How to be a great Scrum Master

Explore Assurity 20 February 2020 Jacob Creech

I often get questions from clients, colleagues and participants in our training as to how to continue your evolution as a Scrum Master. I don’t think there’s just one answer, but instead lots of different avenues to explore, including some great books, blogs, videos, training courses and, of course, a large dose of practical experience. Because nothing is quite like learning and doing it yourself. 

Recently I had the opportunity to continue my journey with (founded by Ken Schwaber, co-creator of Scrum) and add to my Professional Scrum Trainer credentials by going through a fun and rigorous process to enable me to facilitate the Professional Scrum Master – Advanced (aka PSM2) course. This got me thinking in-depth about what it means to be a great Scrum Master so here are a few thoughts on that...

You need to build trust and credibility to be able to effect sustainable change 

Over my years working as a Scrum Master, Agile Coach and Consultant, one of the most common issues I find is that people think their ideas should be listened to because they are good ideas or because the organisation brought them in to solve a particular problem or apply a certain methodology. It’s important to know that you can’t force sustainable change. To build long-lasting change, you need trust and credibility and then eventually to introduce new habits to gradually guide you in the direction you want to move – remembering that change takes time. 

How do you build trust and credibility?

  1. The most effective way I’ve found is to listen to people's problems (rather than focusing on their proposed solutions)
  2. Then find one thing you can do to help with that problem
  3. Once you’ve helped them with one thing, find another problem and help them with that. Keep doing this

What if the problem isn’t Scrum or Agile-related? Doesn’t matter. Build trust and credibility by helping with what matters to them and they’ll be more inclined to listen to you in the future. Relationships matter.

Create, support and nurture an environment of safety

Google’s Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the most important factor in building high performance. In our Professional Scrum Master courses, we talk about trust and courage as the foundation of transparency. Modern Agile talks about making safety a prerequisite.

Long story short, without safety, trust and courage, you can’t effectively learn and grow because you probably aren’t getting the right information at the right time. If the environment isn’t safe, people won’t be willing to try new things or venture from the beaten path. But trying new things is how we learn and grow. 

As a Scrum Master, you have a great ability to influence safety within the Scrum team and potentially other areas of the organisation...

  • Being vulnerable and leading by example
  • Sharing what you’ve done wrong and, more importantly, sharing what you’ve learnt from making mistakes
  • Supporting healthy methods of dealing with conflict
  • Building shared understanding through social contracts
  • Saying what you’ll do and doing what you say
  • Using tools like non-violent communication and stop work cards…

...the list goes on. If you have a safe environment, learning and growth will dramatically improve which leads to better results and a happier workplace.

Focus on what you can control, be transparent about what you can't

Inevitably, as a Scrum Master, (or in any role) you will come across big problems. Dealing with big problems is hard and, if you look at big problems, they may seem unsolvable. I have two pieces of advice here:

  1. Break big problems into small ones. Just like you would slice a product backlog item, slicing big problems into smaller ones means you have a much better ability to deal with each small problem
  2. Focus on the problems you can control (generally issues within the scope of the team), before you focus on things you can influence (things adjacent to the team) and before trying to deal with areas you have no control over

If you do a good job of the problems you can control, your influence will spread. If you do a good job dealing with the problems you can influence, your influence will spread even further. Ultimately, there will be some areas you can’t deal with. Make them transparent – be it through Post-its on the wall, meetings with execs, internal forums or whatever works for you. Eventually, some may fade away and some may reach the people that do have influence. This is all ok.

No one can solve every problem but, at least by acknowledging them and calling them out, we increase our ability to deal with them, and to some extent our comfort with having them not yet dealt with. Good things take time.

Change habits, one step at a time

Ahmed Sidky has an amazing talk on changing keystone habits within organisations. He breaks it down like this:

  • First, you have the various elements of the organisation – people, process, strategy, structure and leadership. If you try and change any one of these without bringing the others on the journey, you have a very high chance of failure (seen with many organisations that try and change process – any new SDLC, or structure – how many reorgs have you been through…) 
  • Secondly, you have the habits – he suggests starting with collaboration – building a habit of working together to achieve results, followed by evolution – delivering in circular, evolutionary slices… The list goes on
  • When you put these together, the first thing you want to do is build a habit of collaboration across people, process, strategy, structure and leadership

This is where a Scrum Master has a great ability to influence. As a Scrum Master, you frequently interact with all of these various elements of the organisation, but even within a team you can think of what you can do to influence each of these various elements. You don’t have to own this all by yourself either. This would be an awesome topic for a retrospective with a team and using the ideas the team generates is a great way to begin building the new habits for the team you aspire to be.

Be a mirror to the team

I work with many lovely people who want to help people. Often this plays out as these people solving problems for people or frequently suggesting ideas or actions on how they should improve. People learn better from their own experiences than others’ experiences told to them. Furthermore, a group of people sharing ideas is so much richer in ideas than an individual alone. There is an African proverb... “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.

Make sure to reflect issues and concerns back to the team, then let them understand and solve for themselves. Give them opportunities for growth. Ask questions that prompt deep thinking rather than just giving solutions. This is one of your super powers as a Scrum Master because you can actually step back and observe the team when they may be too close to the issues to properly see them. Use your super powers wisely.

A Scrum Master role description

Putting these ideas together, a number of years back I worked with a group of amazing coaches and we created what I still feel is a pretty good description of what an effective Scrum Master should focus on:

Servant Leadership – foster self-organisation

  • Teach the team to lead themselves. Coach and guide the team on ways to remove their own impediments (e.g. teach the team to write their own IT tickets or product backlog items, rather than doing it for them)
  • Listen first, learn from others, consider the needs of all
  • Observe the interactions of the individuals – pose questions, don’t offer solutions

Teach Agile Values and Principles. Model behaviour consistent with the Agile Principles with a particular focus on:

  • Trusting motivated individuals
  • Ensuring continuous attention to technical excellence
  • Fostering self organisation
  • Maintaining a sustainable pace

Facilitation and Coaching

  • Guide the Scrum events (planning, standup, retro, review and refinement)
  • Create a culture of continuous improvement

Continuous Improvement – Inspect and Adapt

  • Lead the retrospective and facilitate continuous improvement
  • Follow a 'do, measure, learn’ loop
  • Bias towards action – encourage the team to implement action-oriented goals

What next?

If you’d like to be part of this conversation on the ongoing development of a Scrum Master, I highly recommend checking out our Advanced Scrum Master course. I’d love to hear your thoughts.