Onshore ScrumMaster with an Offshore Team Does NOT Work

June 25, 20133 min

A recent question in the Certified Scrum Professionals LinkedIn Group, described a common scenario that people have when dealing with distributed Scrum Teams.

“ScrumMaster and Scrum coach are onshore (the client) while vendor teams are offshore.  Is the client fooling itself?”

The short answer to this question is, “Yes – the client is fooling itself.”  In my experience, and from the experience of my customers who work with a ScrumMaster in a distributed team, the idea the ScrumMaster can be distributed from the place that does the work is wishful thinking at best.  At worst, it points to belief that a ScrumMaster is merely a project manager with a new title and is present in Scrum to provide oversight and management of the Team.  The role of the ScrumMaster is to support the Team in their self-organization, amplify each Team member’s contribution and support the end-to-end flow of value.  It is not a job you can phone in across a bridge line.

Even if you believe that a ScrumMaster has the responsibility to remove obstacles and impediments for the Team (which I do not), then an easy thought experiment can show why this distributed model will not work.  If the ScrumMaster is not in the same location of the Team, how can he or she even be aware of the obstacles and impediments the Team are experiencing?  ScrumMasters must be present with the Team to help the Team identify and encourage the Team to take responsibility for resolving the impediments as they occur.  A ScrumMaster located in Michigan is completely useless for a Scrum Team in Shanghai since they have no clue on what is really happening each day with Team.

However, let us assume for the sake of this thought experiment  that the ScrumMaster is somehow magically aware all the challenges a Team is facing, then my concern rests on just exactly how will this person remove the impediments.  If we have our ScrumMaster in Portland, how do they remove impediments for a Team in Bangalore?  What is their entry point to the offshore organization?  How would a ScrumMaster in the US move along any sort of delay along apart from strongly worded emails or frequent voicemail messages?  Even if the Bangalore team was captive, i.e. they are employees of the same company as the ScrumMaster, how does a US ScrumMaster plug-in to the policies and procedures of the Bangalore organization?  How would they navigate the bureaucracy?

IMO, the world of Lean has already solved this problem.  Lean practitioners learned a long time ago that an organization is only as Lean as their suppliers.  If you want to achieve fast end-to-end delivery using Lean Thinking, at some point you will need to teach your suppliers about Lean Thinking.  I believe we can borrow a page from the Lean Thinking on how to address the challenges of distributed Scrum  – train your offshore employees on Scrum and support the establishment of local ScrumMasters.  Provide coaching for them on how to do Scrum well.  If your company believes Scrum is a good investment for your onshore people, why does the business shy away from making a similar investment with your own employees?

I can understand why a business might not choose to invest in offshore vendors.  The thinking might be that one is just looking for the cheapest vendor, so why spend money on something that is unnecessary?  However, Scrum has an emphasis on collaboration and if you are not willing invest in building up the capability of a key vendor who is responsible for the delivery of critical part of your product, then Scrum is the wrong model for this relationship.  Just focus on good project management, managing and tracking project risks and drive the delivery of these offshore teams according to your plan.  You are better off with that model than trying to make Scrum fit in a bad business relationship.