"You became a secretary," or "you must have really been a bad developer".
Some of you may have experienced a role transition from developer to Scrum Master.
It is not necessarily the easiest, the first obstacles are bias.
Even though most of the reactions are childish, we all know there is always some truth to it.
The truth, rest assured, absolutely does not concern your level. It is at the level of the understanding that people have of this role.
Where the role of an engineer is to find solutions to a problem, the role of Scrum Master would be for me to make the team autonomous by tackling proactively all external dependencies. This role in a "perfect" team (i.e. mature and self-organized) would be… to find another team to coach.
In this article, we will try to answer a few questions:
- What does the ScrumMaster do all day long?
- How can the ScrumMaster influence the pleasure and the desire of the team to work together on a project?
- Does ScrumMaster need a background in tech to be more efficient?
What does the ScrumMaster do all day?
The 2 main roles of the Scrum Master is to establish Scrum in the team as defined in the Scrum Guide and improve the Scrum team effectiveness. You might have also heard that the Scrum Master is a true leader who serves. But it doesn’t mean that they are only a secretary who schedules, animates and writes the minute notes in every meeting.
The reality is much more complex and in my opinion 5 different roles can be assigned to ScrumMasters:
- The teacher/mentor
When the teacher talks about theory, the mentor talks about his experience that would allow the team to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
The first role of a ScrumMaster is to teach teams and the company what Scrum is all about, the values, the principles behind this framework and agility. They have to help the team to be empowered in the project within an organization adapting their approach to each team’s unique characteristics. To empower team members, it is necessary to give them the rights to make mistakes while controlling the consequences. However, if a mistake is too serious to be made, then it is a ScrumMaster’s duty to make the team aware of the situation and foster a discussion in attempt to mitigate the consequences. For example, in Scrum we have the right to make mistakes but we limit the consequences by making small iterations. In this way we can be sure that the time lost will be less than or equal to the duration of a sprint.
- The coach
Coaching is a technique to guide people to discover their own solution. It is like a psychologist who answers a question with another question. His goal is to guide a group of people to be the best version of themselves rather than using power and authorities. A coach is using the question “How?” and “What?” instead of “Why?” which can push people to be defensive.
- The facilitator
Guide a group of people to answer a question or to reach an objective. Be sure to give to the attendees all they need to share their opinions. “Respect and Openness” these values of Scrum mean that as the facilitators we must always try to understand the team members’ point of view even if we do not share it. When the ScrumMaster takes on the role of facilitator, they must remain neutral and not influence the rest of the team.
- The North star
One of the values of Scrum is “Focus” which means to push the team to have the same vision.
Once we have clearly defined a common vision for the team, the next step is to define a commitment through the sprint goal, the product goal. Indeed, if the team needs to be focused on the same topics, it also needs to challenge itself to improve. Scrum is there to create efficient teams working at a sustained pace towards a common goal while pushing the team to be cohesive in order to excel in the long term.
- Actively do nothing
The last role of the ScrumMaster is to know when they have to take a step back and observe. When applied at correct place and time, it can help the team to become more self-organized and at the same time more involved in the project. Moreover, it is usefull for the team to have a ScrumMaster who knows how to manage the team in terms of change. Indeed, if it is sometimes important to correct the situation, it is also essential to give the team time to stabilize by avoiding endless changes.
This side of the role of SM is perhaps the most contested and the least followed.
How can the ScrumMaster influence the pleasure and the desire of the team to work together on a project?
- By helping to define clear objectives at all levels (company, product, team, sprint) => The North star
- By empowering the team by asking them to create their own rules to be followed by all teams working on the project. These rules should serve as a guardrail without being too restrictive and aim to make the team accountable. ==> DOR/DOD (Definition of Ready, Definition of Done)
- Give metrics, how the feature you just developed was received, used and how often. It is important for a team to see the impact it can have on a customer. This can be done through a sprint review by collecting direct feedback from a customer but also by exploiting data from tools like google analytics and displaying them in real time for all to see. ==> Dashboard, Client in the sprint Review etc…
- By giving the choice, it is important to have an impact on our work preference (choice of your team members, subjects...) ==> Mercato
Does ScrumMaster need a tech background to be more efficient?
Here we are with the historical question which is very often subject to debate and even sometimes (please no!) to conflicts. Should the ScrumMaster be technical?
The wise man's answer, which convinces me: it depends on the context!
As often, nothing is all black and white. To answer this question, I will put aside all the agile manifesto and Scrum guide to share with you my vision, which is necessarily based on my experience.
To this question the ScrumMaster/Developer will tell you:
- Of course it's obvious that to solve problems we need to understand it!
- Sometimes we need to adapt if the process does not meet a need or an emergency and for that we need technical knowledge to adapt as well as possible
- New best practices are more easily accepted by the team because they will also have an impact on the technical SM (are we the best ones to know what is best for us?)
- It is easier to escalate technical impediments from the team to other teams or to management when we understand them.
- Can make the communication with the team easily
To this question the ScrumMaster will answer:
- Being a technical ScrumMaster is not a good thing because it will be more difficult not to influence the team.
- Neutrality is an essential skill in the facilitation role
- By understanding everything the technical SM can fall into a bad situation where he becomes the pivot of all team discussions and thus prevent the team from becoming truly autonomous.
- Not being technical like the rest of the team can bring a fresh perspective to solving it. It can help the team to take a step back to consider other solutions.
- If technical knowledge is necessary for ScrumMasters working in IT, why not business, data and UX skills?
- You can easily help the team to build understandable presentation to non technical people (example Sprint Review)
As a SM, former developer my view is more uncertain.
I think that each experience is important and can bring different things to their teams. It all depends on the situation, the teams' profiles and the ScrumMaster's profile.
We can't objectively master all the skills of the members of our teams and it would not bring a lot of value. On the other hand, I am convinced that knowing and understanding the language(s) used in our teams can bring a lot and facilitate the exchanges.
In a very technical senior team with a lot of conflicts, the ScrumMaster will rather need relational skills. In a project where the product is going to change a lot, business skills and prioritization methods would be more valuable.
In conclusion, in my point of view there is no particular prerequisite to be a good ScrumMaster. It is important to first understand your team, its strengths and weaknesses. Then we have to adapt and provide the team with what they need and this help can take (almost) any form. Last but not least, the ScrumMaster has to be interested in the technical and product aspects to improve his communication with his team.
In conclusion, let's try to push the debate a little further. Is having a ScrumMaster in a team mandatory? At the risk of grinding some teeth, I think not. Our role is above all to facilitate, this means making the work of the members of your team more pleasant and more efficient by creating a work bubble that suits them. This bubble can meet certain criteria (see article: The five keys to a successful Google team):
- Psychological safety: everyone needs to feel welcome to give feedback
- Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
- Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
- Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
- Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
Finally I don’t think a ScrumMaster is mandatory in a team but a good ScrumMaster can bring a lot to their team and to their company (organizational issue). And it's even more true when the team is young and/or works on complicated product(s) with a lot of people/teams involved.
Written by Charles POQUET, SM at QIMA. ✍️