Scrum master and scapegoating

I recently read about Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic conflicts and it led me to a new reading of the role of the Scrum master (and consultant in general) in the organization. The same theory gave me ideas about how this role can be made more valuable and less painful for both the performer and the organization.

Let me briefly describe the theory itself. Rene Girard is one of the most prominent French philosophers of the twentieth century, but he is little known to the Russian-speaking audience (as far as I know, his books have not yet been translated into Russian). His theory of mimetic conflict is based on the observation that people tend to want what others want. We inherited this from our animal ancestors, because for many animals it represents an important trait: animals learn by imitating each other. Imitation is not bad per se, but it creates problems when the imitation concerns a limited resource. The more members of the group want one thing, the more it pushes the other members of the group to want the same thing, and this creates an inevitable conflict due to competition for limited resources between members of the group. Given that a group affected by internal strife is defenseless against external threats, intergroup conflict potentially leads to the death of all group members.

In human societies rituals and prohibitions emerge as cultural mechanisms to address this problem. These rituals and prohibitions prescribe who is allowed to desirethis and that kind of resources, and thus deter conflict. Almost all traditional societies are built on a strict system of rules and prohibitions aimed to minimize the number of objects for which competition is possible between members of the same group: you are allowed to desire this, the other — that. The same prohibitions are aimed at ensuring that “good” imitation (the basis of learning) does not turn into “bad”, that is, into competition: the child or student knows which actions of the elder they have the right to imitate, and which they do not.

But the uneven distribution of resources within the group, coupled with imitation, over time increase the tension between the members of the group to such an extent that the system of rituals and prohibitions can no longer guarantee the integrity of the group. According to Girard, only one thing can save the group in this case is the instantaneous conversion of mutual violence into unanimous violence directed against one person, often chosen at random. Such a behavior – attacking someone arbitrary to relieve tension is common in many mammals and not unique to human. So, for example, if you enclose two rats in a cage and apply electricity to the floor of the cage, every time a rat gets an electrical charge it will attack the other rat. And it is likely that the mechanism of sacrificing the scapegoat has some biological basis.

To summarize, there are three key components of mimetic conflict:

  1. First, the rules and hierarchies that prevented conflict decay or break down
  2. There is a murder of the culprit (metaphorical or literal) – the victim is declared responsible for the crisis, and the group unites against it in an act of collective violence, and through this the group is renewed.
  3. Development of a new system of prohibitions and rituals to support the further development of the community.

It is important to note that the effectiveness of sacrifice as a way to relieve tension within the group depends on how confident all members of the group are that the victim is really guilty. Therefore, an important role is played by the ritual that connects the sacrifice and the problem. For example, if we decide to sacrifice one of our members at random in order to relieve the tension in the group, and everyone understands that this is an arbitrary victim, the conflict will not be resolved. But if this is accompanied by a ritual that convince all members of the group that the Gods expect a sacrifice, and the lot is ruled by Gods, so that the victim is not arbitrary, but to some extent is “appointed by Gods”, the sacrifice ceases to be random, and the tension in the group will be released through the sacrifice. In other words, the best victim is the one whose guilt seems undeniable to all members of the group.

Monarchy serves the same goal: the king is enthroned and receives power, but in return becomes a potential sacrifice. Thus, it becomes critical for the king to consolidate sufficient power before the mimetic conflict develops into full force, that would allow the king to transfer the role of victim to someone or something else. Also according to Girard institutions and organizations have emerged from the myths and rituals aimed to constrain mimetic conflict. CEOs and presidents are put on a pedestal as future victims, but they can pass this role on to vice-presidents, deputies, or the Cabinet if the latter doesn’t get too much power.

This led me to some interesting insights. For example, from this point of view, external consulting seems to be an established way of outsourcing the role of the victim. Any organization creates a system of explicit and implicit prohibitions and restrictions, which inevitably creates internal tension. This tension is growing and at some point begins threaten the organization itself. Instead of sacrificing the head of the organization, or someone from her inner circle, organization hires a consultant to change the system of rules and prohibitions. Either the consultant succeeds in rebuilding the system so that the new system of restrictions can more effectively constraint conflicts between different parts of the organization declaring a victory, or he fails, and so consultant is metaphorically sacrificed (fired) and blamed for all the problems of the organization. It is important to note that in order to change the organization sufficiently and mitigate or eliminate internal conflict consultant usually has to get rid of part of the organization – to sacrifice them; thus successful consultant changes her role of victim to a priest who performs a sacrifice. It is beneficial for the leader of the organization to make a sacrifice by the hands of the priest, because in this case he is not associated with the violence of a sacrifice, reducing the probability for the leader to become scapegoat herself.

This seems to be applicable to the Scrum master, whether external or internal. The main goal of the scrum master is to promote and support Scrum in the organization, and to do this, he needs to cause change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team. She works with both the Scrum team and the organization itself to create change that would maximize value to the organization and its consumers. In some cases the Scrum master does not have authority or influence for such changes, and the role itself involves working more from  servant leader and coach stances, that is often interpreted as “convince and negotiate”. So she becomes a very convenient figure to sacrifice: it is very easy to justify her being guilty for the problems of the organization. This is amplified by a widespread (and erroneous) belief that Scrum master only works with the Scrum team, and should not go beyond the team, while a significant part of the team’s problems are often determined not by what is internal to the Scrum team, but by the organization itself.

I am sure that any experienced Scrum master or Agile coach have stories when he was invited to help organization solve its problems, and the problems were quite obvious, but any  proposed changes were met with resistance: “this will never work in our organization.” This would seem inexplicable if we assume that the customer wanted to solve the problems, but if we instead assume that the customer was looking for a scapegoat, then his behavior becomes logical. Interestingly, in some of my stories, the customer was not aware that he was trying to find a scapegoat, and was completely convinced that he was acting in the most rational way (in the blogpost “When Shadow covers Agile”, I discussed the mechanisms that underlie this behavior).

Such a view creates another perspective on the strategy used by some of my colleagues who do not go into contract if the management of the organization is not personally involved into changes and not willing to radically change the organizational design. Looking through the theory of mimetic conflict, this position allows you to take the role of a priest from the start and on the shore agree on who and what this priest (metaphorically) will sacrifice to the “gods of organizational agility”. And the consultant’s work is successful because through sacrifice and restructuring of the system of prohibitions and rituals, he eliminates the mimetic conflict, even if we would not take into account that such approach usually eliminates many systemic problems and increases the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.

It seems that the success of the Scrum master is determined by her ability to change the role of victim into the role of a priest that would sacrifice organizational inefficiency, sometimes in the form of outdated rules and prohibitions, sometimes in the form of (metaphorical) sacrifice of members of the organization. Therefore, it is important to understand as soon as possible what role the organization itself assumes for the Scrum master. If evidence suggest that I was hired to be a scapegoat, the first and most important step is to recognize it and then decide how will I respond. Perhaps I am willing to accept that role, so my aim is to play it the best possible way. If I am not willing to accept this role, then I have at least two options. One is to make a metaphorical ritual suicide (i.e. to quit). The other is try to get out of this role by taking on the role of a priest who will sacrifice organizational inefficiency.

So pay attention to your role so that you don’t become victim out of the blue, and if you sacrifice someone, think about whether they are actually the cause of the problems that you are aiming to solve by that sacrifice.