The SCRUM guide defines 3 primary roles, viz The Product Owner, The Development Team and The Scrum Master. It defines the Scrum Master role as:
The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.
The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.
So primarily, the role has the responsibility of making sure that the SCRUM framework is properly implemented, properly understood and facilitation of SCRUM activities towards these goals.
The idea of being a “servant-leader” for the team borrows from McGregor’s Theory Y style of management. Here the focus is to mentor and guide the team as well as facilitate top performance versus the traditional way of giving direction, one-sided discussions and trickle down the work pressure through the hierarchy. Instead of being the person feared, the SCRUM master is the go-to person for the team in case of issues and instead of blame game, the role supports and encourages healthy dialogue and problem solving as a team through objectivity.
An organization may choose to have one dedicated SCRUM master for a team, or a shared role between many smaller teams, although the former is the most preferred structure for efficiency.
Let’s take a look at some key traits and competencies of being a SCRUM master.
- The role requires the person to be a master in the ART OF COMMUNICATION. A SCRUM master needs to be skilled at talking, presenting, listening, writing, discussing, compering, resolving, explaining, coaching, convincing, dissuading, humouring, encouraging, motivating and summarising. All of these are part of the day-to-day requirements for helping the team perform, collaborate, coach and facilitate as necessary. It is an art to know when to express, when to just listen and when to step in and give the required impetus to the team. The person is expected to be ready to switch tone as required and have the knowledge to identify which situation warrants what kind of a reaction both within and outside the team.
- SUPPORTING THE TEAM in pursuit of the larger team goals is the primary responsibility. Most of the attributes centre around achieving this. The SCRUM master has to make sure that the team is involved in each step of the process and delivery and coach them as required to make them self-sufficient. The trick is to be both the expendable and yet the most integral part of the team. They will be the go-to person for all doubts and first one to foresee issues and yet their measure of success is how redundant their role is. The aim is to make the team self-organizing, self-motivating and allow them to take ownership. Hence it is important to not present solutions but encourage the right thought process in that direction. Using the SCRUM tools and values towards this goal is the foundation.
- CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND REMOVING IMPEDIMENTS. Although the role demands the person to be neutral and observing more than acting, a main responsibility is also towards – aiding solutions, resolving conflicts, finding clarity in contradictory scenarios, eliminating impediments and shielding against external issues. This requires the person to be well versed with conflict resolution strategies and as they gain experience, it is expected that they use past knowledge to pre-empt issues or potential conflict sources ahead of time and take required steps towards prevention.
- SELF-IMPROVEMENT and LEARNING are key to achieving the required skillset. It should be evident by now that the role is not easy and requires a steady tight-rope walk between passive attributes of supporting and active attributes of leadership. Studying and continuous learning for self-improvement are imperative to achieving the required characteristics. Studying material and books from prior SCRUM leaders, other frameworks like KANBAN, XP, TDD and case studies from other SCRUM implementations gives the person the required tools and solid foundation to realise the most effective way of implementing SCRUM in and around them. Along with this, a constant check of lessons learnt from their own experience and being able to use experience to guide as well as pre-empt potential issues is a great asset to a SCRUM master.
- LEADS BY EXAMPLE AND VALUES CADENCE. The SCRUM master is a person who shows the right way rather than dictates, via actions and not just statements. He walks the talk and embodies the SCRUM values to inspire their adoption rather than empty dictation. He himself realises the importance of the SCRUM process, the Kaizen events and having their fixed frequency so that he can show to others how and why they plan an important role. In the event that the SCRUM master doesn’t feel convinced, they can always re-assess the gap and facilitate a discussion towards the best approach. But they need to be quick to act in the event of identifying such gaps and facilitate a solution and then be the torchbearer for that implementation while others adopt to change. They are a leader without powers and take responsibility whenever required.
- MOTIVATOR AND FUN TO BE AROUND. Continuing with the idea of a Theory-Y leader, the SCRUM master has an approachable demeanour, can make the team feel enthusiastic towards the team goals to achieve success and help the team unwind with humour or identified breaks as needed. The goal is to help the team achieve the goals with collaborative enthusiasm and not driven by fear or routine. Hence, the SCRUM master needs to have a pulse on the team’s emotional health and identify any opportunities of a pep talk, perks, rest and team building exercises or just pure fun towards motivation or rejuvenation. Facilitating the kaizen events also requires a lively personality and healthy humour to keep them engaging while building an atmosphere of openness and support.
- CAN ACT AS COACH AND CHANGE AGENT AT ORGANIZATION LEVEL. The SCRUM master needs to be the one spear-heading the success of SCRUM in the team as well as the organization. This means they are required to make sure that even the environment around the team is conducive to growth of team’s success and the SCRUM values. This may require talking to the leadership and at times encouraging a cultural shift towards a Lean-Agile mindset. They also support the Product Owner in their role and can act as a coach if the Product owner is unsure of certain processes and also act as a check that all necessary protocols are being implemented as well as achieving the desired result. The same holds true while working with the team. They are both the mentor till the team is self-sufficient and also the check that accepted practices are followed and geared towards high performance.
- RE-TRAINED. Geoff Watts proposed the acronym to describe the skills of a successful SCRUM master as RE-TRAINED in his book:
- Resourceful, is creative in removing impediments
- Enabling, is passionate about helping others
- Tactful, is diplomacy personified
- Respected, has a reputation for integrity
- Alternative, is prepared to promote a counter-culture
- Inspiring, generates enthusiasm and energy in others
- Nurturing, enjoys helping teams and individuals develop and grow
- Empathic, is sensitive to those around them
- Disruptive, breaks the status quo, help create a new way of working