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This article is a starting point for Scrum Masters and potential Scrum Masters. We cover the skills you need to excel in the role, advice for working with Scrum teams and more. The tips here will help you understand the requirements of the job and how to do it to the best of your ability, serving your team and your organization in the best possible way throughout your career.
The Role of The Scrum Master
Scrum is an Agile development methodology, used by companies large and small all over the world. It’s a way of prioritizing feature developments, and while it’s common in software teams, it’s not exclusive to the domain of IT projects.
A Scrum Master is an essential part of that team. Let’s get clear on what the role of a Scrum Master is.
It is not a jack of all trades. Scrum Masters don’t fill the role of project manager or devolve the team of the responsibility for having a Product Owner in place. A Scrum Master, according to the Scrum Alliance, helps teams use Scrum properly. They keep the team focused on its goal. It’s a crucial role for teams working in a Scrum environment. The individual in that position on the team helps the team apply the methodology and use the tools effectively to
get the best out of it. You could say they were the linchpin in helping to keep everything on track, although it’s a slightly different role to a ‘traditional’ project manager.
Having someone helping the team get the best out of Scrum increases the likelihood of success: process steps are not overlooked, corners are not cut.
The Scrum Master:
- Understands Scrum values, techniques and practices and coaches others on them.
- Improves the Product Owner’s effectiveness by maintaining the Product Backlog for the Product Owner to prioritize
- Maintains the release plan
- Organizes meetings
- Facilitates communication between teams and encourages Pair Programming
- Ensures the team is efficient and effective and has the tools required to do the job.
It may look like this is broadly similar to the role of a project manager, but in a Scrum Master position, you would have deep knowledge and expertise in the field beyond what most project managers would bring to a team. This is especially important in software development teams.
What Makes A Fantastic Scrum Master?
Here are some of the characteristics and behaviors that you’ll need to demonstrate to make a huge success of Scrum mastery.
You Have to Love Scrum!
A fantastic Scrum Master lives and breathes Scrum.
You have to, and if you don’t or feel that you couldn’t, then it probably isn’t going to be the best fit for a role for you.
The reason that’s important is because the Scrum Master is the guardian of Scrum on the team. They need to thoroughly understand the methodology because they might be called upon to explain it to someone else.
They are the arbitrator of all things to do with process, and it might slow the team down if they have to go off and consult the manual every time someone asks a question.
On top of that, they understand that part of the Scrum Master role is making sure everyone else can do their roles, so fantastic Scrum Masters aren’t sitting in a corner pronouncing judgments on Agile processes. You should be deeply embedded in the team, helping everyone get their work done and removing roadblocks so that can happen.
You Excel In A Team Environment
Wallflowers need not apply!
Scrum Masters are highly team-focused. In this role, you don’t manage the team directly, but you do need to read the team’s mood and be in tune with the work rhythm.
Fantastic Scrum Masters can guide the process without creating conflict. In fact, you are most likely to be the person the team turns to for help resolve conflict, because they know you have the team’s interests at heart.
Having said that, you shouldn’t be afraid of a challenge either. If the Product Owner is disorganized or unhelpful, it’s going to be you as the Scrum Master who picks that up first and helps navigate a successful resolution, even if that means having the difficult conversation.
You Can Lead From Within
Scrum teams are multi-disciplinary and collaborative. The hierarchical team leader isn’t the Scrum Master, but that doesn’t mean leadership isn’t required.
In Results Without Authority (Amacom), Tom Kendrick talks about three things levers available to leaders in positions without formal authority, such as within a team:
As a Scrum Master, you have access to all of these, and you should know how to use them to lead the team successfully from within.
You’ll also understand the roles and responsibilities of people on the team, so you understand what people should be doing and how you can best help.
You will be active in setting the culture of the team. While processes have a part to play in making sure that the team environment is a nice place to work, this is also a leadership job.
You Want Things To Be Better
A fantastic Scrum Master is keen to continuously learn – and help the team learn too. You should constantly be looking for ways in which the team can do better. How sprints can be more effective. How the team can get more done in a day. How stand-ups can be less monotonous.
Scrum Masters should be on the alert for what isn’t working and be first to suggest that the team should try something else. That’s more likely to involve facilitating the discussion about how the team members can come up with someone that works for them than dictating the answer.
You’ll also act as the team’s memory and be the one to remind people when it’s retrospective time. Then you can help them build on what is working to do more of it and flush out problems.
Fantastic Scrum Masters can help the team soar to great heights, delivering quality products sprint after sprint. You help others blast through the backlog and energize the team to work successfully together.
Scrum Master Survival Tips #1
Your First Scrum Master Job
It’s normal to feel like you have a thousand questions running through your head when you take on a Scrum Master role for the first time. They will be questions like:
The end of the sprint is next week. Did we understand the requirements? Are we going to have anything to demo? Already? It feels like we only just started, what are we going to show? Have we got enough time to finish everything?
Was I a good Scrum Master? Did I help the team?
Don’t panic! In fact, the more you are questioning, the better it is. A Scrum Master is constantly looking for answers and for places to adjust, flex and tweak processes to improve things. You’ll only get there by asking questions.
Many times, by the time you’ve formulated the right question and gone looking for the answer, the problem has gone away. But there will be times when you ask the right question at the right time, the team has a light bulb moment, and you all work better as a result.
Put in the Planning
Maybe, when you’ve got a lot of experience, you can be a little more laid back about how you approach planning sessions. However, when you are starting out, you should give considerable thought to how to get the best out of the planning meetings.
Plan how you want them to go before you get to the meeting. Then you can be structured and facilitative during the session. Be prepared for people to ask questions about the scope of the work, the basis of estimate and to push back. The more time you have spent thinking through how to handle objections or in working with others to address them before you go into your planning meetings, the better prepared you will be.
This goes for demos too. If you feel it would help the team to ‘rehearse’ their demo before giving it live, plan time for that to happen.
Help The Team Be Realistic About Their Goals
Be the person who says, “Really?” when a colleague says they can deliver 15 features in the next 3 days. Challenge respectfully. It’s your job to be the voice of reason and to make the team think twice about the promises it is making. If you don’t feel that they are being realistic, say so.
During the sprint watch out for team members who are struggling, or who appear to be taking on too much. It might be a sign that the work for the sprint is unbalanced or that there are others on the team who haven’t got enough to do, or that you over-committed.
When you spot a problem like this, you can work together to put it right before it becomes an issue for achieving your goals.
Keep The Big Picture In Mind
It’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture when you are deep in the detail of a sprint. Your role is to make sure that the end goal is still firmly kept in sight. By taking a step back from the detail and staying out of the weeds, you can spot dependencies between sprints or with other project teams. You can keep an eye on what you are delivering and how that fits into the bigger picture for the product or the business.
It’s a lot easier to make sure that those linkages are fleshed out early on so that you can plan for features to be completed on time to be passed to another team, for example. Every so often, bring the team up to that level so that everyone can glimpse the end state again.
Scrum Master Survival Tips #2
You might have heard the role of Scrum Master being referred to as one of servant leadership. But what does that actually mean? And what does it mean for you and your team?
Let’s unpack what it means to be a servant leader and how you can use the philosophy to improve your project environment and boost your team’s success.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership has been around for years, but the phrase ‘servant leadership’ was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay he published in 1970. Called The Servant as Leader, he explained that it’s the natural inclination in a leader that the first objective is to serve. From there comes the aspiration to lead.
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong,” he wrote. “While traditional leadership involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Why Do Scrum Masters Need To Act As Servant Leaders?
One of the fundamentals of Agile approaches is that of self-organizing teams. There is very little talk of hierarchy and the traditional role of the manager in Agile literature. Scrum Master is a privileged position on the team, but if you are in that role, you are definitely not the boss.
Leadership in this environment has to take on slightly different characteristics to what you might see elsewhere. A leader in a military environment directs the effort as well as inspiring the team. Business leaders in a range of fields appear on the news setting the vision for the organizations, defining timescales for new releases and talking about what their teams will do in the future.
As a Scrum Master, you can’t do that.
Your leadership role has to start from a place of equality with the rest of the team. You don’t allocate work to anyone. You don’t set the team’s priorities. You can’t pull rank if the situation demands – you have no rank to pull.
This is where servant leadership if you choose to accept it as a principle, offers the opportunity to work collaboratively and effectively with your colleagues.
What Does A Servant Leader Do?
A servant leader aims to help the team. He or she focuses on what the team needs right now. He helps them through problems, facilitating discussions and uncovering the root cause of issues so that they can be effectively addressed.
In an Agile team, a servant leader looks for roadblocks that are preventing the team from doing their best work and facilitates a resolution that leads to enabling the project to progress. The success of the team is paramount, more than organizational politics or personal ambition.
Quick Tips for Scrum Masters
So what does all this mean in practice? Here are some quick tips to help you develop your servant leadership capabilities as a Scrum Master.
1. Listen You can’t help the team if you don’t know where the problems are. Be attentive in stand-ups. Listen to the challenges raised in planning sessions. Pay particular attention in retrospectives. These are all times that you can pick up what is holding the team back.
2. Spot Conflict Your aim as a servant leader Scrum Master is to help the team grow. You can do this by watching out for conflict. Some conflict on a team is natural, healthy and to be expected. Learn to distinguish that from the destructive type of conflict that will send your team spiraling towards an unsatisfactory ending. When you spot conflict, act quickly to help the individuals concerned resolve it.
3. Look for Trends What is happening today that might be part of a trend? Is the behavior good or bad? Should this trend continue or stop? Perhaps you need to take the advice of the team on that. A good Scrum Master should be looking out for patterns and interpreting what they mean. Seek out the data that supports the trend and do the analysis, collectively, if you need to, in order to establish what’s going on.
4. Build the Team Don’t ignore traditional team building activities. Just ‘being Agile’ doesn’t give everyone enough in common with the rest of the team to move through Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team development (that’s the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing cycle you’ve probably heard of). Think about how you can help form greater bonds between team members. How can you develop a sense of community in the team? Of shared values and trust? Can you work with other Scrum Masters outside your immediate team to do the same across the whole of the Agile organization?
5. Identify Skill Gaps As the Scrum Master you are ideally placed to spot gaps in the skills of people on the team. Watch for the developer who always chooses to work on the same type of task. Look for the tester who doesn’t have much confidence using the automated testing tools. Be on the alert for the things people don’t say about their skills: not everyone is going to be happy confessing to not knowing something, so find an opportunity to talk to them about what you see. The Scrum Master role is responsible for team development, both in the processes of Agile but also more widely. What can
you do to multi-skill the team? How can you help them grow into being able to take on more complex work?
Becoming a servant leader is a journey. It’s a mindset change, and while for many people it comes naturally, for others it might take a little work. What’s most important is that you move away from being ‘Scrum Master as leader’ and move towards ‘Scrum Master as servant leader’. That’s the best way to serve your team and to continue to deliver successful results in a positive and supportive environment.
Scrum Master Survival Tips #3
Build Your Team
A Scrum team involves a number of different disciplines, and part of the Scrum Master’s job is to bring those all together to create a highly motivated, self-managing team. Let’s look at who you need in the team and then talk about how you can bring all those roles together.
The Product Owner is the person on the team who is the business representative for the deliverable you are creating. In other words, they set the direction of the product. They need to have enough authority to be able to make decision. It should be someone with good knowledge of the business and what the customer needs and they should be based close to the development team. If you can get your Product Owner embedded in the team and working from the same office as the developers, that’s going to be hugely beneficial. Ideally, your Product Owner should be spending about a quarter of their time working with the rest of the team on the project, so that’s more than one day per week. It makes a big difference if they’re just along the corridor when you need them.
It helps if your Product Owner has some idea of what it takes to get a piece of software built, for IT projects and as a minimum, they should have an understanding of the Agile methods, tools and techniques that you are using on the project.
The Development Team
This is the group responsible for making the product. There will most likely be a number of people in here, each with their own areas of special interest.
The exact makeup of your team will depend on the technical disciplines required for the product. For example, you might need a UX specialist, web developers, an SQL database expert and someone who can manage app security protocols. It’s more important to get the skills you need than have an individual with every skill – where it makes sense that someone takes on several development roles, let them do so as that makes the team more flexible overall.
Your development team might include people who are adequately skilled at testing but you may find that it’s more effective for your project to have dedicated testers. Don’t worry: there will be enough work for them to do! Scrum requires frequent testing – much more so than projects managed the waterfall way.
Your testing team is also the group responsible for managing any automated testing that the project requires. Automated testing tools can be time-consuming to set up, but once they are in play they will save you hours of manual testing time (and do the job as well as a human tester). Managing your automated testing tools should be a role for someone on the team as this will ensure that adequate regression testing takes place every time a new feature is developed and launched.
If you are concerned that there will not be enough for your testers to do, make sure they develop their skills in other areas so they can support the developers, get involved with quality management beyond the scope of their testing, prepare user documentation and so on.
That’s you! The Scrum Master is the team’s facilitator. You ensure everyone is engaged with the process. This isn’t a role to confuse with project manager. The role of Scrum Master is to make sure that the process is followed effectively and that the team continues to learn and develop ways of working together. The Scrum Master also ensures that the team is strict about sprint runs.
Sometimes the Scrum Master is the lead developer on the project, but that can result in the individual getting too stuck into the ‘doing’ and not spending enough time facilitating. If you have experienced and enthusiastic people you can rotate the role of Scrum Master if that helps develop the individuals in the team.
Bringing The Team Together
As the Scrum Master you may have the luxury of picking your team for this project but it’s far more likely that you’ll be allocated a team of developers, be told who your Product Owner is and left to get on with it. That should mean your first job is getting to know the people on the project so you can start to facilitate them working together.
Spend time with them and watch how they work individually and as a group. Remember that part of the Scrum Master job is to lead the team from within. Watch out for conflict and issues with the group – this is where understanding their work preferences and characters will make it easier for you to keep the team aligned to the end goal and focused on creating the product.
Try to build in some time to your busy project schedule for fun. Think about what team building events you could do to create some shared experiences. Even calling out for pizza at lunchtime counts! It’s the little things that will bring your team together, help you understand each other more and create a positive working environment where you can all do your best work.
How We Can Help
Being a Scrum Master is an incredibly rewarding and valued career path, so if you think that you have what it takes to be a superstar Scrum Master, get in touch and let us help you find the perfect role. Triumph Strategic Consulting can help you find the right IT job for you, whether you have a background in tech or not. We can get your resume in front of the employers who are looking for people just like you. We know a business is only successful if it is run by individuals who are qualified, experienced and ready to put some passion into their work.
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