Luis Goncalves
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What Is A Scrum Master, the complete definition

by Luís Gonçalves
what is a scrum master

What is a Scrum Master article provides an overview about the role of Scrum Master.

I’ve written an extensive piece about Scrum Methodology, and I highly suggest that you visit it first before continuing reading this page. It’s a concise yet an extensive primer about Scrum framework. Understanding this methodology will aid you in understanding what a scrum master is. If you have some foundations about Scrum and would like to know more beyond the functions, roles, and responsibilities of a scrum master, feel free to proceed reading below.

A scrum master is like a lighthouse in a scrum team which is composed of a product owner, development team, and the scrum master himself. He makes it sure that he provides guidance among his teammates based on the tenets of the Scrum Framework. Just like a lighthouse, before his team crash to a harbour on stormy weather, he makes it sure that he elucidates everyone on how they can properly “dock” their ship using Scrum. Although a scrum master is a part of a scrum team, you should know that he also makes it sure that as the “scrum lighthouse” of a company, he also enlightens other employees/teams on what can be a beneficial interaction with the scrum team and what can be disadvantageous. Basically, scrum masters are responsible for three groups; Product Owner, Development Team, and the Organisation. These are mere similes and generalisation, but if you want to have the exact roles, functions, and responsibilities of a scrum master to the letter, the answer can be found in the Scrum Guide itself.

Before we focus on the specifics, let’s delve into three high-level concepts of being a scrum master.

So what is a Scrum Master?

Scrum Master as Change Agent

Scrum masters are in a very important position in a company. They both have the “battlefield” insights and a 30,000-foot view of how different teams progress on a day to day operation. How? One way of the ways is through Agile Retrospective. Facilitating Agile Retrospective gives scrum masters the opportunity to spot trends and recurring problems in a team. Though knowing the problem is just one step in catalysing change, scrum masters at least know what has to be changed in an organisation. And that’s where every change starts with. I even wrote an extensive guide on how to turn Agile Retrospective into an actionable problem-solving tool for executives using the Impediment board. With this initiative, scrum masters are in the position to suggest essential changes in an organisation.

Scrum Master as a Servant Leader

From the Scrum Guide itself, scrum masters are identified as Servant Leaders. This is an essential characterisation of a scrum master because, without the concept of servant leadership, a scrum master won’t be able to fully function in implementing the Scrum Framework. It also goes back to the idea of being a lighthouse. A lighthouse is made to serve sailors and lead people to safe harbour.  I wrote a blog post about ten characteristics of a servant leader here. Check it out if you’re not sure on how scrum masters can be a servant leader in an organisation.

Scrum Master as a Mirror

It’s imperative that a scrum master become the “mirror” of the team. Through a scrum master, the team readily check if what they’re doing doesn’t reflect the Agile and Scrum values. By standing in front of a mirror, a team can easily spot and be reminded of the flaws that are counterintuitive to the Scrum Methodology. The scrum master reminds the team to improve these flaws by becoming the observer and the extra eye that sees without bias but only towards the principles of Scrum and Agile values. With the reflection of the team in a mirror, members can receive open questions from the scrum master that will lead to the general improvement of the team. This could be through the use of modules like Sprint backlogs, metrics, and other tools.

Now that we’ve knocked down three high-level roles of a scrum master let’s go back to the basics and foundations and find out the key responsibilities of a scrum master when it comes to working with Product Owners, Development Team, and in the organisation he works for.

Scrum Master Responsibilities to Product Owner

  • It is essential that a scrum master is adept at finding techniques that are effective efficient and efficient in managing Product Backlogs.
  • The scrum master should be able to articulate the items in the Product Backlogs.
  • The scrum master should demonstrate an understanding of product planning in an empirical environment
  • Help in arranging Product Backlog items that will maximise value
  • Demonstrate mastery of agility
  • Facilitate scrum events as may be required

Scrum Master Responsibilities to Development Team

  • Coach the Development Team to self-organise and how to be cross-functional
  • Assist the Development Team in creating high-value products
  • Take out Impediments to the Progress of the team
  • Facilitate scrum events as may be required
  • Help Development team adjust in an organisation where Scrum is just being adopted

Scrum Master Responsibilities to an Organisation

  • Lead and coach the company/organisation to adopt Scrum
  • Plan the implementation and adoption of Scrum in the company/organisation
  • Help employees and other stakeholders fully grasp Scrum and empirical product development
  • Initiate changes that lead to increased Scrum team productivity
  • Collaborate with other scrum masters to fully activate scrum within an organisation

All of these roles and responsibilities are already discussed in this primer and also in the official Scrum Guide.

Aside from these roles and responsibilities to a scrum team, I wrote a definitive list of specific roles that a scrum master must play in this article “Scrum Master Role Everything What all Scrum Masters Need to Know”. Remember that the main goal of a scrum master in a company is to help stakeholders adapt to the Scrum framework and Agile Methodologies. Alongside this, the scrum master should help the company have a stable and self-organising team with a clear roadmap and help the company identify organisational impediments. To recap here are other roles and responsibilities of a Scrum Master that embody this goal:

Responsible for the Scrum Artefacts

  • Facilitate Planning
  • Facilitate in Grooming
  • Facilitate Reviews
  • Facilitate Retrospectives
  • Helps the team to stay laser-focused (e.g. becoming the external barrier for distractions)
  • Helps in maintaining the team’s scrums tools (i.e. Action board, Storyboard, charts, backlogs, etc.)
  • Helps the team and the product owner in determining the Definition of Done and Definition of Ready

Responsible for Development and Nurturing of Team Dynamics

  • System Coaching
  • Mediation of conflicts
  • Adviser for Team’s decisions
  • Nurturing the developer team´s self-organisation initiatives
  • Mediation and Reconciling conflict of goals between the product owner and development team

Continuous Learning and Knowledge Sharing to the team and Organisation

  • A scrum master has to have an Always-be-learning attitude when it comes to anything related to Agile. He should be comfortable visiting user groups regularly, attending conferences, reading books, writing blogs, and other activities that improve his health of knowledge about Agile and Scrum.
  • Consult teams and strengthen the foundation of organisations in Agile
  • Helps teams create information radiators
  • Provides feedback to the team
  • Encourage the use of Agile Engineering Practices especially within the development team
  • Foster challenging Agile Management Innovations  for teams (e.g. FedEx-Days)
  • Facilitate and encourage the exchange of knowledge with other Scrum Masters (for example through communities of practice)

Helps in Maintaining the “Big Picture” in the Team

  • Facilitate, encourage, and initiate conversations among team members
  • Updates stakeholders on a regular basis
  • Helps the team in reporting to the management
  • Advocates for the Agile and Scrum framework within the organisation through blogging and other internal related conferences.
  • Become the contact person in the company when there is a question about Agile and Scrum

Bernd Schiffer wrote a comprehensive blog post about these scrum master responsibilities which you can check out through this link. Feel free to check it out. Most of the ideas above are adopted from his blog post.

How to Be a Good Scrum Master

Now that you have some ideas of the roles and responsibilities of a scrum master, the next logical question would be “how to be really good at being a scrum master?”

For those who are just starting their career as a scrum master, I highly suggest that you read this article that I wrote “How to be a Good Scrum Master – Starting Your Scrum Master Journey.” I outlined here how you can systematise your first action items in the first 20 weeks in a company you work for. By doing this in the first 20 weeks of your new job, I can guarantee that you’re off to a good start.

  • Start to schedule a one-on-one meeting with the members of the team. In these meetings, you have to know their biggest concerns in the team and the company as a whole. It’s a must that you take notes. With these insights from the team, you can easily dial in the problems where you can easily implement the agile framework.
  • Organize a workshop that will clarify the roles, obligations, and expectations from each member of the team.
  • Coaching Alliance – Set this up early on. Professional coaches have this established with their clients; you’re not an exemption.
  • Stakeholder mapping – this is an effective method to get to know the people who work in the organisation.
  • Install the team policies in a conspicuous part of the office/room. That serves as a visual cue for the team to keep the basic working etiquette expected from them.
  • Organise a one-date team building workshop to establish teamwork, principles, values, and product vision in the team.
  • Start a Kaizen board in the team’s room. This is a great tool for people who are taking learning and experimentation seriously.
  • Make an Agile Retrospectives Input Box. This will make your job a little easier. Thinking of topics in retrospectives can be tedious so getting some topics would be a great way to come up with new ideas.
  • Achievements wall. Many people forget to celebrate wins, especially in a corporate setup. An achievement wall is a great reminder to celebrate achievements and motivate the team to do more.
  • Kudos wall. It’s a seemingly simple yet effective tool to demonstrate how people care, respect, and appreciate each other.
  • Set the Organisational Impediment Board. Visualize all the organisational impediments in the company. This will help in setting everyone’s mind to address these impediments.
  • Start a Learning Wall. Any organisation should be geared towards learning. A learning wall is an effective instrument to encourage a learning mindset in the company.
  • Communities of Practice. Speaking of learning, communities of practice is an instrumental framework in bolstering learning atmosphere in your company.
  • Schedule workshops for product development flow and principles.
  • Initiate a release planning to help the team see beyond sprints and see the long-term view of the company.
  • Teach, and train Product Owners do a release forecast to help him communicate expectations to other stakeholders.
  • Schedule workshops for story mapping, impact mapping, system thinking and causal loop diagrams.
  • Initiate the practice of pair programming and create a pair programming matrix board

Now, this can be a lot of work, but it’s the best way for a scrum master to start his job on the right path.

Scrum Master Required Skills and Experience

A qualified scrum master, in my opinion, possesses the following:

  • At least 1-Yr. Experience as Scrum Master role in a software development team with a strong implementation of Scrum principles, frameworks, theory, and practices.
  • Soft skills like situational awareness, servant leadership, empowerment, facilitation, conflict resolution, continual improvement, and increasing transparency.
  • Knowledge in well-documented patterns and techniques in plugging gaps left in the Scrum approach like Burndown technologies, handling bugs, and various Retrospective formats etc.

Preferred Skills and Experiences (Any of these is a plus)

  • Two-year experience as a Scrum Master for a software development team which had been intentionally implementing the principles, practices, and theory of Scrum.
  • Established Knowledge in other Agile approaches like XP, Crystal, Kanban, FDD, etc.
  • Some awareness and experience in widely successful Agile techniques like User Stories, TDD, Continuous Integration, ATDD, Continuous Testing, Automated Testing, Pairing, and  Agile Games.
  • Knowledge and experience in the technologies being used by the team.
  • Experience in using well-documented patterns and techniques for the gaps in the Scrum approach (example: various many Retrospective formats, Burndown technologies, handling bugs, etc.).
  • Communication prowess and mentoring skills.

Other requirements by some companies are the following:

  • General software product development experience. (Not recommended to pick a particular role).
  • Other things that a scrum master may feel useful and relevant to the project, team, company, and team culture.

How to Interview a Scrum Master

In a blog post entitled Scrum Master Interview Questions, I shared my personal experience in getting interviewed for a scrum master position. It was a fantastic 2-hour experience for me since I was able to learn a lot not only in terms of the general practice of scrum and also about the type of people I would be working with. They took the time to check my blog and books which is rare for many companies. It was a pleasant surprise. Another thing that I truly enjoyed during the interview was the Role Playing that they initiated. I must say that it was a great way to gauge a candidate’s perspective and how a candidate will potentially react to certain scenarios.

If you’re hiring a scrum master, I highly suggest that you also use role-playing interview to gauge the experience, soft skills, and other requirements you need from an applicant. Don’t forget to read the blog post to read some questions that you can use in interviewing applicants.

How and Where to Find an Awesome Scrum Master

The short and simple answer to this is, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. The truth is, among the Agile community, people mostly mock the idea of having a scrum master. They think that it’s redundancy in an organisation. They oversimplify the role in a way that it betrays the entire principles behind the Scrum framework. One of the reasons that I see is the fact that there are only a few scrum masters who are able to fully attain the full potential of the Scrum Framework. Another reason is the lack of role models in the industry that would really demonstrate the strength and value of having a scrum master. Lastly, an organisation often fails to attribute the success that they achieve through the effort of scrum master. I laid out a carefully written case about these sentiments in this article. I highly suggest that you check it out to fully understand the state of how hard finding a reliable scrum master would be in a world where only a few have fully seen and comprehended its full contribution to an organisation.

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Luís Gonçalves

About Luís Gonçalves

https://plus.google.com/u/0/+LuisGonçalves1979

Luis Gonçalves is an Entrepreneur, International Author & Keynote Speaker. As a Management Consultant he works with Senior Executives to implement his ‘Organisational Mastery’ system so they can greatly increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their organisations; enabling them to become recognised and highly rewarded Leaders. Previously much of his career has been spent assisting various organisations become more Agile and better at what they do. Luis and his consultancy has now moved beyond Agile.

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