A jack of all trades, master of none is an old adage that often gets misquoted. Either way, the simple understanding that having a wide variety of abilities in today’s working world is key to success as the higher you climb on the ladder, the greater number of hats you must wear in roles of greater responsibility. This is no less true in the tech world with Scrum Masters. They must fill a variety of roles to truly deliver and be labeled a Scrum Master capable of steering a development team to greatness. Let’s have a look at the 8 fundamental hats they must don.
The scrum master (SM) needs to be a facilitator for the team. The stage must be set for all the various ceremonies, and the SM is aptly suited for this task. Boundaries must be established so aspects like member’s roles are clear, how ceremonies will be conducted and more. Good practices for ceremonies must be instilled in the team by the SM so things move forward smoothly and the team can work seamlessly in unison, collaborating productively.
Getting the right schedule, time and place, for ceremonies is key; especially in the case of remote teams for obvious reasons. The team members are focused on their tasks so managing schedules of activities and ceremonies falls on the shoulders of the SM. Ironically, balancing schedules with varying time zones is easier said than done, only confirming its importance. As the facilitator, the SM must check everyone’s schedule, be aware of possible conflicts and organize ceremonies accordingly so all can attend and participate. This is in addition to maintaining strict time boxes on all ceremonies, ensuring they finish on time rather than running over.
Facilitating the schedule and guidelines for ceremonies is only the beginning of the SM’s facilitator role. Once actively engaged in a ceremony, it’s important for the SM to facilitate the discussion as well. Now for remote teams this discussion facilitation amounts to not only verbal interaction between members, but more specifically the tools used to communicate. For example, Jira for tracking progress, or Miro board for retrospectives. The right tooling aids in the team efficiency for ceremonies while the SM can actively ensure all members are engaged and participating.
And before you say we forgot it, listening; SMs must be good listeners in order to facilitate effectively. What’s going on with the team and project? What’s the current progress? Are there any problems? A deft SM can gather this information just by listening to the team before even needing to draw it directly from them via targeted questioning: questioning that can often backfire as it can cause defensiveness. Listening is part of a larger cycle including feedback and improvement; something all good SMs actively do for the betterment of themselves and the team.
As Impediment Destroyer
Impediments can be troublesome in all walks of life and having someone leading the way, actively removing them from your path is a real plus. In the software development world, impediments and blockers are not one in the same; let’s define impediment to be sure we’re on the same page. An impediment can be defined as, “an event that impedes any of the developers from working to their anticipated sprint capacity.” (Ilan Goldstein, Scrum Shortcuts Without Cutting Corners: Agile Tactics, Tools & Tips, 2013) On the other hand, blockers are typically things which the team can handle themselves.
The SM steps in here to take this role of sweeping away those little nuisances asap to ensure development moves forward smoothly. A key aspect to this role of the SM is their ability to determine whether said impediment is a genuine impediment necessitating intervention or something which the team can resolve on their own. The SM must judge appropriately for those impediments which can be resolved by the team should it be left to the team to do so. This will give the team experience, strengthen their confidence and cohesion as everyone grows when overcoming challenges as a team.
A final note here to touch on the fact that there are times when the SM will choose to delay removing an impediment in the immediate sprint. For a variety of reasons it may be more judicious to wait and remove the impediment in the following sprint. So the case for this must be carefully analyzed and considered by the SM through open discussion with the team. Reaching the optimal decision often depends on what the SM and team manage to identify as the root problem or origin of the impediment.
You just knew the role of manager had to be included here; regardless of its generic nomenclature. The SM manages impediments as mentioned above; also managing removing waste, team progress, team productivity, boundaries and self-organization, team culture and team ownership. Yes, it’s a long list, but all within the bounds of the SM! Ultimately at the end of the day, especially for remote teams, the goal is to create a self-managed team. The autonomous a development team can be, the more focused, driven, efficient and productive they can be while reaching new heights of quality and velocity in their work. The SM is there to lay and manage the foundation which will transform the team into an autonomous cohesive unit.
As Conflict navigator
Here we come to the role of conflict navigator or mediator if you prefer. The SM must be able to traverse the challenges and issues presented by unproductive attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors; the latter of which for example can be easily understood when tasked with a team in which more than one alpha personality exists (see the artcile). Naturally issues will arise between team members; as Murphy’s Law teaches us, what can go wrong will go wrong.
Can there be a strong difference of opinion within the team? Might there be some stubborn or overly proud developers on the team? Unfortunately yes and yes, but this is nothing to fear or worry about. The SM again steps into the conflict management role and solves the issues appropriately and expediently. Nothing should ever be left unaddressed, to fester and grow into a mountain of a problem.
The key here is for the SM to champion the team player status for all the team members. The development project is a team effort and the team will either succeed or fail based on their combined efforts so in-fighting is never conducive to success and exemplary results.
The importance of this point, mentorship, cannot be overstated. The SM finds themselves in the position they are in due to the wealth of knowledge and experience they possess. In that, a large part of their role is to transfer agile knowledge and experience to the team. Included in this is personal life experience which gives the team insight and a wider overall perspective. The transfer of knowledge, in all walks of life, is an invaluable tool that, depending on the case, reaps both immeasurable and measureable rewards. Therefore, the SM must succeed in this vital role as mentor to the team.
Following the mentor role we have the SM as a teacher to ensure that scrum and the methodology, theories and practices therein are understood. The team not only needs to understand the theories, but how to carry those out on a daily basis. This role is relatively straightforward and not overly complicated for the SM, though nonetheless important. Scrum is simple enough to understand, which makes it unique, but there is a gap to bridge between understanding it and implementing it in actual projects. The SM can help in bridging this gap!
The teacher role leads into the role as a coach. The SM must coach, to the level of a pro sports team, with a focus on mindset and behavior. Elite players are born with undeniable talent, though champions are molded and crafted by their coaches and the experience they impart upon them. Are you beginning to see the connection to the previous roles?
This way the team is continuously improving while truly collaborating with the organization for which the project is tethered to. As a coach, the SM will ask many powerful questions aimed at the team to get them to discuss and try to come up with their own solutions; the target is for the team to become fully autonomous. This enables them to grow together as a team and reach a higher level. Naturally some individual coaching is thrown into the mix here, as needed at the SM’s discretion.
Finally we come to the last role, the final hat that all SMs must wear to call themselves a fully-fledged, expert Scrum Master; the servant-leader role. Let’s acknowledge that in management across all manner of industries, for those in management roles to be effective, they must focus on supporting their subordinates rather than ruling over them and leading by their grand “manager” title.
For the sake of scrum, the nomenclature of servant-leader has entered the jargon. First and foremost as a servant-leader, the SM needs to focus on and prioritize the needs of the team and at times, individual members. The SM provides leadership that endures, helping the team develop and perform to their greatest potential. Their goal is to achieve the project goal in line with the organization’s goals and principles. It’s a high task to achieve, but much is expected of those with great responsibility within a company. The SM is a pillar of the company’s foundation, one that uplifts the team, allowing them to succeed and in turn the company to grow based on the fruits of everyone’s combined efforts.
Herein there can be no hierarchy; therefore, decisions are lateral and managed with the involvement of the whole team. Traditional project management looks to dictate edicts from high above the team which has been proven inadequate to counterproductive nowadays. To foster team ownership, you must allow the team to be involved in the decision making. This will ultimately lead to greater results, team cohesiveness and increased productivity over time.
A final word to add here with regard to the five scrum values, that which hold great value and bear repeating.
These values tie in nicely to our final point of the SM as servant-leader. This in addition to the fact that to understand the better way of working that scrum provides, one must consign to the values. The SM is to be a bastion, champion and beacon of scrum knowledge for all!
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