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The Scrum Master as a Mentor

September 7, 2015


The role of a Scrum Master is one of many stances and diversity. A great Scrum Master is aware of them and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. Everything with the purpose of helping people understand and apply the Scrum framework better.

In a series of blog posts I will share the different stances I consider to be relevant for the Scrum Master. This blog post is about the Scrum Master as a mentor. I'll describe the definition of a mentor, coaching versus mentoring and the Shu-Ha-Ri way of thinking.

What is a mentor?

The most straightforward definition I've found is:

"A mentor is a wise and trusted counselor or teacher."

Some nice quotes about mentoring are:

  • "We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give." - Winston Churchill

  • "Getting the most out of life isn't about how much you keep for yourself but how much you pour into others." - David Stoddard

  • "Be the mentor, you wish you had."

Coaching versus Mentoring

"Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping people to learn rather than teach them.[1]" It is helping someone see new perspectives and possibilities. For coaching, being a subject matter expert isn't necessary; it can even be a pitfall. For mentoring however, having in depth knowledge is important.

Coaching agile teams takes on the combination of coaching and mentoring. You are coaching to help someone reach for the next goal in their life; you are also sharing your agile experiences and ideas as you mentor them, guiding them to use agile well. In this way coaching and mentoring are entwined with each other. Combined they provide a powerful combination.

"Mentoring transfers your agile knowledge and experience to the team as that specific knowledge becomes relevant to what's happening with them. Each side - coaching and mentoring - is useful and can be powerful on its own. Together, they are a winning combination for helping people adopt agile and use it well. The context of agile makes you a mentor; the focus on team performance makes you a coach. Both parts of the equation come together to make agile come alive and bring it within their grasp[2]."


In the context of mentoring the Shu-Ha-Ri model is also relevant to mention. Shu-Ha-Ri is a way of thinking about how you learn a technique. It describes the progression of training or learning. The name comes from the Japanese martial arts, and Alistair Cockburn introduced it as a way of thinking about learning techniques and methodologies for software development[3]. When learning something new everyone goes through these three stages. Ultimately it should results in the student surpassing the master (the mentor), both in knowledge and skill.

Shu - Follow the rule

In this first stage the student follows the teachings of the master precisely. The rules are followed until they are really understood. The Scrum Master will mostly act as a teacher. As a teacher he shares knowledge or skills and instructs someone as how to do something. Examples are teaching the core of Scrum and explaining the purpose of the different roles, artifacts and events.

Ha - Break the rule

In this stage the student start to reflect on the rules, looking for exceptions and 'breaking' the rules. He understands and can use the basic practices and now starts to learn the underlying related principles. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice. As a coach, the Scrum Master will offer the student seeing new perspectives and possibilities. They will coach them taking the next step in their agile journey.

Ri - Be the rule

During the Ri stage the rules are forgotten as the student has developed mastery, and grasped the essence and underlying principles. The student isn't learning from other people anymore, but from his own practice, he has become the new rule. In the agile context, the student truly understands all the principles and knows when to use a certain practice given the context of the situation. As an advisor or mentor, the Scrum Master can act as a counselor and give advise whenever the student asks for it.

As a Scrum Master it's useful to be aware of the Shu-Ha-Ri stages. Every team member can be on a different level, and this will continuously change. Therefore the Scrum Master should change his style as well from teaching to coaching to advising to match the teams Shu-Ha-Ri stage.


The Scrum Master certainly isn't always the appropriate mentor for every team member. As mentioned before a mentor has in depth knowledge and experience of a certain topic. It might be that another team member happens to be the ideal mentor or someone from outside the team. A great Scrum Master has a keen eye for potential student-mentor relationships and knows how to establish them. All with the intention to build a great team and help individuals flourish in their personal growth.

And as always, please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject using the comment field below. I would love to hear from you.

[1] Sir John Whitmore
[2] Lyssa Adkins - Coaching Agile Teams


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