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Scrum Mastery Requires Humility: My New Year's Resolution

December 31, 2019



It’s that time again. The end of the year, where many of us take a step back to reflect on the year that will almost be over soon and create another new year resolution. Like many of you, I do the same. On my last year life retrospectives, I wrote about servant leadership. This year’s retrospective is the continuation of it. 

This year I learnt a lot about the relationship between mastery and humility. This year I finally understand by Ken Schwaber’s statement when he told me the reason why he chose the term Scrum Master rather than Scrum Coach is because mastery is about the “being” and not the “doing”. Mastery is not an end state but rather a continuous pursuit of excellence, craftspeopleship and professionalism. As a master, the being is more important because if the Scrum Master gets the being right, the doing will be manifested right by itself. Even though in our industry, people are more focused on getting “doing” than “being” right.

This year I had an unexpected opportunity to be in Japan, and had an interesting encounter within a short amount of time with a Zen Master in a local Buddhist temple. It was a life changing experience for me. This year is when I finally understood by what Ken Schwaber meant about the “being” of a Scrum Master is more important than the “doing” after interacting with this Zen Master.


  1. To Master Scrum is to Have The Beginner’s Mind

Zen Master is not a title you earn by getting certified. It is a state of being and a recognition from the people the Zen Master has influenced.  As a master, the Zen Master has the beginner's mind. It is a state of mind where the master does not bring his/her own bias/preconceived ideas even when he/she has seen something repeatedly throughout his/her life - clean slate, empty glass, every time. Only with the beginner’s mind, the Zen master is able to serve his/her people best according to the context people are experiencing. 

When we don’t bring our preconceived ideas, we become less judgmental and most importantly we do not try to push our own agenda. And I’ve learnt the importance of having the beginner's mindset when working with clients who are transitioning towards agility this year.

When working with clients in transitioning towards agility, I often need to work with other consultants and Agile Coaches. It fascinates me to see them bring their preconceived ideas about the perfect agile organisation structure which often times are copy-pasted from another company’s X model. These consultants and Agile Coaches used expert mindset. Another instance is when I saw many experienced project managers bring their preconceived ideas about Scrum and treat the Sprint as a mini-waterfall. Within the organisation level, I’ve seen how the management mapped the Product Owner to the business analyst who worked for the project manager or product manager and made the Scrum Master as the team’s personal assistant.

This year I am involved in a large scale organisation transformation in a multinational company. My personal challenge in a large scale transformation is to have the beginner’s mind knowing there are a plethora of templated scaled agile frameworks in the market. I am always tempted to copy-paste an already existing scaled agile frameworks and organisation model made by other organisations. But then I realised even though doing so is easier and faster, it is not going to stick in the company. And often times copy-pasting results in higher resistance from the people in the organisation. I also need to encourage the whole company to not be tempted to copy-paste those templated scaled agile frameworks and organisation model and to self-discover their own scaled agile frameworks.

Mastering Scrum is not about mastering the Scrum mechanics or the "doing". Mastering Scrum is about mastering empiricism -- that is mastering transparency, inspection and adaptation. Mastering empiricism requires the beginner’s mind because empiricism requires us to have the humility to not bring our biases and preconceived ideas and the courage to acknowledge that what we already know may no longer relevant today. And in Scrum, you have to do this every single Sprint -- mainly during Sprint Retrospectives.

Having the beginner’s mind makes us less judgmental and makes us focus on people’s needs rather than our own personal agenda. Paradoxically having the beginner’s mind improves our mastery. Continuing to pursue having the beginner’s mind so that I can serve the organisation I work with even more effectively is one of my New Year’s resolutions for next year.


  1. To Master Scrum is to Detach Ourselves From Control

To master Zen is to let go of control. I was told by the master that to master Zen is to not be attached to anything. When we are attached to something, we will have the tendency to bring our biases and preconceived ideas. It is much harder to accept revolutionary ideas when we are attached to our biases.

I have learned as a Scrum Master to be less attached to what I already know. From this experience I have realised I have been a disservice for the organisation in the past. When we are less attached to the knowledge we already know, we are more curious and more open to learning and to revolutionary ideas. Revolutionary ideas usually bring us out of our comfort zone.

Not only we should not be attached to our biases, we should not be attached to the control we used to have because we will be a disservice to our people. Throughout this year I am quite fascinated to see in an organisation transformation how many managers have the fear to detach themselves from the control they used to have from the past. I have also seen project managers who were converted to be a Scrum Master by the management still brought the old habit of controlling the team, the scope, the timeline and the budget. When people follow us because they’re being controlled, that means people follow us because they have to rather than because they want to

The Zen Master don’t have any authority to control people. People come to the Zen Master not because he/she has the power or the authority. The Zen master realised that as a human being people should have options and choices in life. Forcing people people to accept his/her ideas is considered inhumane. People follow the Zen master because they want to and because the Zen master inspires them.

As written in the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master is a servant leader. As a servant leader, the Scrum Master does not use any authority to move people. The Scrum Master use the authority he/she has to bring awesomeness to people rather than to control people. This is important for us as a Scrum Master who are working inside an organisation who is transitioning towards agility to remember because I’ve seen many Scrum Masters are lacking patience to see change inside the organisation and start command & controlling people when the Scrum Master does not see change happen at the speed rate he/she wants.

Just like the Zen Master, people are motivated to be led by the Scrum Master because there are so much wisdom to learn from the Scrum Master. As a Scrum Master, we should be motivated to continuously grow/develop ourselves so people are inspired to follow us because they want to learn from us not because we have the power to control them.

It is much easier to control people than to inspire people. Because inspiring others requires us to change and develop ourselves rather than focusing on changing other people. Command and controlling people is considered as a shortcut by many companies but it is not healthy for the people in the company as it does not offer accelerated learning for people. And it is also not good for the Scrum Master because it doesn’t push the Scrum Master to grow/develop him/herself harder to inspire people. 

Detaching ourselves from control and giving that control to people makes the Scrum Master a better servant leader. My resolution for next year is to push myself harder to lead by being an example and not to be tempted  using control and authority. 


  1. To Master Scrum is to Actively Listen and to be Fully Present

The Zen Master often times have many mentees around him/her to hear his/her wisdom. But from my observation, the master listen more than speak. Only by listening more he/she is able to speak wisdom from his/her mouth. Being comfortable listening to silence is one of the key to mastering Zen.

In the corporate life, many people want to be heard but only a few who wants to listen to others. People are busy and want to rush to the next meeting hence do not find enough time to listen to others. People want to be recognised as the one who is knowledgable and deserve for the position in the company hence they speak more than they listen. In some cultures, silence is found to be less valuable than noise so people try to fill every silence they hear. But it takes mastery to appreciate and understand the meaning of silence.

To move others without using authority, the Scrum Master should listen more. To be heard is a great gift for many people at our workplace. When we listen, we are bringing empathy and compassion to the workplace. It's much easier to move people after they're being heard.

As written on the Scrum Guide, coaching is one of the services that the Scrum Master provide to the organisation. Many organisations feel that coaching as something low value and too wishy-washy for a professional context. But if we value every single individuals at our workplace as a human being, then coaching is actually a great gift we can give to our people. Coaching brings the best out of people so they can become the best version of themselves.

It requires humility to listen more than to speak. When we listen, we gain more knowledge & wisdom and as a result we will improve our mastery. From my personal experience, active listening is draining energy as we need to be fully present and stay focus with the person we are with and not thinking about our next todo list. 

This year, as a Scrum Master I try to make myself more available for a coaching session to anyone who requested it and apply active listening during coaching sessions. Active listening is one of my struggles this year as I kept on thinking my todo lists and am not always fully present during coaching sessions. Coaching and active listening is a skill and stance that I want to continue to master next year so that I can provide better service to the organisation and the people within the organisation. 


  1. To Master Scrum is to Be Selfless

The Zen Master exists not to take credit of his/her mentee's success in life. When someone is successful in their life, it’s not because of the Zen Master. It takes humility not to take credit from anyone’s success.

One of the common questions that I get from people is, "How do we evaluate the Scrum Master performance?". I have found this is one of the most challenging questions to answer. People’s behaviour is driven by the measurement that is imposed upon them. If our answer to this question is wrong, the Scrum Master in the organisation may demonstrate undesired behaviours within the company and will be a disservice to the company. One of the undesired behaviours that is commonly seen in the market is how the Scrum Master still pushes their personal agenda -- they still controlling the time, scope and budget and also command controlling the development team.

I have been asked to interview Scrum Master candidates as part of the organisation transformation this year. What is interesting to hear from these Scrum Master candidates is how they took credit for the team’s and organisation’s successes. Project Manager performance is evaluated by how they’re able to ensure the project they manage is delivered on-time, on-scope and on-budget. Unfortunately, during these interviews I have heard many Scrum Masters boast themselves on how they’re able to deliver the project on-time, on-scope and on-budget. Rather than removing impediments, many Scrum Masters in our industry became an impediment to the team and to the organisation.

I have to acknowledge that we do not live in an ideal world where roles like Scrum Master are still expected by the management to display what they have contributed to the company in form of metrics. This year, I have made a video on the Scrum Master accountability and how to evaluate the Scrum Master performance to show my contribution to the organisation who have paid for my service.  But personally it is still challenging for me to not take credit for the company's improvement in agility because as a human being we naturally want to be seen and recognised for our performance and achievements. I have learned from my personal gym trainer how he did not take credit for the weight that I’ve lost because it is not him who is doing the hard work to lose my weight.

My resolution for next year is to continue exercising being genuine to improve organisation agility without bringing my personal agenda and not taking any credit for the improvement that happen within the company. And I do realised that whenever I seek for recognition and acknowledgement, I tend to focus on my personal agenda rather than being a servant leader.  I know this will be a challenging resolution, I know I will continuously stumble in this department as we do not live in an ideal world. One thing I will keep in mind is when the Zen master told me that there will be higher gratification when we do good to others genuinely without us showing it off.


  1. To Master Scrum is to Accept that We May be Rejected and Forgotten

The Zen Master may be forgotten despite the many seeds he/she has planted in the individuals who learned from him/her. On the other side, the Zen Master may not try to remember all the good things he/she has done in other people's lives. The Zen Master may also be rejected and forgotten as he/she may be telling something that is unpopular and made people feel uncomfortable. 

Starting from this year, I have learnt and have started to practice asking permission from the team to be their Scrum Master even though the management already chose me as the Scrum Master for the whole company. There are two things that can happen as the result of asking permission from the team, the team may accept me or they may reject me to be their Scrum Master. Being rejected is quite scary for me because I have been rejected and told to walked out of the door multiple times by the management for speaking the “brutal” truth.

It is human to have fear of rejection. After all, we are a social creature. Courage is one of the Scrum values and I’ve learned this year that to be a better Scrum Master I have to overcome my fear of rejection for asking permission from the team. As a Scrum Master I should not think that I will always be accepted by every team. When there is acceptance, there is rejection. That is another thing I've learned from Zen, in life there is balance. And asking permission is how it should be done if we want to see the whole company sustaining in agility. 

When we ask permission from the team, we are respecting them as individuals and as a Scrum Master we are displaying a humble leader rather than an authoritative leader. As a Scrum Master we respect the team as a human being who have options and choices. The traditional way of management pushing ideas to the team without giving them options and choices is no longer relevant in 21st century. People will be more accountable and have more ownership when they consciously select from the options and choices they have laid out.

When we ask for permission, we are communicating to the team that we do not have control, the team have control. When we ask for permission from the team, we are communicating to the team that in the future we will not push anything to them without their conscious decision. When we ask for permission, we are displaying to the team that we exist not to control them and make their work life more miserable but we exist to make them more awesome. That’s what empowerment means. Not just a nice quote on the office walls.

Not only will asking permission from the team or group of people bring greater accountability and ownership to people doing the work, it will make the Scrum Master become a better individual and as a result of that it will improve his/her mastery. It takes courage and humility to ask for permission to enter a team or group of people or to ask permission when we want to apply an idea (process, policy, tools, technology, etc) that may be affecting people's way of working at the workplace because there is a chance that we may be rejected.

My next year's resolution is to overcome my fear of rejection by having more courage to always ask permission before entering a team and before applying an idea within the team. I know it will be hard and it will be scary but I also know it also improve my mastery.



Now I understand why Scrum Guide says that Scrum is easy to understand but hard to master. Because mastery is a lifelong learning. Scrum Mastery requires us to focus on working on our "being" rather than focus on doing Scrum mechanics. The Scrum framework itself is simple to understand but Scrum is more about empiricism than the mechanical. And mastering empiricism requires us to be genuine, to continuously be open to invalidate what we know and become less attached to what we already know. Mastering empiricism requires us to have the beginner’s mind.

2019 definitely has been a great roller coaster ride for me because I have learned so many unexpected things and experienced many AHA moments at the times I least expected it. I hope your 2019 was awesome too. Starting from this year onwards I want to serve more people who may not have the opportunity to interact with me within an organisation or in my classes through this blog and also my youtube channel. Follow my journey and please consider to subscribe to my Youtube channel if you already haven’t. 

Happy New Year 2020 everyone. Looking forward to seeing you continuously improve your mastery to influence our workplace in how people collaborate together in a humane way delivering awesome things for human beings in our society. Stay awesome.


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