High in the Uinta mountains of Utah, we came across a sheepherder with a large flock of sheep. We marveled as we watched his sheepdogs work with the flock. They rounded up stragglers, kept the sheep moving in the right direction, and would run up the steep mountain side and bring down sheep that might be wandering into danger.

... every organization has at least two processes: the one they want to follow, and the process they actually follow.

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Developers tend to naturally focus on developing the product, rather than keeping focused on creating business value or the day-to-day issues of a quality work environment.

It’s natural: during the course of development, it’s easy to lose focus on all the good intentions we had at the beginning of a release or even a Sprint. Much like New Years’ resolutions, these intentions get forgotten or set aside when the going gets tough. And we don’t make the progress we should.

It can be even worse. If we are not vigilant, entropy can take over, and we find ourselves in worse shape than before.

Unfortunately, the frenetic pace of development and the intellectual demands of software design work together to draw our focus to only the problem at hand. We’re so busy writing the software that we can’t be bothered to do it better.

In some cases, the team members might not have internalized Scrum habits. They can easily fall back into old bad habits without being aware of it. They need an external eye who notices their lapses.


The ScrumMaster continually prods the team to focus on doing the things necessary to support the broader value proposition. This includes keeping process and quality of work life issues before their eyes. The ScrumMaster is like a sheepdog, nipping at the heels of the sheep in order to keep them moving in the right direction.

Keys to success:

  • As an essential part of self-organization, the team must agree on the processes they will follow, including following Scrum practices, and Definition of Done. (See Coplien and Harrison: Developer Controls Process). Then they agree that the ScrumMaster will watch them and prod them to follow their own processes.
  • The Sheepdog needs to be a part of the team, but slightly apart in order to both see deviations and be in a position to “nip”. Thus the ScrumMaster is the best person for this role.
  • The ScrumMaster must know what the developers are doing in order to detect potential problems or deficiencies.
  •  It must be clear to the team that the Sheepdog has only their best interest at heart. This is well demonstrated if the Sheepdog also is seen as a protector. Thus this pattern has an indirect dependency on Firewall: the ScrumMaster who is an effective Firewall will be more able to be an effective Sheepdog.

Note that a sheepdog continually steers the sheep toward the desired goal. Likewise the ScrumMaster keeps the goal in mind, and steers the team toward their goals.

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The name Sheepdog may have negative connotations for some. If individuals are put off by the name, help them understand that the sheepdog works hard for the welfare of the sheep, and is not in any way the adversary of the sheep. So it is in Scrum.

This pattern is closely related to Coach, and one who is effective at one will be more likely to be effective at the other. The difference is that Coach is more strategic and pedagogical, whereas Sheepdog is tactical: day-to-day in the trenches.

This pattern is also related to Knight of the Mirrors. Sheepdog provides the follow-up on areas of improvement identified through Knight of the Mirrors.

DoneMaster is almost a specific application of Sheepdog. Because of the importance of following Definition of Done, it is described as a pattern in its own right.

The ScrumMaster secret handshake recollects the Sheep Dog role of the ScrumMaster.

Picture from: Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Fig Tree Pocket, Australia