for a few years now. Audience is something that underpins everything we do…or at least it should.

    Really cool post. I like your theory.


  4. Love it! May I offer a suggestion?

    The Joker would be better named the Jester.

    It is the Joker that is the arch enemy of Batman. But it is the Jester that speaks truth to the King and lives to tell about it. Plus the Jester hat is much nicer and readily available in ski shops.

  5. I love this notion of tribes and voices and the audience! The idea, the terms, very cool. And they make you take a different perspective when viewing the software development process, which is awesome.

    But, I must admit – I don’t get The Joker as facilitator? Here’s the definition on

    Joker (n)
    – One who tells or plays jokes.
    – An insolent person who seeks to make a show of cleverness.
    – Informal. An annoying or inept person: Some joker is blocking my driveway.

    I’m not sure any of this is what I want facilitating my group? 😉 What am I missing?

    • Hi Abby, the reference comes from Augustus Boal, creator of the Theatre of the Oppressed:

      Much of Augusto Boal’s theatrical process requires a neutral party to be at the centre of proceedings. This individual is usually called the Facilitator, although in Boal’s literature this role is referred to as the Joker, in reference to the neutrality of the Joker card in a deck of playing cards. In most cases, but not all, this would be a drama workshop leader. This person takes responsibility for the logistics of the process and ensures a fair proceeding, but must never comment upon or intervene in the content of the performance, as that is the province of the Spect-actors.

  6. Pondering the rebranding a bit more… and I’m liking it even more…

    Always hated the Scrum MASTER term and then the whole Certified SM thing… lets be Agile and shed that baggage.

    So what term would imply good vibes for the Scrum meeting (Standup) [see I had to use two terms to make my meaning clear – obviously it is not Ubiquitous Language]?

    How about Waggle Dance.
    The dance a honey bee does to report to the hive the distance & direction to a food source or other important issue.

    The team room and the space at the task board then becomes the hive.

    I’d also like to note that Scrum scales by Scrum-of-Scrum concepts but defined the team at 7+-2. If one considers the American football terms – it would have been better to define the SQUAD at 7+-2 and the TEAM as a collection of Squads working on the same project (in the same game).

    In rebranding the terms shall we expand on that concept. The tribe has multiple work parties – hunting, garthering, raiding, cooking, young rearing, etc. I was trying to think of a non-violent term for hunting party – perhaps a non-english word, Zulu or Lakota etc.

  7. Abby, I think some of what “Joker” represents is the Jungian Trickster archetype… but, Tobias, to be honest, while I’m 100% behind industry-agnostic scrum (which it’s _almost_) always been, and I detest most of the existing terminology, I’m not comfortable with jokers, voices, tribes _as the names of roles in the practice_. Trouble with metaphors (which is what these are) is (1) they mean different things to different people (or indeed have no meaning at all: I recently had to explain to a non-British audience what a scrum was – they thought it was an acronym or an invented word), and (2) they take on an unhealthy life of their own. If we’re going to reframe practice, can we start by banishing metaphor from the fundamental vocabulary?

    • Hi David,

      I do understand what you mean by metaphor adding confusion. On the other hand it also challenges our thinking in creative ways. Perhaps it is okay that we have different interpretations of “voice” or “tribe” or even Joker. It leads (as it has here) to some interesting questions and ideas. I love the hive concept of a team room, for example.

      Stripping away the metaphor is also interesting though. Perhaps the three roles are simply this: What, How and Why.

  8. Fabulous. Your names are better than domain agnostic. They are memorable, expressive, succinct, and funny. I shall adopt them forthwith, crediting you. We needed new names; you were just the fella.

  9. There is another possible name for the Joker/Jester role that one of my therapeutic communities of trusts routinely uses: the Coyote, or the Trickster. May or may not help you, but captures some of the same characteristics and tools: courage, forthrightness, satire, partial aloofness.

  10. I usually describe the fourth role as “others” and then give examples (users, managers etc.) but I really like your “everyone else who cares” – caring about the product is the key thing here.

    Naming them “audience” is a nice idea but it sounds too passive to me.

  11. Agile practice well is theater in the round.

    Do not dare banish (or try to banish) metaphor. Metaphor is language. Yes translations are sloppy and abstractions bleed. But they are also the richness of true communication.

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  13. David K, I agree that agile practice _can_ be theatre in the round. But it doesn’t have to be, and I’d say that for fully half of the teams I’ve worked with, jumping in and talking about Jokers and Tribes would be deeply counter-productive, and would kill any receptivity towards change that might have existed in that team (as well as compromising a coach’s ability to be taken seriously and continue to provoke that change). There are lots of ways in which to be an effective agile team, and while I agree with you 100% on the richness of true communication and the power of metaphor (I use it all the time…), we have to remember that it takes two (or three, or ) to communicate.

    • David H,
      > jumping in and talking about Jokers and Tribes…
      “jumping in” would be an odd behavior to use, it conjures up images of flippancy and showmanship inappropriate to the circumstance. Sure, if you approach new concepts in such a way they will likely be rejected.

      The idea would be rather to introduce these concepts gently, respectfully, with clear explanations as to their meaning and the reason for the choice of terms (which may not be these terms, but any you choose to use). We have to explain ScrumMaster all the time, and the inclusion of ‘master’ encourages Master-like behavior — frequently. And Product Owner encourages ‘ownership’, rather than collaboration.

      Words are powerful — as you know perhaps better than most. If we have to explain the terms in any case, lets start with terms that speak of collaboration and challenge, roles that speak clearly of responsibility (What, How).

  14. Tobias,

    Thanks for the explanation. And I’m also enjoying the other names people are coming up with like hive and jester and Coyote or trickster!

    I wonder if a takeaway might be that different names resonate with different people. And, at the other end, some names (like ScrumMaster ;-)) have the opposite impact and will actually turn people away. So maybe we should try to provide a variety of names for each role (perhaps all centering around the What, How, Why) and then allow teams to pick the names (or come up with new ones) that resonate most strongly with them.

    It might be a little confusing because then different teams speak different languages – but isn’t the adoption of our own language one of the things that helps make a team stronger?

  15. As a start – and to avoid the “who’s on first’ scenario – how about chooser, makers, coach?

    (I can’t find a better word than coach: “leader”, “guide”, “teacher”, “provoker” – as indeed “trickster/joker” – are just aspects of the role under discussion.)

    And a reminder – we’re talking about the _public_ names of these roles, not their attributes or characterisations. We often won’t have the opportunity to introduce the concepts “gently and respectfully”, and there are sure to be people who appropriate the vocabulary who lack your generosity, care and respect, Tobias!

    • Chooser and Maker are good, but I prefer Facilitator to Coach. Lyssa Adkins has taught me that I am not a coach, as the term has a very specific meaning. Me saying I am a coach is a little like saying I am a psychotherapist if I listen and reflect. It is rather undermining to those professionals who have trained to do this work well and use the title accordingly.

      The ScrumMaster role facilitates learning and change, rather than coaches teams. At least, that is how I approach the role.

  16. i like this post and thread!

    how about..
    navigator (what, prioritize),
    makers (how, create),
    agent (why, facilitate)

    (navigator and agent might translate better than chooser and joker…)

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  19. I like Court Jester for the ScrumMaster. The Court Jester was able to tell the king unpleasant truths — (usually) without getting his head cut off. This made him an early change agent.

    Tobias, any resemblance to your role in the Scrum Community is purely coincidental 😉

  20. I like “Fans” better than “Audience”. Think pro sports event. I would never call the fans at an NFL or FIFA event ‘the audience.’ This refers to relatively passive consumers of what is happening on stage.

    An important duty of the P-O and ScrumMaster is to prevent the fans from becoming hooligans.

  21. Further thought on the ScrumMaster: How about ‘Voice of Common Sense’?

    One observation I have heard over and over, Scrum is just common sense, or more accurately: Scrum is ritualized common sense (especially useful in large organizations, where common sense does not always apply).

    (Last comment for the day! Really!)

  22. Thank you for this post Tobias. The more I read such discussions; I believe the need increases for re-defining the role of project manager (PM).

    The PM is a required role in all projects in almost all the development organizations. My experience with software is that we normally pursue our own way of doing things. Should we eliminate the role of PM? Should we have the role of Release Manager instead?

    The joker role gives impression of communication, conflict management, facilitation, dealing with various stakeholders, do what it takes to succeed with the project…. Currently in organizations people ask who the PM is as the official speaker on the project and single point of contact.

    If senior management wants a project status, who should respond? Should we cancel status reporting and have senior management as part of the audience who the Joker should understand and then satisfy their expectations?

    Should we implement Scrum in the wider scope of CMMI that addresses organizational concerns in more rounded way? CMMI places high weight to the PM role and consider project management (level 2) as foundation for the achieving maturity.

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  25. This is a good position and I like the idea of shaking up the idea with a change to the names as, like you say, ScrumMaster now often has negative connotations (raising of eyebrows and snortings through the nose).

    I’m not sure about Joker or Jester though, without context, it’s almost disrespectful and like the (equally disrespectful) explanation of commitment by using chickens and pigs, if it has to be explained to be understood, it’s probably not named well enough in the first place.

  26. Wow, great discussion and food for thought. I’m new to scrum, and relating it to, where we emphasize the collaborative mode in ‘triads’ (3 to 9 people committed to relationships, outcomes and values). Tribal and Scrum are getting married up, so ‘Scribal Leadership’ evolves to reflect the practical, direct work of getting things done, with the ‘all for one, one for all’ value of comraderie.
    I like the term ‘juicer’ instead of joker. This implies the energetic and value concerns that add ‘spice to life.’ I love the ‘hive’ filled with work and honey, so boards/slogans/pics around. We can recall the Pike Street Fish Market in Seattle, with four principles (choose attitudes that work, be Present/Engaged, Make a difference, and Have fun!)

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