October 29, 2019

The Responsibilities of the Scrum Master

Originally posted on https://www.debooij.training/

There is rarely any debate about the need to have someone to decide what to work on (Product Owner), and a team to turn these ideas into a working product or service (Development Team). But what do we need this Scrum Master for? And what is a Scrum Master supposed to do the whole day? The role of Scrum Master is often completely new for many organizations. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a lot of misconceptions out there. So that’s why I decided to focus this blog post on the responsibilities of the Scrum Master.

What the Scrum Guide says

The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.

The Scrum Guide

So a Scrum Master is in essence responsible for Scrum and helping people and their organization master Scrum. This is quite a daunting challenge. But to fully grasp this we must first understand what it takes to master Scrum.

Scrum Theory

The foundation of Scrum is empirical process control (or empiricism). One of the best known applications of empiricism in modern history is the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. W. Edwards Deming is credited for spreading the PDCA cycle in the the early 1950’s in Japan.

PDCA cycle
Diagram by Karn G. Bulsuk (http://www.bulsuk.com)

 

Empiricism is a scientific approach to validate what works and what doesn’t. Discovery by experimentation and learning from the outcomes. Empiricism is a very effective management strategy to cope with complexity and uncertainty.

So now going back to the responsibilities of the Scrum Master, what does this mean? A Scrum Master supports teams and organizations to embrace empiricism, and trusts empiricism to lead the way forward. That’s why a Scrum Master focuses on the three pillars of empiricism:

  • Transparency
  • Inspection
  • Adaptation

Only when we all know what is going on (=transparency), we can have a meaningful inspection, and define an experiment (=adaptation). Every Scrum Event is an opportunity for empiricism to take place. But without transparency empiricism cannot function. So what I always advice Scrum Masters to do is facilitate transparency wherever needed. This can be as simple as raising a question like

  • What might we have missed here?
  • What have we not shared yet that could be relevant for this matter?
  • What is holding us back from sharing how we feel about this?
  • etc.

These questions illustrate that in order to increase transparency we are asking for specific behavior. Which brings me to the Scrum Values,.

Scrum Values

So what behavior will help us embrace empiricism? The answer is provided by the Scrum Values.

Image of the Scrum values

The Scrum Values form the moral compass that a Scrum Master uses every day to reflect on, and to coach the Product Owner, Development Team, and the rest of the organization. There are many ways how a Scrum Master can apply the Scrum values in practice. One example could be to let the Scrum values take center stage during a Sprint Retrospective. Let the Scrum Team visualize what actions and behavior negatively impacted the values, and what actions and behavior positively impacted the values. By inspecting the outcomes, new insights can emerge and might lead to an action item for the next Sprint. Or have a look here for another exercise you could try.

A great Scrum Master is a living example of the Scrum values. It takes more than just remembering the Scrum Values to unlock their full potential. If you want to get a better understanding of the Scrum Values and their application I can recommend to have a look at the blog series by my fellow Professional Scrum Trainer Stephanie Ockerman:

Or if you would like to learn more about the importance of values in general, have look at this blog post I published some time ago.

Practices

Scrum is a lightweight framework. Apart from the guidance the Scrum Guide offers, it doesn’t tell you exactly how to do it. The reason for that is simple. There are no best practices in a complex and unpredictable environment. You cannot copy/paste agile. However, there are a lot of agile practices out there that might be worthwhile to experiment with (transparency) so you can find out if they are helpful in your context or not (inspection).These learnings will help to decide to keep the practice in place, adapt it, or discard it (adaptation). Having a proper understanding of various agile practices can help a Scrum Master in coaching the Product Owner, Development Team and the rest of the organization.

Rules

Although the rules of Scrum are clearly defined in the Scrum Guide, they are often a source of debate. I believe these debates will give us more valuable outcomes if we understand why these rules are there in the first place. And I think you will know the answer by now: to facilitate empiricism and accelerate learning. When a Scrum Master is successful in helping people understand why we want to adhere to these rules, there is a much bigger chance people are willing to commit to Scrum. To make it more tangible, let me sum up a couple of these rules that I have seen lead to heated discussions:

  • A potentially releasable product increment is delivered by the Development Team every single Sprint
  • The increment must always meet the definition of “Done”
  • During Sprint Planning, the Scrum Team crafts a Sprint Goal
  • The Development Team uses the Daily Scrum to inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal
  • The Sprint length is one month or less
  • Etc.

If we don’t follow these rules, empiricism cannot take place. And if you find it difficult to stay within these boundaries, great! That means there is an opportunity to facilitate transparency, inspect and adapt. Or as a wise man once said:

“Scrum is like your mother in-law; it points out all your faults.”

Ken Schwaber

As a Scrum Master I always try to stay curious about why things happen. Curiosity will help encourage openness, respect, and it builds trust. Value judgements however will have the opposite effect.

The rest of the organization

And last but not least, a Scrum Master should have a very low tolerance for organizational impediments. Typically, after a Scrum Team has embraced all of the above to a certain level, a Scrum Master can afford to spend more time on the ecosystem around the Scrum Team. By removing obstacles that negatively impact the value delivery capabilities, and optimizing the environment around the Scrum Teams, Scrum will become more effective. And a Scrum Master does this in the same fashion as described above: by trusting on empiricism to lead the way. The Scrum Master can be seen as an agile change manager for the entire organization.

Conclusion

Influencing people to let go of certain behavior patterns and embrace new ones is one of the hardest things there is. Yet, this is at the core of the Scrum Master role. It is very difficult to master Scrum and the Scrum Master is there to guide you in this never ending journey.

So the next time you wonder what the responsibilities of a Scrum Master are, come back here and I’m sure you will find something that can be further improved. And in case you don’t find anything, there is probably a lack of transparency.

And if you want to learn more about the responsibilities of the Scrum Master, come join me in one of my upcoming Professional Scrum Master training courses.