Scrum Roles

Masterful ScrumMaster


Posted by Ilan on December 15, 2011
I'm Ilan Goldstein and I'm a director here at AxisAgile. I'm a Certified Scrum Trainer and the author of Scrum Shortcuts Without Cutting Corners. Find out more about me or get in contact with me by using the social buttons. I also respond to comments below.

I don’t believe that the important ScrumMaster title should be bestowed on someone just because he or she knows the Scrum rules and practices back to front. Instead, this title should be granted only to those who genuinely understand and can bring to life the underlying ethos of the role. That is, a ScrumMaster should truly understand what it means to be a servant-leader. Robert Greenleaf, founder of the modern-day servant-leadership movement, describes this seemingly contradictory role:

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Robert Greenleaf – The Servant as Leader

So, what does servant-leadership entail in the context of Scrum? Well, let’s look at some of the attitudes and abilities that should come naturally to a real-deal ScrumMaster.

Leading without Authority

The ability to lead without being bestowed butt-kicking privileges is the ultimate challenge for a new ScrumMaster. It is often hard to join a group, harder to lead a group, and hardest of all to lead a group without explicit authority (see Figure 1)

Figure 1 - Leading without authority requires a genuine servant-leader

Figure 1 – Leading without authority requires a genuine servant-leader

Ruling with extreme authority may seem easy on the surface, but any toppled dictator would agree that it is not a sustainable long-term option. Although a dictator may force results for a period of time, without the respect of his or her followers, it is only a matter of time before the so-called leadership crumbles and chaos reigns, irrespective of the force used to maintain control. A truly respected leader requires no authority and certainly no force. People want to follow this person and are inspired by this more subtle brand of leardership.

I believe that this ability is innate, though perhaps hard to develop. For those who are not quite there but are willing to try, here is a shortlist of starting points:

  • Drop the ego.
  • Genuinely care about both the team and the product.
  • Act fairly and consistently toward all teammembers.
  • Exude confidence yet humbleness at the same time.
  • Make yourself extremely approachable at all times (bathroom breaks are an exception!).

Bring about Change without Fear

As Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eigth president of the United States, put it, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something”. Change is scary to most people; it takes them out of their comfort zones into a strange new world where their status and expertise are potentially under threat. The problem for the enthusiastic new ScrumMaster is that introducing Scrum will transform a project team’s world. Even constructive change, when not handled carefully, can be viewed negatively by team members.

When joining a new Scrum team, you should not rush in and change everything at once. Be patient; observe the environment, the current practices, the individuals, the team, the technologies, and the broader organizational landscape. Be a fly on every wall, and talk to as many people as possible. Even if your mandate is to jump in and totally “scrummify” the place, first gauge the readiness of those who need to be involved. You get only one chance to make a first impression, so if you strike before the optimal time, enacting change becomes that much harder.

Find and foster allies as soon as possible. Those who have an early adopting mindset and are excited about positive change will prove invaluable in assisting you to embed new practices.

When you’re ready, start slowly, and first implement one or two initiatives (perhaps introduce the daily scrum and a consolidated product backlog). Achieve a couple of small yet decisive victories, communicate the proven benefits, and build from there. Once you have established your credibility, the environment will be much more conducive to rapidly rolling out the rest of your initiatives.

Be Diplomatic without Being Political

The ScrumMaster is the hub connecting the spokes. These spokes are the previously disconnected departments that need to be brought together in perfect harmony to function as an effective Scrum team. More often than not, there will be a deeply entrenched silo mentality in place, separating the engineering team from the marketing team (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 - A great ScrumMaster will bridge the gap between departmental silos

Figure 2 – A great ScrumMaster will bridge the gap between departmental silos

Worse than this is the sad fact that these silos are often more akin to fortresses, with barricades to keep the other “tribe” out. Breaking down this us-and-them mentality requires delicate diplomatic skills. It is about promoting broader team benefit and a healthy respect for all roles required to get the job done. The ScrumMaster should never take sides or get caught up in company politics — this is about productivity and maintaining a healthy working environment — and as we all know, politicking is mutually exclusive to both of those goals. As Kenny Rubin writes:

The ScrumMaster is transparent in all forms of communication. When working with team members there is no room for hidden agendas; what you see and hear from the ScrumMaster must be what you get.

Kenneth Rubin – Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process

Behave Selflessly without Downplaying the Role

I remember watching the Tour de France (the annual, grueling 2,500-mile cycling race) and being amazed by the sprint finish of a particularly energy-sapping stage. After the speed picked up considerably, there was an almighty mess of bikes battling toward the line. With only a few miles to go, two riders from the same team broke out of the melee, one riding in relative safety on the back wheel of the first rider, who was forced to negotiate his way through the daunting impediments all around him. After doing all the hard work, the first rider slowed down and fell back into the rest of the peloton, having spent every ounce of his energy, leaving his teammate clear of the pack to take victory. This seemingly selfless role in a cycling team is performed by the lead-out man, whose duty is to use every last vestige of his endurance and tactical thinking to protect his teammate and guide him to victory without taking individual glory. A ScrumMaster needs to perform like a lead-out man; team recognition needs to be placed above his or her own. However, just because one is selfless, it doesn’t mean that their pivotal role should be downplayed. Although the lead-out man (or woman) won’t be standing high on the podium, the role he or she plays is recognized as absolutely vital to the team’s success.

Protect without Being Overprotective

The metaphorical comparison that is commonly used when describing the role of the ScrumMaster is that of the sheepdog, guiding the flock through treacherous terrain and protecting them from hungry wolves. I like this comparison, but I also warn about taking this part of the function too far. A good ScrumMaster is careful about overassisting a team in the same way that a mom or dad (with all the very best of intentions) needs to be careful not to become a “helicopter parent” — constantly hovering and not giving the child a chance to solve his or her own problems.

The ScrumMaster needs to implicitly know when to jump in to aid the team and must also realize when it is okay just to sit back and let the team try to resolve their problems so that they can grow both personally and professionally.

Maintain Technical Knowledge without Being an Expert

Although technical experts can make great ScrumMasters, I often find that there are two big issues when the ScrumMaster is either a technical or domain expert:

  • When a team member is stuck, it can be awfully tempting to jump in too early to help him or her resolve the problem.
  • The desire will be strong to get overly involved in the technical/functional details within the sprint planning sessions (see Sprint Planning – Plan the Sprint then Sprint the Plan). In these situations, the ScrumMaster can potentially become distracted from the core facilitation responsibilities.

Be Comfortable Never Finishing

A ScrumMaster may reach a glorious day when he or she looks at the team and is tempted to say, “Wow, we totally rock! There really isn’t anything more I can do to improve things here.” No matter how well things are humming along, remember that achieving perfection is an impossible ambition, and improvements can always be made. Furthermore, a team will change over time, through natural attrition, promotion, and in some (unfortunate) cases expulsion, so when these dynamics change, there will be plenty of work to do and improvements to be made.

Next Generation Leadership

Genuine ScrumMasters form part of a new generation of enlightened professionals. The role of the ScrumMaster is deep and complex and should never be seen simply as a laundry list of operational functions—it is important to look deeper below the surface to find the foundational roots and understand what they are about.

Finally, I implore organizations to remain open-minded when trying to identify future ScrumMasters because they may originate from any background. They are people who can successfully demonstrate the abilities discussed in this article, and although not everyone can be a ScrumMaster, a ScrumMaster can be anyone.

 

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  • Really agree with the Scrum Master comment, most average people will find this off pointing, are you going to tell your hairdresser you are a Scrum Master? It is serving a point right now to differentiate ‘those people’ following particular practices, but surely this is one we have to lose over time, maybe go back to plain old “Project Manager”?

    • Bobby

      Hi believe it important to differentiate the Scrum Master role but perhaps not refer to it as Scrum Master – Maybe using terminology like Leader or Partner is more effective.

      Reverting to project manager is dangerous as it potentially brings with it all sorts of other associated thoughts.

    • Hi Caroline – Schwaber purposely chose a very different title to differentiate between the role of PM and ScrumMaster. Whilst I agree and understand the rationale, I think it could have been more aptly titled…

  • Nivia Henry

    This is one of the most well-written articles about the realities of being a ScrumMaster. A role that involves influencing and diplomatic skills as well as a healthy dose of courage.

    • Thank you Nivia for the kind words – much appreciated!

  • Ravishankar N

    Great post! Particularly like the soft skills highlighted in the article. A ScrumMaster is a doer, a leader, a manager, a protector and all in one. It takes a good deal of energy, patience and vision to succeed as a ScrumMaster. Just technical proficciency or excellent people managment skills alone will not help. The ScrumMaster should have a good mix of all these.

    • Thank you Ravishankar for the kind words and indeed it is a complex role requiring many dimensions!

  • Rathina

    Patience is a virtue a Scrum Master should exemplify.

    Because it takes time to establish the leadership without authority.

    Being a People Person also a key asset for a Scrum Master.

  • Great post IIan – I raised similar issues in a recent post that caused quite a stir in the agile community. So much so that even Jeff Sutherland left a comment: http://agiletv.co.uk/the-problem-with-scrum-masters/

    Hope it helps!

    Ade

  • Nick Skelton

    Yeah the title SCRUM Master does have some potentially negative and sniggering connotations – but on the flip side it opens up an opportunity to explain exactly what the role entails. I always highlight the fact that a SCRUM Master is not necessarily all the things that a traditional Project Manager or Technical Lead are – that the job is no harder or important than anyone else in the team (although usually the SM is loaded with other non-SM jobs). You’re simply a facilitator of SCRUM – an enforcer – SCRUM Enforcer! Thats what I’m going to call myself from now on! Awesome. I’m joking… sort of.

    I like the word ‘servant-leader’ because you are really a servant for the team – just like the dude you mentioned in the tour-de-france. Programmers especially need to be sheltered from outside disturbance in order to work efficiently and I like to think of my role is to provide that. Product Owners and stakeholders also need transparency and results, my role is to provide that.

    Great post Ilan – really succinct and valuable advice coming from your blog mate, can’t wait to get the book!

    • Thanks again Nick. I like it – ScrumEnforcer! Now we just need to make up a logo for the cape :)

  • Great article. As for the title “Scrum Master”, I’d like to share a thought or two.

    I am considered a “Master” in the martial arts. When I visit martial arts schools they frequently address me as “Master Holman”, but this doesn’t imply that I am in any way superior to other artists. It’s more like being a Master Plumer or Master Carpenter. It means I have spent some time learning the art, and now am qualified to pass that knowledge along.

    Every instructor soon realizes that this means continuing educatation, and we need to re-learn everything from the ground up so. Inherently this brings with it a sense of humility and a willingness to listen. The servant-leader role is very apropo.

    • Hi Bill – you’ve made some great points there. I agree with view that the term ‘master’ shouldn’t imply superiority but a willingness and qualification to pass knowledge along. The qualities of humility and a willingness to listen are important to ensure that you are open to continually learning and improving. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Greg

    Great read! I have my CSM though I have never been a SM per se. I have never been able to fully adopt Scrum in my previous roles because of managment. So I have been “Scum like” though never a fulltime SM.

    I recently accepted a new job with a new company as a SM. I am excited and looking for ways to transition into the role smoothly. This article was a great help! The company is new to Scrum so I am hoping that helps.

    • Hi Greg – congrats on the new role and I’m genuinely excited for you. Glad you found this helpful. I also hope that you get benefit from the other articles on this site as well. As always, it’s always great to get questions, comments and even the odd commendation – feedback is always appreciated.

  • Rehan Mustafa Khan

    Thanks IIan Goldstein for such a excellent article on Scrum Master role. I have been Scrum Master for around 6 months. I got some real & nice inputs from your article.

    • Hi Rehan – glad you got some nice inputs from the article. Feel free to browse around the blog. There’s plenty more that you should find useful.

  • Tuval

    Hi Ilan,
    with your permission, I would like to share the article with management, as we are in a process of selecting SM for a new version, and your insights are very practical.

    Thanks,
    Tuval

    • Hi Tuval – It’s absolutely fine for you to share this article with your management. If you have any further questions, feel free to throw another comment here.

  • Naama

    Hi,
    great article,
    really make things in place.
    I personally prefer to see the SM as a “change agent”, as it reflect basic state of mind that this person needs and it’s connected to your second point “bring the change without fear”.

    thanks,
    Naama.

    • Hi Naama – thanks and really glad it clarified things. Indeed the ScrumMaster is a change agent and this function is critical not just during the initial adoption but on an ongoing basis.

  • Joy Kelsey

    Thank you Ilan – I like the “Tour de France” analogy – the SM is someone who should be seen and not heard i.e beind every good Scrum Team is a goo SM, which is hard for some people to adopt.
    I look forward to reviewing your book

  • I agree with Joy. The Tour de France analogy is fantastic. “A ScrumMaster needs to perform like a lead-out man”. Well said!

  • Jason Briggs

    Hi Jason,

    I was wandering if Scrum Masters need to be technical?

    • Hi Jason – there is no rule on this however I believe that the ScrumMaster should have enough technical knowledge to understand and appreciate what the developers are doing. They don’t necessarily need to be able to perform the actual work though. Sometimes being too technical can be detrimental as I have found that it can be tempting to jump in too early to solve the team’s problems.

  • Ilan Goldstein

    @Joy @Karen – really glad you enjoyed the Tour analogy and sorry for the delay! I’m going to be presenting this topic at Agile Australia next month if you can make it.

  • Niranjan Vedavyas

    Wow thats fantastic set of Attributes for a Scrum Master. Couple of points touched me because I feel I need ti improve on these
    Maintain Technical Knowledge without Being an Expert
    I always had the inclination of getting deep into technical details of my interest area and sometimes get into Technical problem solving exercise with the team. This led to most time spent on this particular area thus lagging in other SCrum Master functionality.
    But this article gave me good idea of how to handle these situations

    Be Comfortable Never Finishing
    I always used to jump to conclusion pretty fast and express my emotions. But as rightly pointed out, need to be extremely observant and sensitive and alert all the time on team performance.

    I also think “Leading without Authority” is the greatest art.

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