Podcast Ep. 63: Tips for the New Scrum Master with Sam Falco and Adam Ulery

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Episode Description:

In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, Sam Falco is hosting the podcast once again. He is joined by his colleague and friend, Adam Ulery, who is a senior agile coach at AgileThought. Adam is a perpetually curious, continuous learner who is always willing to encourage others to try new things (as he very often does himself). He is very focused on helping organizations clarify and meet their business outcomes, and he loves to help companies become resilient and rediscover their curiosity.

Today, they’re sharing their best tips for new Scrum Masters. When Sam and Adam were new Scrum Masters, they found that there were not a lot of experienced Scrum Masters that were accessible to them. In fact, they didn’t even have access to many of the common resources that exist today. So today, they want to share all that they’ve learned over the course of their careers and lend a hand to all of the new Scrum Masters out there.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Tips for the new Scrum Master
      • Seek to understand where the team is in terms of their Scrum maturity level
      • Observe the team without immediately trying to make changes to the way the team does things to inform yourself about where they are
      • Ask yourself: “How well is what they’re doing working for them? Are they working well together as a team?” If these things look good in-person even though they could look incorrect on-paper, you may not want to change these things
      • Do some sort of an assessment with the team to establish a baseline for where they are and how they’re executing Scrum (then periodically reassess down the line)
      • Have the team self-assess
      • Create a shared team vision
      • Regardless of your experience level, educate yourself on the craft
      • Get involved with a community group to improve your area of practice (and if there isn’t one where you are, start one)
      • Indulge in books around your craft—they’re a great resource for taking you to the next level
      • Go to conferences, big or small
    • Tips for the new Scrum Master who is assigned to a pre-existing team:
      • Start by working with them on the areas that need improvement (based off of an assessment) by getting the team’s input and having the team decide what they’d like to work on (assuming they’re mature enough to want to do that)
      • Receive constant feedback by creating an open channel with the team to communicate
      • Have transparency with what you’re doing there and what you want for them
    • How to become a more effective Scrum Master
      • Find a mentor
      • Be a mentor—just because you’re new doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer
      • Become a speaker—you’ll discover you know more than you thought you did



Mentioned in this Episode


Adam Ulery’s Book Pick:

Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and not completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar]

Intro: [00:02] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought, the podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Sam Falco.

Sam Falco: [00:17] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I’m your host, Sam Falco and today I am joined by my colleague and friend Adam Ulery who is also a senior agile coach at AgileThought. Welcome to the show, Adam.

Adam Ulery: [00:31] Thanks Sam. I’m really excited to be here.

Sam Falco: [00:34] Yeah, so right before we kicked off, we were talking about tips that, uh, you would like to give to the new Scrum Master. And I know that when I was a new Scrum Master, I could have used a lot of tips. So how do you want to, how do you want to kick us off today?

Adam Ulery: [00:47] Yeah, I feel the same way. When I was a new Scrum Master, there weren’t a lot of experienced Scrum Masters accessible to me. Uh, in fact, I was thinking about this the other day and, uh, I didn’t have access to the Scrum guide or most of the books that are out there nowadays because when I started doing Scrum, those things didn’t exist. So, um, it’s fantastic that we have so many resources available to Scrum Masters today. And I thought it’d be interesting to share just a few tips that may help some new Scrum Masters out. Um, think the first one I would start with, Sam, is to seek to understand where the team is in terms of their Scrum maturity level. You know, where they are on their path to their journey.

Sam Falco: [01:36] Sure. Uh, so how would you go about that? You come into a new organization or they say here you’re a Scrum Master, so how do you, how do you start assessing where the team is?

Adam Ulery: [01:48] Right. So, uh, the first thing I would want to do is observe the team and without trying to immediately make changes to how the team does things or their process, I’d like to observe them and make notes of things I notice and discover patterns. Uh, about the way they behave and techniques they use and use that to kind of inform myself about where they are compared to what I think a mature Scrum team would look like.

Sam Falco: [02:26] Yeah, I totally agree with that. Um, when I was further into my Scrum career I went into an organization and they said, here’s your team. And there were 15 people on this Scrum team. And I thought, well that’s way too big. The first thing I’m going to have to do is deal with that. Fortunately, I was not a new Scrum Master on ice and did exactly what you suggested observed before I made any recommendation to discover that they had it going on. They knew how to handle 15 people, they’d worked that out. Their daily Scrum took about 12 minutes and they had a pretty good coordination. And so rather than try to fix something that wasn’t broken, I was able to observe for a little while longer and discover some other things that I could help them with.

Adam Ulery: [03:10] Yeah, and that’s a fantastic point about what you’re looking for in addition to how well they’re doing Scrum. How well is what they’re doing working for them? Are they delivering a valuable product increment and you know, periodically or regularly, um, are they working well together as a team? And if some of those things are happening, uh, you, you may not want to change some things that you otherwise would because they appear to be incorrect on paper.

Sam Falco: [03:40] Yes. Yeah. And that was the thing, this, this team was doing their daily Scrum well. They were coordinating together well, so 15 people was not a burden for them. Now, ideally we say that three to nine, right? Because after you get nine people, the lines of communication start to be hard to maintain, but they’d figured that out. What they were struggling with was an entirely different problem. And it had to do with the way they were delivering their increment. That was what they needed help on.

Adam Ulery: [04:09] Yeah. So, this is kind of related, but a followup to that would be to, uh, do some sort of an assessment with the team. You know, I’d like to establish some kind of baseline for where this team is and how they’re executing Scrum. Sure. Right? How well are they doing the, the ceremonies for example, uh, how healthy do their artifacts look, how well do they interact, what other team dynamics look like with respect to the, the Scrum roles that should be present on the team. So I’d like to, I’d like to use some kind of an assessment to determine that baseline and that way we have something from which we can measure and then we can periodically reassess and come back to that. A lot of different ways to attack that. And one of my favorites is a very simple assessment that we use here at AgileThought, but anyone could put together some sort of a simple assessment based on the Scrum guide and then have the team self-assess. So I really like that approach. Have them self-assess. It’s not a, it’s not as much of a test or you know, something you’re trying to get right or some performance measure that you should be stressed about. It’s more of a, Hey, let’s, let’s truthfully understand where we are for our purpose of improving as a team.

Sam Falco: [05:40] Yeah, yeah. I think I mentioned on a previous podcast that I had done something similar with the team where I had them rate themselves on how well they were living the Scrum values and then that showed them, Hey, we’re, we, we lack focus. That’s where we have the most problems. They lack focus. That that’s the wrong way to say it, but it was, we, we are not as skilled at focus as we are at living the others Scrum values. What do we want to do about it?

Adam Ulery: [06:08] Yeah, that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. And that, that could be your assessment is, you know, pick the values because that’s, that’s a super one to choose a, or it could be, we’ll, you know, we’ll consider the, the events and the artifacts and the roles and what the Scrum guide tells us about those. But I would keep it fairly simple and, uh, and just use that as a beginning tool.

Sam Falco: [06:33] Sure. So what else, what are some other things? Uh, you’ve come in, you’re the new Scrum Master, you’ve done a little bit of an assessment and you have some direction. What, um, what else, what other things would you suggest a new Scrum Master do or be aware of?

Adam Ulery: [06:48] Something I would suggest is create a shared team vision. And I like doing this with delivery teams, whether it’s a Scrum team or not. Um, and that would involve having everyone on the team share with each other and create this common understanding about what they bring to the team and what’s in it for them to be on the team. Uh, what they, what their vision for the team is. So what’s in it for the team in this organization? Why does the team exist, what’s its purpose? And then, uh, how does the team support the organizational purpose and, and mission understanding how all of that fits together and aligns just by talking through it and doing some, you know, some exercises to help visualize that can be very helpful for a new team to kind of understand their place in the organization and why they’re there. And then I also like a, a team working agreement to accompany that. So you could do all that in the same session. I have a three hour workshop I run that has all of those components in it. Uh, so you can get it done in three hours.

Sam Falco: [08:00] Which in the long in the scheme of things is really not a lot of time. If you’ve got a Scrum team that’s going to be together for a while, it’s start them off on the right foot. So that’s for a new team. What would you recommend if you’re a new Scrum Master presented to a team that’s going along, you’ve done an assessment and you think you see some opportunities for improvement?

Adam Ulery: [08:19] Yeah, I like that. So a team that already exists, um, I would, I would start to work with them on the areas in that assessment that indicate they need the most help. And one of my favorite ways to do that is to get the team’s input and, and have the team really decide what they’d like to work on, um, assuming they’re mature enough to be cooperative and want to do that. Uh, I’d really like them to help choose what it is we work on. And then as the Scrum Master for the team, I help them with that based on my experience and my understanding of Scrum. Uh, if it’s a situation that I know is as consultants and coaches, Sam, you and I deal with some pretty difficult teams where this isn’t a choice of theirs and I think that’s a different situation. That’s, that may not be exactly what we’re talking about here, but in that case, uh, you may have to choose for them until they get in the mode where they want to decide. So I’m always encouraging them to, and if they’re not able to do that, then I’ll, I’ll make a choice for them based on my decision about what I think would help them the most.

Sam Falco: [09:29] Sure. And that’s a challenge because we want the teams to self organize around solving all sorts of problems, what they’re building and as well as their own problems. And the minute you make a choice for them, you rob them with that power. But sometimes as you said, they, they’re not in a space to do that. Um, how do you, how do you make the choice for them and then get them pointed in the direction of self organization?

Adam Ulery: [09:56] For me it’s about constant feedback. Um, having a touch point, an open channel with them to communicate and get that feedback and transparency. So I really like to explain to them what I’m doing there and what I want for them. So you know what I mean? That sounds simple but uh, it actually doesn’t happen all that often and it’s a new thing for most teams when a coach is saying or a Scrum Master, putting myself in the Scrum Master role there is saying, all right, look, I will choose this item because I think that will help us the most right now. But I’d really like you all to be choosing what you would like to work on next. And based on our assessment, these three things tell us it would likely be one of these things. Let’s get to that point as soon as we can. Just that kind of open transparency with the team really encourages them to own that.

Sam Falco: [10:51] Sure. And I think maybe just saying, Hey, I’m making a choice for you. This is what I’ve chosen may trigger them to say, Oh no, that’s not what we want to work on that we want to work on this. Great. Go for it. Now you’ve now they’re self organizing or beginning to self organize around improving their own practices.

Adam Ulery: [11:09] Yeah, that would be a great reaction to that. And I as the Scrum Master would immediately do exactly what you said. Okay. You have something you’d like to choose. Let’s do that instead. You know, if, if that’s what you want to do, I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’d be fantastic.

Sam Falco: [11:41] So what else have you got for us, for our new Scrum Master who is quaking in his or her boots at the idea of taking on this awesome responsibility.

Adam Ulery: [11:50] So Sam, as you know, I’m a big uh, education proponent, growth proponent. And when I say education, I don’t necessarily mean traditional education. I really don’t actually, I mean learning. I’m a huge proponent of continuous growth and improvement, um, personally, professionally. And that’s what I would recommend for a new Scrum Master. Regardless of your experience level, regardless of where you are in your career or where you came from. I recommend educating yourself on your craft and, um, you know, it, I, I highly, uh, subscribed to Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people and that seventh habit, Sharpen your saw, just, uh, it never gets old, right? So whether you’re an expert or whether it’s brand new to you, there is an educational opportunity. There’s an opportunity to get better and to learn more. Um, you know, in fact, I, uh, am going back through the Scrum guide right now just to, as a detailed review of it, which I realize I haven’t done in awhile. I’ve referred back to it here and there looking for specific points, but I haven’t read it front to back in detail looking for things that seem new to me since the most recent change. And I’ve discovered a few things that I, uh, you know, there I didn’t quite realize they were there. I hadn’t thought about them in that way for awhile.

Sam Falco: [13:25] Yeah. Can you give me a, for instance?

Adam Ulery: [13:28] Yeah. The one is on team agreements for scaled teams or I’m sorry, the definition of done for scaled teams. Uh, where it mentions that if you have multiple Scrum teams working on a single product, you want the definition of done to be made by the teams so they can agree to deliver a working product increment. And you know, that it just sort of stood out to me as something that I had not realized was there before or glossed over at some point. And the point in all of this is no matter how much of an expert you think you are, um, there’s room to learn.

Sam Falco: [14:15] Yeah, that’s a great point. And that’s a great example of things that we maybe we weren’t concerned with scaling. So when I first learned Scrum, it was very much a single team and anything to do with multiple teams working together, I would just, my eyes would hit it and probably jump. That’s not something that I need to worry about right now. And I do the same thing. I go back through the Scrum guide, uh, at least once a month read it, cover to cover and things will, I’ve been doing Scrum since 2008 or practicing Scrum since 2008. Got my first certification in 2011 right around the time the first Scrum guide was actually released and I didn’t grow. I thought well, I’ve been through my certification class, I know what I’m doing and I just didn’t progress as a Scrum Master for many years until, and I’m going to segue into something else I think you’re going to love talking about until I got involved with the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild and discovered that things had changed in Scrum since I had gotten certified and that there was so much more to learn. So talk to me a little bit about the community support aspect of being a new Scrum Master.

Adam Ulery: [15:22] Yeah, and I think this fits very well within the educate on your craft. This is one way to do that and I believe it’s an excellent way to do that is to get involved with a community group that is focused on your area of practice. So here in Tampa we have the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters’ Guild. It’s a phenomenal community of practice around the Scrum Master craft. And it’s a great way to learn from other people who are actually doing it. You can share your experience and your knowledge and wisdom and you can learn other people’s experiences and their knowledge and being involved in a community really helps take you to another level.

Sam Falco: [16:08] It really did. I think the first thing that struck me, the first Scrum Master skill meeting I went to was, Oh my gosh, I’m not alone. These problems that I’ve been having, they’re not unique to me. It’s not because I’m terrible at this. It’s because this is hard. And other people have struggled with it and talking about it and just getting well I tried this, but it didn’t work for me. Well, but you know what? I think that might work for me. Let me go try that. Um, and then sharing what I had done or the struggles I had made helped us as a group generate solutions or potential solutions where none of us had one before. So there was that aspect to the continued growth. One of, you know, all of us are smarter than one of us, I think is a phrase I’ve heard before. And you get that from that community.

Adam Ulery: [17:00] I agree wholeheartedly. And it’s just, uh, it’s great to have the support. It almost recharges your batteries to go learn more and do more as well. So, yeah, I think, I think that community is a community like that is super important. And if you don’t have one in your area, I would encourage you to start one.

Sam Falco: [17:23] Absolutely. Uh, there’s a common myth that will, I don’t know anything, so what can I do? Well, you just stand up and say, Hey, I want to talk about this. You can do that within your organization as well without, um, having to go outside if, if there’s a group of people that are interested in learning more, get together, figure it out together and learn more. But certainly if there’s nothing in your area, just cast a big net. So much easier now than when you and I started because the internet is so much more ubiquitous. Uh, yeah. That you can just post something on a meetup. Hey, I’ve got this, uh, we’re going to try this and you’ll, you’ll get some people.

Adam Ulery: [18:01] You will. Absolutely. It’s a, yeah, you’re right. It is much easier now. And that, that’s a great idea. Communities are important. Um, another, uh, another knowledge tool that I think is important and should be leveraged by new Scrum Masters and seasoned Scrum Masters is books. I mean, they’re, I love books. And to take your, to take yourself to the next level. Uh, read a book on your craft. Uh, you know, a book like Scrum Mastery can really help new Scrum Masters learn what it means to be a great Scrum Master.

Sam Falco: [18:41] Yeah, that’s a good one. And even older books can be valuable. So read something that was published at the dawn of Scrum, so to speak. Um, I recently read, um, what was the book? It was one of Ken Schwaber’s early books and I can’t think of the title right off the top of my head, but I, it had been on my to read list for ages. I think Dan Neumann and I talked about it. I want to be earlier podcast and I finally picked it up and read ut. And here’s the answer I’ve been looking for for years right here. So the new stuff is great and the older stuff is good too.

Adam Ulery: [19:17] I agree. I, I did the exact same thing and I that would be pretty coincidental if it was the same book, but there was a, an old Ken Schwaber book that I found in my library, I think it might’ve been called project management or something like that. Wow. What a coincidence. I, I picked that up, um, cleaning off a bookshelf and started thumbing through it and same thing happened. I found something in there that I was like, Oh wow, this is a golden nugget right here. So to your point, old books can be good as well.

Sam Falco: [19:55] Yeah. So there’s, I mean there’s just so much out there for us that, um, it’s, it’s amazing to me to see people who get, maybe they get thrust into the role and they just don’t realize what’s out there and don’t even, um, I don’t know, maybe not look because they’re afraid or whatever reason. And I think that what we’re saying here is there’s plenty out there reach out. There’s always someone who’s willing to talk. And another thing that has been helpful to me is going to conferences, not even the big ones necessarily a short one. You find that in this community, so many people who are, you know, quote unquote big names are more than happy to sit down with you for 15 minutes and listen and ask some questions. Sometimes they’ll suggest things, but just give you the benefit of their wisdom because they remember what it was like to not have that guidance coming up or they remember what it was like to have that guidance and they want to share it with the rest of the community.

Adam Ulery: [20:58] Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what people who are good, strong leaders like to do. I mean, that’s what you and I love to do. We love to help other people up. You know, I, I liked to think about it as having one hand reaching up to someone who’s a mentor to me, pulling me up to their level and one hand behind kind of reaching down, pulling someone up to my level where I currently am, you know? And that way we all help each other get to the next level. So, you know, that kind of leads into the last piece here. I want to make sure I, I talk about for a new Scrum Master, I think one thing you could do to make a, um, a multiplier of an improvement to yourself as a effective Scrum Master is to find a mentor. That can really take you to the next level. Find a mentor. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be someone you have a personal relationship with and meet in a formal mentor, mentee situation that is desirable. And if you can get that, great. But if not, uh, choose someone in the industry who you respect and look up to and kind of follow their content, follow their, you know, what, what they produce in terms of content and direction. They can be a mentor to you in that way. You get information by reading their blog, you learn from them.

Sam Falco: [22:24] Absolutely. And then it can grow into a personal relationship possibly. You meet them at a conference or you reach out to them on Twitter or even email and that that conversation can happen, um, or within your local community. And I want to add to that, be a mentor, just because you’re new doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. So mentoring someone else can at the very least, expose a gap in your knowledge and you think, well, this person has this question and I don’t know how to help them because I didn’t realize I had that same question too. So you work on it together. And so it’s surprising how, how much you learn by being a mentor to someone else. And I don’t think it’s too soon to start that.

Adam Ulery: [23:07] Yeah, I think that’s an excellent point. I couldn’t agree with that more and it’s kind of what I was talking about with, you know, pulling yourself up and bringing someone else up with you. And a lot of the time when like you said, when you find someone, uh, to, to mentor, you end up learning more than you ever thought you would from teaching someone else. It’s just such a rewarding situation.

Sam Falco: [23:30] Yeah. I’d like to add one thing that we haven’t talked about, uh, and we didn’t talk about previously, but speaking. Becoming a speaker and it just triggered this talk about being a mentor. Even when you think you have nothing to offer, being a speaker, you think you have nothing to offer, you discover first of all, well I have to talk about this so I better go learn a lot about it. And you discover you knew more than you thought you did. So those community organizations, I started speaking at the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters’ Guild and that led to, I’ve spoken at the big agile conference and a couple of other conferences on topics that at first I thought, well I have something small to offer. And then discovered I had more and that grew into something and that helped me grow my career as well.

Adam Ulery: [24:13] Yeah, that is a fantastic point.

Sam Falco: [24:16] So we’re reaching the end of our time box and I want to be respectful of that. But first I wanted to talk about, as Dan always asks, what are you reading? What are you, how are you continuously learning?

Adam Ulery: [24:27] Oh man, I love to read Sam and I’ve always got several books going at once and I’ll have an audible audio book going so I can listen to that when I’m commuting. And then I’ll have a physical book going and then I hear it. AgileThought we have a book club going, so that allows me to get one more in there. So I’ve got several here. All right. Um, in the order at which I’m consuming them, uh, Anti-fragile. That is a fantastic book. I’ve got that on audible and I’m listening to that every day. So I’m getting through that at a pretty decent clip. Anti-fragile that is a fantastic book about how to be the opposite of fragile, um, Killing Sacred Cows by Garrett Gunderson. It’s a financial book. And, um, it is about how the, uh, the traditional financial system, including the 401ks and, uh, mutual funds that the financial industry has positioned as the way most people should invest for financial security, retirement is all, um, not a good secure way to do that. Um, and how investing in things like real estate can secure your financial future. So I’m, I got that from the library. Awesome book. I’m a huge fan of the library by the way. Major supporter of your local library. Uh, third, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. It’s kind of an older book, but I’m rereading it and I’m really enjoying that right now. And it’s about how God has a purpose for your life and how to kind of discover what that is. So that’s a, that’s a good one. And then last but definitely not least, the DevOps Handbook. So we are doing a book club here at AgileThought on that. Uh, and we’re getting through, uh, several chapters every couple of weeks. So going a little slower on that one than the others, but still making progress on it. The DevOps Handbook is a really good, a really good read.

Sam Falco: [26:46] Very cool. I, uh, I also tend to have multiple books going, although I balance it a little differently. Um, one nonfiction and uh, one fiction. Um, and then sometimes I’ll have something else going. So I just finished reading Software Estimation. Uh, no, that’s the book I’m going to start next. So Software in 30 days, which is a, again, that’s one of the older books on Scrum, but great insights there. And the next book up a business book is Software Estimation Without Guessing by George Dinwiddie, which I’m really excited to start because, uh, I’ve always struggled with that, that idea that we just sort of winging it. We’re just sort of throwing numbers that don’t mean anything and, and are we really adding value by doing it? So I’m really excited to read that. And then fiction, I am reading, um, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehesi Coates who used to write for the Atlantic. Uh, I’ve loved his nonfiction and I started reading this, this piece of fiction and it’s a really challenging book. Started reading it one night before bed and I thought, I’ll just read a chapter or two, uh, to relax. And I read chapter two and realized I had no idea what I just read because it’s really intricate pros. It’s the kind of thing you, you want to pay attention to. You want to sit up and take notice. So I restarted that one day when I had more mental energy. And it is just a fabulous, uh, story of, uh, a man who is in slavery and discovers that he can’t stay. He has to get out. And there’s a bit of a fantastic element to it as well, where he has this power of conduction that he can’t really control, that he can travel through space without passing through the spaces in between. Uh, and how he, and of course, that’s a metaphor for so many things, just a.

Adam Ulery: [28:35] spectacular book. Awesome, man, that sounds interesting.

Sam Falco: [28:39] Well, thank you very much for being with us today. Uh, Adam and I think that what you just talked about will really be of great use to new Scrum Masters and old Scrum Masters alike.

Adam Ulery: [28:50] Great. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Sam. I enjoyed it.

Outro: [28:54] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions, and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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