Matthias Orgler

@morgler

What makes a good Scrum Master?

Should you become a Scrum Master? Who would be a good fit for this agile role? And what does a Scrum Master really do anyway?

Basics: What is a Scrum Master? And what not?

The most misunderstood role in Scrum is the Scrum Master

Scrum Master is the name of one of the three roles in the Scrum project management framework. It is the most misunderstood role, as it has no counterpart in traditional project management methodologies. While the other two roles in Scrum (Product Owner and Development Team) take on most of the tasks traditionally performed by a project manager, the Scrum Master is entrusted with totally new duties.

What the Scrum Master is NOT

Let’s start by busting some of the common myths. Here is what the Scrum Master is NOT:

  • Scrum Master is NOT a project manager
  • Scrum Master is NOT the boss
  • Scrum Master is NOT responsible for talking to stakeholders
  • Scrum Master is NOT the head that rolls in case of project failure
  • Scrum Master is NOT the person calling everyone to the scrum meetings

Hm, so if she’s none of the above, what does a Scrum Master do then?

A Scrum Master is neither a project manager, nor the boss or the person organizing meetings. But was is he?

The duties of a Scrum Master

Think about what you need to build a great product in a project? First you need to build the right thing — a product that has a market and for which customers are willing to pay. This is the duty of the Product Owner role in Scrum. Then you need to build the thing right — a product that works, has good quality and can be enhanced in the future. This duty falls to the development team. But you also need to build the thing fast — you don’t want to miss market opportunities or run out of money before you launch. And this finally is the duty of the Scrum Master.

The term “fast” might not be perfect to describe what good product development needs to do. Think of it as this:

  • Establish a good work process
  • Work at a sustainable pace (no slowing of feature development over time)
  • Keep everyone motivated and engaged
  • Deliver and capture value as early as possible
  • Don’t waste time building the wrong thing or the thing wrong
  • Protect the team, so they can do the work
  • Remove obstacles, so the team can work productively

And with this definition of good product development practices, you already get a glimpse of what a good Scrum Master must do…

Do you begin to see what a Scrum Master might do?

Action: What does a Scrum Master do?

To sum it up:

A Scrum Master needs to do everything that keeps a team productive.

This includes helping them to detect problems that hinder their work and also helping them to resolve these problems one at a time. It also includes helping them to work together as a team, omitting technical debt, deliver value frequently and so on.

Typical tasks of the Scrum Master

Here are a few examples of what Scrum Masters do:

  • Watch the team and detect problems (process, personal, organizational, …). 
    Example: A team member works alone on tasks and doesn’t collaborate with the team. This can lead to problems like knowledge silos, hard to maintain products, finger-pointing (no shared responsibility), undone work, omitted integration or a decreased team motivation. A Scrum Master needs to put this problem on the table, unearth the underlying reasons and then work towards solving the issue with the whole team.
  • Conduct regular meetings to find sources for pressing problems and help the team to come up with actionable solutions.
    Example: In a retrospective every two weeks, the Scrum Master uses established methods to unearth and identify important problems hindering the work of the team. He coaches the team towards coming up with solutions and sees that the team implements these solutions during the next two weeks.
  • Educate Product Owner and Development Team in their roles.
    Example: The product owner wrongly tries to estimate efforts without the Development Team and then pushes these estimations upon the engineers. This is a bad practice! A good Scrum Master will make clear to all parties that the role of the Product Owner is to say “what” needs to be done and the role of the Development team is to say “how” to do it and “how long” it takes.

Of course these are just a few examples, but by now you should get an idea of what a Scrum Master does. And you should also begin to see, that a Scrum Master is not just the person scheduling meetings or fetching coffee.

Special tools Scrum provides

Although almost everything in the Scrum framework helps the Scrum Master to do his job, there are a few things that can be particularly helpful for him.

Retrospective

Looking at how you do in the retrospective

This meeting is conducted after each sprint (i.e. after two weeks). It’s sole purpose is continuous process improvement (“Kaizen”). The focus is on work process and collaboration, not on the product. Here the team unearths what goes well and what doesn’t; and it comes up with actionable solutions and improvements that can be implemented right away. Think of the retrospectives like a „lessons learned“, but in time to really learn and change something! The Scrum Master moderates this meeting and helps the team to stay focused and keep improving.

Impediment Backlog

Collect impediments in an impediment backlog

The team or the Scrum Master can collect obstacles (so called “impediments”) in a simple list called the “impediment backlog”. This can help to keep track of issues in the work process and prioritize the most pressing obstacles to be tackled.

Retro Action Items

It’s not enough to talk — you have to take action to solve problems

The result of any retrospective meeting are a handful of very specific and actionable tasks to be implemented to improve the process. The Scrum Master makes sure that each retrospective yields about 1–5 improvements to be done in the next sprint. Keep the number of action items small — tackling too many impediments at once will lead to paralysis and to no improvements at all!

Sprint

Watch the team during their day-to-day work to find improvements opportunities

Sprint is the time when the team works on the product. It takes up 90% of the project’s time. A Scrum Master needs to watch the team and communicate with them all the time to detect and remove impediments.

Daily Scrum

The daily stand-up meeting is a great opportunity to pick up impediments

This short, daily meeting is for the development team to coordinate. This is an awesome opportunity for any Scrum Master to pick up possible issues that need to be resolved. For practical tips for good Daily Scrum meetings, you can get my Udemy video course Avoid these 19 pitfalls of the Daily Scrum meeting (you get 90% off currently!).

Sprint Wall

Watching the Sprint wall can give you clues towards looming impediments

All work a team needs to do during a sprint is in the Sprint Backlog — most commonly in form of index cards on a wall. Looking at this wall and how cards move (or not move) can give the Scrum Master hints towards possible impediments.

Definition of Done

Everyone should have the same definition of when something is “done”

Many problems in the work process of a team are resolved by improving the Definition of Done. If for example feature development is slow and the team found this to be caused by bad code quality, a possible solution could be to expect code reviews, automated tests and refactoring to be done on every feature before marking it “done”.

Of course a Scrum Master can do much more than what I listed (e.g. teaching the Product Owner ways to prioritize features, helping the team to create a team manifesto or helping to clarify the importance of a review for the stakeholders).

Providence: What makes a good Scrum Master?

By now you should have a pretty good understanding, why the Scrum Master exists and what her tasks are. But which trades make a good Scrum Master? Would this role be for you? Whom would you ask in your team or company to take on the role of Scrum Master?

Here are 8 things that will benefit a good Scrum Master:

  1. Lots of experience! (Has done Scrum projects in the past)
  2. At ease with being inconvenient, annoying and a pita
  3. Ability to watch and listen
  4. No superior
  5. Servant leadership
  6. Empathy
  7. Communicative
  8. No fear (of superiors or being fired)
A good Scrum Master is fearless and ready to sacrifice himself

While these are by no means preconditions for taking on the Scrum Master role, each of these trades will benefit a Scrum Master greatly.

I hope I could give you a better understanding of what this often misunderstood role of “Scrum Master” really is. Maybe I could even persuade you to become a Scrum Master yourself.

About Me

I’m Matthias Orgler, a Scrum teacher and agile coach. After working my stint in Silicon Valley, I have advised and coached many companies large and small in agile methodologies over the last 10 years. Today I play concerts as a musician in Europe and enjoy family life. I still offer my knowledge as a Scrum teacher and agile coach to selected clients — if you’re interested in my help, feel free to reach out to me.

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