Role != Job

September 16, 2014

Student_teacher_in_China

When I talk to folks about Scrum, one of the points I make sure to cover is the holy trinity, the three basic roles in Scrum: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Team. I’m starting to think I must be doing it wrong because when I talk about roles, somehow that role manifests itself as a job. Let me back up a step and see if I can explain what I mean. To me, a role is a transitory responsibility that anyone can take on. It’s akin to what actors do. Actors take different roles all the time. But when an actor takes a role, say as a teacher, they act in every way like a teacher, without actually being a teacher. They do it and then leave it behind and move on to the next role. They may perform the role so well that you can’t tell the difference between the actor and the teacher, but to the actor teaching is still just a role.

Now there are people for whom teaching is a job. A job is very different from a role. You are hired for a job. A job is something that you identify with and are assigned to. A job, at least for some, becomes something that they identify strongly with (i.e. “I am a teacher.” or “Teaching is what I do.”). A job is a very different thing than a role. A job comes with identity, some feeling of authenticity and permanence. Typically we hire people to perform jobs.

According to this definition, jobs and roles are very different beasts. However, people have a hard time keeping this distinction in mind. We tend to take roles and turn them into jobs. That’s unfortunate, because a role is meant to be something transitory, something that is filled temporarily. It is meant to be worn like a costume and then passed on to the next wearer. When you turn a role into a job, you risk perverting it’s purpose. When you turn a role into a job, you make it very difficult for others to share it – it’s hard to swap back and forth. When you make a role into a job, people get surprisingly defensive about it. It becomes something that they identify with very closely. If you try and tell them that anybody can do it, they tend to get all fussy and upset. They start to try and protect their job with clever artifacts like certifications – they’ll do anything to make themselves unique enough to keep that job. It’s an identity trap.

Here is how I see this problem manifest itself with Scrum teams: You sell them on scrum and teach them how it works. Every team has a Scrum Master and a Product Owner. So what do they do? They run out and hire themselves some people to fill the jobs of Scrum Masters and Product Owners. They get their teams sprinting and start delivering quickly – hey, now they’re agile! Only they’re not really. You see, as you face the challenge and complexity of modern day business, the team often needs to change. That person you hired as the Scrum Master? You may be best served to swap that role with somebody else. Maybe a developer or QA on the team. The ability to move that role around to different actors could be very useful. But you can’t do that now because it’s no longer a role, it’s somebody’s job. And you can’t mess with their job without seriously upsetting somebody. The end result is that your organization effectively can’t change. You limit your agility.

The bottom line is that I believe that the roles in Scrum were never intended to be jobs. To make those roles into jobs risks limiting your agility.