Not everyone becomes a Scrum Master by going to a certification class. Sometimes, an organization wants to try Scrum on a small scale before making a large financial commitment and will ask someone to play the Scrum Master role. If this happens to you, you may find yourself thinking: “I’m a Scrum Master, now what?” Good question!
Here are the most important things you need to know when you’re taking on the Scrum Master role.
Although many organizations make “Scrum Master” a formal job title, at its heart, it is a role on the Scrum team, not a position. To play the role you must change your mindset and behaviors.
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Many people who are placed in the Scrum Master role are used to an authoritarian approach to management—they direct people to do specific tasks. These leaders are expected to know everything that the team is doing and to have full control over it. They are held accountable to team output, responsible for team activities, and learn to manage people very tightly—this is known as command and control.
On an agile team, we expect everyone to be responsible and accountable to each other for their work. The Scrum Master doesn’t tell people what to do or how to do it. Instead, they teach the team to make their own decisions about what must be done and how to get it accomplished. For example, instead of using a “Daily Standup” as a means to direct people to do specific tasks, the Scrum Master teaches the team to use the Daily Scrum to coordinate around the Sprint Goal and plan for that day’s work. The team decides how to accomplish the Sprint Goal. Teaching the team is one way the Scrum Master serves the team. Serving the team while leading them—also known as servant leadership—is a big part of what the Scrum Master does.
As you drop command and control behaviors, replace them with servant leadership behaviors. At first, you may find it difficult to give up control and allow the team to make mistakes. Push through this and replace giving orders with encouragement—allow the team to come up with a solution. Instead of giving the team a solution, provide them with outcomes you’d like to see them achieve. For example, if a team is taking on too much work in a Sprint, it might be tempting to tell them exactly what to take out so they don’t overcommit. Instead, provide the team with the outcome that you want to see. In this case, you might say, “Team, how can we finish every item that we plan into the Sprint?”
Maybe the team really feels confident, despite your misgivings. Allow them to determine their own course. You could be wrong! In which case, good for the team. But even if you’re right, they will learn far more from making the mistake and deciding on their own how to avoid the same mistake in the future, than they would if you solved the problem for them preemptively.
Start practicing the framework the right away. Read the Scrum Guide and follow the Scrum framework as closely as you can. Teach the team about the roles, events, and artifacts of Scrum as you learn about them. The team will appreciate your openness if you explain that you are learning, too, and that it is ok to learn from your mistakes together. When you see something happening that appears to violate the Scrum framework, call it out to the team and ask them what they think. Explain the variance between what you observed and what the Scrum Guide calls for. Ask the team how you can close the gap.
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Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t following some parts of the framework very closely. Do the best you can and try to continuously improve. Remember, your job isn’t to force the team to do Scrum exactly as the Scrum Guide says. Your job is to help the team do Scrum well. The team must be willing.
The Scrum Guide defines five values that underpin a successful Scrum team. When all team members embrace these values, Scrum works well, and teams are less likely to implement practices that contradict the framework. For example, Scrum teams that exhibit the courage to push back against the business adding unplanned scope during a Sprint will be more likely to produce a successful product increment every Sprint.
Seek to understand the “why” behind everything you do as a team. As you progress, you’ll come across situations where you or someone from your team questions why you are doing something. If your first response is, “because the Scrum Guide says so,” this is an indicator that you need to dig deeper to understand why. Understanding why Scrum prescribes what it does will help you become a high performing Scrum Master.
With experience, you will learn the Scrum framework is an interrelated system that breaks down if one or two parts are not followed. When companies selectively omit or modify pieces of the framework, dysfunction typically follows. For example, an immature organization may say, “we don’t have time for retrospectives.” The Retrospective is the way to inspect and adapt the teams’ processes to improve them. When the team isn’t given the time to work on this, they frequently stagnate or degrade, and often times, they aren’t aware of this.
The Scrum Guide is one of many resources. You can do everything in the Scrum Guide without adopting an agile mindset. Dig deeper. Examine the principles behind the Agile Manifesto and learn why and how Scrum fulfills each one. For example, how does Scrum live up to the idea that “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project?” Contemplating that question can lead you to a deeper understanding of what the Product Owner role is all about, which will help you when it comes time to coach your Product Owner.
Veteran Scrum Masters know that their education is never complete—it’s an ongoing process. As a new Scrum Master, always be on the lookout for new perspectives and new information about how Scrum can work better. If you are a new Scrum Master and interested in training or coaching, we would love to talk with you.
Co-authored by Sam Falco and Adam Ulery
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