Scrum Master: The Legend Continues
(Part I)

One evening last year I had a class in Sofia University, there was a classroom full of young and eager to learn students, most of them already working in different IT companies… As I was going to speak on a conference on the next day and the topic was regarding the Scrum Master maturity growth, we decided it’s a good idea to train the talk together. I could have practiced and they would have had an interesting lecture. After I presented all the cool stuff I had prepared, I was curious about the feedback and what the students had understood about the evolution of a Scrum Master, but at some point a student very honestly asked me:

“Hm, ok! But really, what do you do the whole day?”

In the eve after, I quickly added some slides reffering to my actual work activities… And I realized this is an important aspect, to make it clear what I do and how my job adds value to the others. And here I am, a year later I’m writing an article.

For the sake of simplicity, we will focus the article in team context, but we can extrapolate almost everything from the team to individual or organizational levels.

Always start with the "Why?"

The Scrum Master’s purpose is to be enabler for the team. His main goal is to help the team evolve and become high-performing and high-productive. Note, I intentionally used “evolve” and not “build” as the true Scrum Master can’t build the team according to his vision. He can only support the team’s growth in positive direction. Think of the Scrum Master as a parent, who guides, influences and protects his children, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of unique evolution of the individual. 

Could you comment your experience of
working with Scrum Masters?

The team is full of experts in domains, like software engineering, quality assurance, software architecture, etc. The Scrum Master must become an expert in everything outside these domains, for instance: inter-team dynamics, organizational systems and facilitation. One more team member gives you one more expert in engineering practices. Having a Scrum Master means there is a person dedicated on everything no one is expert in. Detailed description of the role you can find in the Scrum Guide by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Swaber.  (Link)


What kind of master is the Scrum Master?

”Nah! It’s just wording…“

Actually, wording highly matters! Тhe mess built upon misunderstood key terms becomes a huge issue with time. The “Master” in the Scrum Master has NOTHING to do with “Master – Slave” relationships. The Scrum Master is not superior to anyone. In fact, the Scrum Master is a non-power role. It’s a servant leadership role, totally the opposite to many command-and-control ones, like most management roles.

Being a Scrum Master evolved to a multidisciplinary role. Things totally don’t end with Scrum, we need someone mastering more and more Agile practices. There is a broad range of skills, knowledge, Agile and Lean techniques which are not less important. It is essential the person in the role to constantly improve, read books, attend conferences, take part in groups and discussions regarding agility, and most importantly to learn in an agile way: practicing, experimenting and adapting. Taking all these various of skills and multidisciplinary experience into a count, we strongly prefer the term Agile Master.

Have you met real Agile masters?

The Agile Master has deep understanding about the purpose of the Agile techniques, because he is supposed to teach and explain them. He enhances agility in all levels of the organization, to do so he has to be agile, too. He should have an Agile mind, thinking, believes and behaviors – The Agile mindset.

The Lean/Agile mindset

The Agile Manifesto: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it…”

The skillful Agile Master is an expert in Agile and Lean. As a non-power role, the Agile Master has to lead by example. It is not enough to just teach others in аgility! You have to be agile yourself, to have the mindset and to live and behave according to the values and principles behind the Agile Manifesto.

If you’re looking for a career as a Scrum Master, consider the above statements. In case you prefer to manage people, demand to have an authority and power to direct your ideas and solutions to others – maybe you need to rethink your choice. Actually, please, do everyone a favor and choose another job. 

Scrum Master is not a step to the traditional Project management, both are incompatible. Agile leaders are considered as the next step of the evolution beyond the good-old command-and-control management. The traditional project management background is often considered a drawback for someone applying for a Scrum Master position.

An Agile Master needs system thinking

Every organization, part of organization, team or a single person is a Complex System. Complex Systems are difficult to understand, they are often irrational and in contrast with the common sense

Imagine the following situation:
A new member joins the team of six people. Suddenly, a week later, this team starts to perform poorly and complain about things they were doing successfully in months!  The managers are wondering what happened – the team was amazing and seemed to be indestructible just a week ago!

The Agile Master should understand the team as a system, having dynamics. Teams have a life cycle: they emerge, evolve and improve, sometimes they make steps back. They are not born in a desired state; they should walk their way to this state. Often people from the management complain why the team is behaving in a particular way. The skillful Agile Master understands the team dysfunctions and the difference between growth problems and underperformance.

The System thinking helps us see how changes in one part of the system affect a total different part of it. The Agile Master should understand that a new member means a new team, having new dynamics and balance. So, we must recover many lessons just because of the “small change”.

Powerful observations or "The art of doing nothing"

Very important and powerful characteristic of the Agile Master is to provide outside perspective. Usually the teams are so deep into the day-to-day dynamics, that they miss to see important aspects, just because they are simply too close. The Agile Master should be able to make a step back, to observe from a distance and to provide the Big Picture.

As Agile Masters we intentionally don’t take part in many discussions and we are even not interested in the actual case, instead we try to observe and understand the details and dynamics. For instance: Is everybody having air time to talk or only specific people take an active part? Is there tension in the team? Do we solve the problem or the symptom? Do the team members speak openly or there is a hidden agenda? 

All these are called Powerful Observations.

Any examples of Powerful Observations?

You are not here to provide solutions!

Most of us are trained to find solutions of complex issues. The Agile Master has to learn to stop doing that. The team is the one who invents the solutions and learns how to do it better and better. Тhis is the only way for the team to grow.

The truth is that the team’s solution is always better than yours! Don’t get me wrong – it is not because your solution is poor, it is because it doesn’t fit in their hands as their own would. 

When I realized that I should not find the solutions, I got a bit upset. I was pretty good at that and it was like unused potential to me. But after a while I got it! I had to change the way I think. Instead of ask myself “How to solve problem X?”, I transformed the question into “How to help the team solve the problem X?”. Easier said than done, I know!

Do you recall cases when your solutions did not work?

This way of thinking led me to even more challenging problems to solve:
“Which point of view is the team missing?”, “Are they stuck?”, “How to challenge them, so they can come with new ideas?”, “Which tools will help them?”.

So, which qualities should the Agile Master have?

The Agile Master’s primary focus is the people, their interactions and emotions. The true Agile Master understands his teammates and likes to spend time with them. He treats them like human beings, respects them and genuinely wants to give his best to help everyone to become happier at their job. The goal is to contribute to everyone’s well-being, even at the cost of many self-sacrifices. This is what it means to be a true “servant-leader” – the Agile Master serves his teammates and while doing that he’s leading by example. This is the most powerful way to influence how people should treat each other and work together. Sometimes that could even mean to confront the managers, risking his own job (Yes, this had happened to me!).

How difficult is it for you to empathize with your team?

In Part II we will answer some of the most frequently asked questions, like:

Is being a Scrum Master a full-time job?

How many teams should a single Scrum Master have?

Should the Scrum Master have technical background?

What is the Scrum Master’s career path?

What do you think?
What challenges have you experienced?
Leave your thoughts as comments below.

About the Authors

ME12

Nikola Bogdanov

Agile Coach

Nikola is an Agile enthusiast with deep interests in people, team and organizational facilitation and coaching. He has rich experience as Agile coach, Scrum master and Agile leader in big and small organizations.

Bogoy Bogdanov

Agile Coach

Bogoy is an experienced and professional Scrum Master, coach and trainer. His courses and talks are inspiring and attractive to professionals who want to learn from the best. 

 

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