May 10, 2022

Blog Series: From Scrum Master to Agile Leader - Part 1 - Exploring the Gaps in Scrum Mastery

Co-authored by: Chris Conlin and Mark Wavle

As Scrum.org professionals, we have coached, trained and mentored thousands of Scrum Masters and consulted the organizations they work with, and we’ve consistently encountered similar issues that not only limit Scrum Teams from thriving, but also restrict empiricism from working. This stifles the advantage that Scrum and Agile can bring to teams and organizations. 

Often, we find teams going through the motions, looking for checkboxes to tick off, trying everyone else’s “best practices,” and defining success as “following the rules of Scrum.” That’s Mechanical Scrum. Mechanical Scrum allows people to ignore conflict and resist accountability, limiting the organization’s ability to deliver high-value solutions effectively to their customers in the midst of change. 

This is where the Scrum Master’s leadership can help. 

It is the accountability of the Scrum Master to lead their teams, and organizations beyond this barrier to a more responsible and rewarding way of working, to Professional Scrum. Professional Scrum revolves around the accountabilities, events, and artifacts of Scrum, and recognizes that its foundation is built on values and principles of people who work together to optimize value, build discipline, and influence culture. This critical work is not easy.

In this blog series, we’ll share the gaps that many Scrum Masters face as they work to become better agile leaders and Scrum professionals. We’ll call out biases and misperceptions you may not know exist which might be holding you and your organization back. We’ll offer suggestions on how to overcome these challenges in order to influence change so that you can truly help your teams and the organization improve. 

Topics that we plan to cover include:

  • Limitations the organization places on the Scrum Master role
  • Fatigue Scrum Masters experience as change agents 
  • Lacking the tools or buy-in to address challenges
  • Not knowing which problem to solve first
  • Encountering the same issues as a Scrum Master over and over
  • Feeling isolated as a Change Agent

This blog series is for aspiring leaders who want to break out of ineffective patterns and into new ways of influencing positive change. We invite you to take what you need from our experiences to elevate your team and organization’s use of Scrum and all of the amazing things it can help them achieve.


The Environment for Thriving Teams

Often people assume that Scrum is just a work management approach that helps us increase efficiency by organizing our tasks. Instead, it is intended to enable people to work in focused, collaborative, autonomous teams that use empiricism, creativity, and innovation to pursue opportunities to deliver value to customers by solving complex problems.

To be creative in solving challenging problems, the Scrum Team must feel safe enough to experiment, fail, and learn through empiricism. They need to view each backlog item, interaction, and piece of data as an opportunity to learn and optimize. If these things are not possible, the team will not thrive. How do we, as Scrum Masters, build an environment where this is possible?

To help groups of people form into high-functioning teams, they need ownership, inspiring purpose, and self-accountability. These traits inspire curiosity and will encourage them to take responsibility for their own work, how they work as a team, and how they work with those outside of the team. How do we, as Scrum Masters, build an environment where this is possible?


The Scrum Master’s Leadership Opportunity

For many of us, it may be natural to be managing things - backlogs, events, and burndowns. As Scrum Masters, we need to step deeper into leadership to unlock the potential energy that’s stored in our teams and to address the challenges that are getting in the way. The path to personal development is the same path our teams need to travel for higher efficacy: leadership.

To develop as an agile leader, engage with Professional Scrum from a stance of curiosity by using it as an opportunity to learn about yourself, your team, and your organization. Here are three ways you can expand your view of Scrum and your role as a leader:

"Scrum Master to Agile Leader"

1) Explore the intent of Scrum
The Scrum Guide is not intended to be a comprehensive document but rather an introduction to the elements of Scrum and why they are important in empiricism. Read the Scrum Guide while working to answer these questions:

  • What assumptions am I making about Scrum?
  • What practices does my team use that are not specified in the Scrum Guide? (i.e. - story points, continuous integration) Why doesn’t the Scrum Guide specify this? How do my team’s practices support or hinder the things that are identified in the Scrum Guide?
  • For each element of Scrum (i.e. - accountabilities, events, artifacts), ask: What would be missing or at risk if this element wasn’t there? How would it affect my team’s ability to embrace Professional Scrum?
  • Which elements might enable a team to be safe enough to experiment, fail, and learn through empiricism? Which ones are present in my environment that I can protect and amplify? Which ones are lacking in my environment that I can work to create?
  • Which elements might enable teaming, purpose, and self-accountability? Which ones are present in my environment that I can protect and amplify? Which ones are lacking in my environment that I can work to create?
  • How does my interpretation of Scrum help my organization and team deliver value?

2) Break out of your own experience  
By exploring other situations where Scrum is used, we can learn different perspectives that will help us try new things and grow as leaders.
Find Scrum Teams and Scrum Masters in a variety of contexts:

  • Observe a Scrum Team in another part of your company, in a different organization, or with a distinctive type of product (i.e., non-technical).
  • Join a community of Scrum Masters, or pair up with another Scrum Master. Discuss your experiences with Scrum.

Also, consider the following:

  • What practices do these Scrum Teams do that contrast with your team while still aligning with the elements of the Scrum Guide? Where do you see Mechanical Scrum, and where do you see Professional Scrum?
  • What elements of experimentation, failing, and learning through empiricism did you observe? What seemed to be lacking? What supported this in the Scrum Master’s leadership and the environment around the team?
  • What elements of teaming, purpose, and self-accountability did you observe? What seemed to be lacking? What supported this in the Scrum Master’s leadership and the environment around the team?

3) Reflect on your current leadership
Take a step back and consider your leadership. Improving your leadership is not easy and, like all complex things, requires experimentation to learn. Exploration activities like these will help you see your reality more clearly and be inspired to stretch and grow.
Create some time for reflection, interview people around you, conduct an anonymous survey, inquire with your team about how you could serve them better, or choose to be silent and observe your team carefully for a whole day. As you’re reflecting, ponder these questions:

  • What things are you doing for your Scrum Team today for which you could help them take more ownership? What will they not need you to do for them in a month?
  • What was a recent situation where your team failed? What did they learn, and how did they adapt based on that learning? How can you help them fail, learn, and adapt?
  • How could you be an example of the self-accountability, creativity, and learning you want to foster with the people you are leading?
  • How are you creating an environment that enables Mechanical Scrum or Professional Scrum? What evidence do you have that supports or contradicts your perspective? What would you like to protect, learn, try, and improve?

If you were not surprised by something throughout your exploration, go back and seek out the surprise - that is where your deepest learning and biggest growth opportunity will be found, for this is where we have challenged our assumptions, thought patterns, and mental models.


Conclusion

The first step toward higher agile leadership is engaging your curiosity about Professional Scrum and truly wanting to help teams and organizations improve. Use these exploratory activities regularly on your leadership journey as tools to continually interrogate your reality, challenge your perspectives, and find next steps to lead your team and organization to a more responsible, rewarding, and effective way of working, to Professional Scrum. 

As you work to create an environment that encourages learning, teaming, ownership, and self-accountability, you will inevitably encounter the challenges of a change agent and leader: prioritization, fatigue, isolation, and organizational constraints. This series will follow you through these challenges, helping you gain perspective and find your path in leadership.