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The Scrum Team: What is a Scrum Master?

Sep 7, 2019

When transitioning into an Agile environment, typically Scrum, people are confronted with new terms and names more akin to the rugby pitch. Scrum, according to Scrum.org, is a concept that allows teams to work on complex projects and deliver high-value products by approaching problems adaptively.

A Scrum Master is, along with the Product Owner, one of the major roles in a Scrum team. So just what is a Scrum Master?

Scrum Masters are servant leaders and coaches for an Agile Team. They strive to help the team perform at their best and this involves the removal of impediments, facilitation, and they work with the product owner to get the product backlog ready for the next sprint.

Great Scrum Masters understand agile beyond practices, roles and backlog preparation. Their real focus is to create an environment where people can be successful. They care about the relationships between teams and people, focus on collaboration, transparency, and openness. They empower the people around them.


Scrum Master = Facilitator

At the end of each iteration (sprint) the Scrum Master will seek to find out, "How can we do better next time?" and "What can we do better next time?" 

A facilitator is someone who, to use the dictionary definition, makes (an action or process) easy or easier. The Scrum Master is a leader who serves in order to improve productivity. 

The Scrum Master does not have the answers; the team has the answers, and the job of the Scrum Master is to help the team to recognise that it has the answers. Although it's not unique to Scrum, a simple technique is by using the 7Ps. This is a good way to bring the team together to meet a challenge and for the Scrum Master to ease the work of the team.

  • Purpose - The fundamental reason WHY the team are together.
  • Product - The outcome / product of the meeting.
  • People - Only bring the right people.
  • Process - The agenda, developed by the SM or the team.
  • Pitfalls - What risks and distractions may impede the team?
  • Preparation - The SM needs to be prepared.
  • Practical Concerns - Logistics such as location, facilities, time.

Research has shown that outstanding performance is achieved when teams are small and they are allowed to self-organise; this is when a team is presented with objectives, and not a set of inflexible tasks.


Who does the Scrum Master serve?

...the Development Team (those who develop user stories)

  • Coaching the Scrum team in self-organisation and cross-functionality.
  • Helping the Scrum Team to create high-value products.
  • Removing impediments to the team’s progress.
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.
  • Coaching the team in environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

...the Product Owner

  • By ensuring that goals, scope, and product domain are understood by everyone on the Scrum Team as well as possible.
  • Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management.
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items.
  • Understanding product planning in an empirical environment (an environment guided by experiments and experience).
  • Helping the Product Owner to arrange and understand the Product Backlog.

...the Organisation

  • Leading and coaching the organisation in its Scrum adoption.
  • Planning Scrum implementations.
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum.
  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team.
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organisation.

As the Scrum Master becomes more skilled, they will move from just serving the immediate Scrum Team to helping to transform the organisation.


The Scrum Master reality

The role of the Scrum Master never changes. The Scrum Master may be involved in other tasks, but NOT in their role as a Scrum Master. In the real world, away from the purity of textbook definitions of Scrum Master, the Scrum Master may work in the following way:

  • Agile Coach – The coach is not assigned to a team but works with multiple teams for a specific purpose.
  • Full time SM – Has more than one team and has the sole responsibility of being a scrum master.
  • Full time dedicated SM – The sole responsibility is as a scrum master for one team. This model is best for a team learning agile ... or to be a great Scrum Master.
  • Part time SM – one person on the team takes on the SM responsibilities in addition to other responsibilities.
  • Rotating SM – the team rotates scrum master responsibilities on a sprint by sprint basis.

The reality is that it's not uncommon that whatever the official capacity the Scrum Master is working in, that he/she will be pulled into doing other tasks and become a part time SM. If all the origanisation wants is for the Scrum Master to organise meetings, enforcie time boxes, and respond to the impediments that people explicitly report, then fine. But don't expect a great Scrum Master.

For the Scrum Master who wants to grow in the role and excel, it can be a frustrating experience being pulled onto other tasks and being part time. In this environment the opportunity for originality and creativity gets reduced. I emphasised "explicitly" because the real enjoyment is trying to discover the blockers that go unmentioned.


The Scrum Master checklist

I'm not going to claim credit for all of this; this is a great checklist and you can download it here.

1) How is my Product Owner doing?

Scrum Masters improve Product Owner effectiveness by helping them find ways to maintain the Product Backlog and release plan. (Note that the Product Owner is the one responsible for the prioritized backlog.)

 Is the Sprint Goal SMART 

2) How is my Team doing?

While you are encouraged to lead by the example of collaborating with team members on their work, there is a risk you will get lost in technical tasks. Consider your primary responsibilities to the team:

  • Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable, aligning appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).
  • Concentration and focus, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
  • A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  • Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  • Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  • A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

3) How Are Our Engineering Practices Doing?

4) How Is The Organization Doing?

Conclusion

If you can do this and still have time left in the day then you are a star. It's very difficult and I've never seen it done.


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