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The Biggest Challenge to Being a Great Scrum Master

January 12, 2021

When I made the transition from traditional project management to agility and Scrum, I was excited to step out of the chaos and feel more purpose in my daily work. I knew that empowering and enabling others to navigate complexity and uncertainty, cultivate innovation and resilience, and deliver maximum value was my calling. Becoming a Scrum Master felt like the right path for me. And I wanted to be a great Scrum Master.

When I reflect on my own journey, I now see the biggest challenge I had to overcome. And I can also see this theme show up in the Scrum training and coaching work I have done over the last several years.

The biggest challenge to being a great Scrum Master is our inner controller.

There is the obvious way your inner controller can show up - being too directive and managing the work of the Scrum Team. For example, a Scrum Master may jump in and solve a problem that is best solved by the people doing the work. Another example is a Scrum Master updating the Scrum Board and making sure everyone is “on task.”

But what actually causes us to do that when we know better? And in what other ways does our inner controller show up?

In this post, I will share three common ways the inner controller shows up and holds you back from being the best Scrum Master you can be.

#1 - Your Inner Controller Leads to Perfectionism

Our desire for control shows up when we are worried about getting it “right.” For example, you want to design the perfect Sprint Retrospective, and you keep planning and re-planning the event. Or maybe you want to have the most impactful coaching conversation, so you keep playing out different scenarios of what might happen in your mind to be prepared for anything. Perhaps you want to learn more and more and more about a topic before you start talking about it, so you sound like an expert. You get really stressed out when you we are not likely to meet the Sprint Goal, and you worry Developers aren't having the right conversations in the Daily Scrum.

Of course, putting effort into creating the impact and outcomes you desire is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with preparing. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in doing our best and creating good work.

But it becomes perfectionism when we stress ourselves out about it. It becomes perfectionism if we internalize negative thoughts about ourselves when things don’t go exactly as we planned, or when we say the wrong thing. It becomes perfectionism when we hold ourselves back because we are afraid of making a mistake.

And our perfectionism will rub off on our team and the people around us. They will pick up on that energy even if our words say things like, “failure is learning.”

Perfectionism will wear us down and steal our joy. (Trust me. I’m a recovering perfectionist.) And perfectionism will prevent us from leveling up as a Scrum Master. We will stay in our comfort zone and accept “good enough.” We won’t cultivate resilience.

#2 - Inner Controller Leads to Thinking You Know Better

Our desire for control shows up when we assume things that were true in our past experiences are true in the current context. For example, you keep teaching the same techniques to Scrum Teams based on what you have seen work in the past or how you were taught. You "respectfully listen" to other people’s experiences and perspectives, but then dismiss them because they aren't in alignment with your own.

Of course, we want to leverage the learning and wisdom we gain from our past experiences.

But this becomes an issue when we are not open to other possibilities. We must stretch ourselves to explore the current context and what new possibilities are available to us. We need to explore diverse perspectives before we move towards consensus. We want to challenge assumptions and invite creativity.

#3 - Inner Controller Leads to Being Reactive and Judgmental

Our desire for control shows up when we get reactive and start judging ourselves, others, or situations. For example, you may assume someone is being disrespectful, so you say something to make them feel shame. Or perhaps you just stop listening and become closed off to this person going forward. You may decide your manager is never going to “get it,” and even if you don’t say this out loud, it’s the energy you bring in your interactions.

Of course, we need to cultivate an inclusive and safe environment. We need to hold people accountable when they do or say something that is not okay. And we need to hold our vision for agility.

But this becomes a problem when we are coming from a place of being right or assuming we fully understand the situation.

Instead we want to be creative and responsive. We want to get curious and use our discernment. We want to be connected to our intuition and what is happening around us, so we can navigate paradox and find a new way forward.

Many people (not just Scrum Masters) have an inner controller.

I would argue everyone has one to some degree. Our job is to observe our inner controller, seek to understand it better, and then consciously choose what to do with what it brings up for you.

There is an aspect of my personality that will always crave order and control. I have learned to appreciate the positive aspects of my inner controller (e.g. attention to detail, not overcommitting myself, getting stuff done). And I have also learned to let go of control in ways that help me feel more ease and confidence and create greater impact.  This has helped me in all aspects of life, but especially in showing up as a great Scrum Master for my teams, students, and coaching clients.


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