What Does the Scrum Master Do All Day?
It was 8:59 am on Monday. It was another week which I thought was going to be amazing. Last week our company just closed another round of investment. The company is currently strategizing to scale agility throughout the company.
As I was rushing into the office I met Ahmed at the front of the office as he was going to the pantry to get some coffee. Ahmed is our Chief Financial Officer. He has been juggling through a lot of hoops lately especially after we just closed another round of investment.
Me: Hi Ahmed, by the look of your face, something seems to be bothering your mind. Would you like to talk about it?
Ahmed: Did you get an invite for a meeting with the Senior Management this afternoon to discuss scaling agility throughout the company?
Me: Yeah I did. Is that what is currently bothering your mind?
Ahmed: Yeah. I am just not sure about the way the company is heading with scaling agility. I don’t like this big bang copy-paste agile scaling approach. But it seems the management wants everything to happen fast.
Me: I am still working on that. One of my homework at the moment is to influence the CxOs. Baby steps. I just don’t want to create chaos and resistance here. Resistance will only slow down the change in this company. Some people in Senior Management are still getting used to agile leadership.
The conversation continues for around 5 minutes….
Ahmed: Okay then. See you at 3:30 pm then. I am really looking forward to seeing you facilitate the meeting with Senior Management.
Me: Alright Ahmed. See you.
Just as I was walking to my desk, I bumped into John. I can hear him huffing as he walks towards me. He is the Chief Product Officer at the company.
Me: Hey John. What’s up?
John: Hey Josh. We need you right now for facilitating a Sprint Planning for team Cheetah. It is a brand new team. And we just promoted Joanne to be the Product Owner for Cheetah.
Me: Wow so much has been going on. Alright, I will get on to it. Where are the team now?
John: Yeah many decisions were made last week after we closed another round of investment. The team is currently waiting in the breakout room. Thanks, mate. I really appreciate your help on this. See you later at 3:30 pm.
Me: No worries John. See you at 3:30 pm.
As I entered the breakout room, I can see excited faces and feel the energy. The team was waiting there excited to start their first Sprint Planning as a new team.
Me: So team. What do we have already at the table? And where should we start?
The Sprint Planning continues for 1.5 hours later …
Me: So is there anything else you would like to discuss before we start the Sprint?
Joanne: I think we are all good. Thanks for facilitating our first Sprint Planning.
Everyone else: Yep, we’re ready to go. Thanks, coach. That was really helpful.
After finishing the Sprint Planning for team Cheetah, Timmy the Product Owner for team Jaguar just ran to me. By looking at his face, he seems worried. I am curious to know what is on his mind.
Timmy: Hey Josh, we’ve got a problem. The team said that we can not start the development because we do not have any Product Backlog Item that is refined yet.
Me: But do we have a Sprint Goal?
Timmy: Yes. I do know what we wish to achieve by the end of the Sprint.
Me: Okay. Let’s start from there. The goal is more than enough. Where is the team right now?
Timmy: They’re in the boardroom upstairs.
As Timmy and I entered the boardroom, I can see how the team is feeling very anxious about this Sprint Planning.
Me: So team. I've heard we can not start development. What is holding us back?
Vladimir: We do not have any refined Product Backlog Item. We can not start development. We should spend another day to refine the Product Backlog (Vladimir is one of the Senior Engineer in team Jaguar. He is quite outspoken and not shy to express his opinions).
Me: Timmy. Do we have a goal for this Sprint?
Timmy: Yeah. Our drop rate this past two months is very concerning. I am seeing a trend of 20% drop rate after visitors landed on our page for 5 seconds. I would like to at least reduce our drop rate to 10%. If we can get closer to that goal, you all will make me very happy.
The Sprint Planning continues for 1.25 hours later …
Me: So are we good now team?
Vladimir: So do we just do this one Product Backlog Item this Sprint? Is that okay with you Timmy? Our velocity will drop dramatically.
Timmy: Well I would really like to see you achieve the Sprint Goal. Do whatever it takes to achieve the goal. I agree with Josh that the Sprint Goal is more important than the backlog. There is no point in focusing on fixing the scope or matching our previous Sprint's velocity if at the end of the Sprint we do not achieve a goal.
Vladimir: Okay let’s work together to achieve the Sprint Goal team.
Nguyen: Yeah let’s do this. I like how we approach the Sprint differently this time. Perhaps next time we can cut short our Sprint Planning by being more focused with the Sprint Goal.
Me: I like the sound of that. Thank you for participating and being present everyone.
Wow. That was quite intense. Two Sprint Plannings back-to-back. Two different teams with different souls. I think I need some rest now. Oh, wait. It is already lunchtime. Time flew so fast. But as I was about to sit down and take another breath, James our Product Owner for team Tiger approached me. James has been very successful in increasing the revenue through the product he owns. Because of his performance, the company kept on adding more team members into his line of product.
James: Hey Josh. Would you like to have lunch together? I would like to discuss with you about running Scrum with three teams developing a single product in parallel.
Me: Sure. Where are you thinking to have lunch?
James: How about Malaysian Dining Delights?
Me: Sounds good. I really like their Chicken Curry.
The conversation continues for 1.5 hours later …
James: Wow I didn’t realise that the Nexus framework is really that simple. Many scaling frameworks just adds many layers of complexities and has too many theories.
James: I sure will read more on Nexus. Thanks for your time today. I have now learned from you that if it is not a useful agile practice then drop it. Scrum is actually very simple and Nexus is not much different to Scrum. I have always thought that burndown charts, story points, and velocity are required in Scrum. These things actually dragged us down as a team.
Me: Anytime mate. I am glad that you have a different perspective on Scrum now. Let’s go back to the office now.
After lunch, James and I went back to the office. Just when I stepped my foot at the office, Natalia one of our User Experience experts came to me. She was interested to know how UX practice can run together with Scrum.
Natalia: Hey Josh. Can I discuss with you about running UX process in Scrum?
Me: Sure. Let’s find a meeting room.
The conversation continues for 1 hour later …
Natalia: Hmh. So UX activities can run in one Sprint together with development activities. So UX activities do not need to run one Sprint ahead. Is that what you're saying?
Me: Yes. Focus on the outcome rather than the output. A lot of times organizations wants the UX people to work one Sprint ahead to ensure that UX people and engineers are always busy. The organization wants to utilize people's time to 100%. But being busy does not necessarily equate to value delivery. When running UX and development process is in the same Sprint it makes the engineers own the whole process and product because you are not creating silos and not introducing throwing work over the fence activities. Remember, Scrum is a goal driven framework rather than a scope driven framework. That’s kinda what we did with team Jaguar a few hours ago. We focused on the goal we want to achieve by the end of the Sprint rather than output.
Natalia: Okay. This all makes sense now. Thanks for putting all of that into the picture. I will encourage more UX people to work together in the same Sprint with the developers. I really appreciate your time teaching me this.
Me: No worries Natalia.
As I went out of the meeting room, I bumped into Indah. She is one of our top-notch Data Scientist. Nobody in the company really discovered her real aspiration is to be a Data Scientist until Indah and I talked about it in a coaching session last month. Fortunately, the company supports her aspirations and found her a position as a Data Scientist.
Me: Hey Indah. How are you today? How was your weekend?
Indah: Actually I have a problem that I want to discuss with you.
Me: Interesting problem?
Indah: Yes, it is about my new role here in the company. As you know, this role as a Data Scientist is quite new to me.
Me: I have less than one hour for a coaching session. Would that be okay with you?
Indah: Yeah it should be enough.
Me: Okay, let’s find another meeting room then because this room is booked for another meeting.
Indah: Let’s use that meeting room.
A few seconds later … after we are both in the room.
Me: Okay Indah. So what would you like to get out of this coaching session?
Indah: By the end of today's coaching session, I would like to know the steps to untangle my current problems.
Me: Tell me about your current situation then. I am all ears.
The conversation continues for 45 minutes later …
Me: So how will I know you will do it?
Indah: Okay, I will let you know by the end of next week. WhatsApp message is okay with you?
Me: Sure. I check my Whatsapp every day. And how do you feel now after today's coaching session?
Indah: I feel so relieved now. Thank you for your time. It was a useful coaching session.
Me: Okay. I have got to rush to another meeting with Senior Management now. Looking forward to your progress next week. Keep me updated.
Well, that was unexpected and unscheduled but I am glad Indah had discovered her own solution to her problems. I hope she continuously improving in her new role. The meeting with the Senior Management is in a few more minutes. I better get ready. I think I should take a few minutes for breathing exercise and meditation to ensure that I am not biased and not picking any sides during the facilitated session.
It is one more minute before the meeting with the senior management starts. All of the CxOs are already in the room except for Ahmed.
Me: Do we have everyone in the room now?
Daniel: Ahmed is not here yet. Let’s give him a few more seconds. (Daniel is our CEO and the Co-Founder of the company)
Juergen: Yeah, if he is late he needs to pay 20RM into this piggy bank. (Juergen is our CTO and the Co-Founder of the company)
Daniel: You and your German time.
As time hits 3:30 pm, Ahmed opens the door and enters the room.
John: Well done Ahmed. You made it on time. Otherwise Juergen with steal 20RM from you.
Ahmed: You know that is not going to happen. You know I am quite financially savvy.
Me: Okay, it looks like we have everyone here. So what is it that we want to get out of before we get out of this room?
As people started brainstorming I started drawing on the flipchart to record the discussion. People often called me as the Chief Drawing Officer because of my tendency to draw in every meeting with the Senior Management.
Daniel: We would like all of us to brainstorm the fit-for-purpose strategy to scale agility in our company. Agility beyond just the Technology group of course. We just got another round of investment last week. We need to move faster than our competitors. We know how there are many companies out there have caused resistance when they scaled agility. We do not want that to happen here. Since you are the Scrum Master, please tell us the best way to do this.
The conversation continues for 1.5 hours later …
Daniel: So I really like this Evidence-Based Management approach to scaling agility in the organisation. So let’s start small and empirically measure our agility every month. No gut feeling. How's that?
Juergen: Oh yeah, I love numbers and metrics. But what I really like about these EBM metrics, it is really actionable and holistic.
John: Outcome focused than output focused. That is what I am getting out today's meeting. I need to tell all of the Product Owners to start tracking these metrics every Sprint now.
Ahmed: I can see how the development metrics are related to the financial metrics now. Thanks, Josh.
Me: Okay. It sounds that we have got a plan to scale agility in the company. Is there anything else we should discuss in this meeting?
Daniel: Let’s save it for next month. I am personally happy with the outcome of today’s meeting. Let's start tracking those EBM metrics.
Juergen: Yeah it’s 5:00 pm already. Well, that was quite intense. Happy hour anyone? By the way, thanks for facilitating today's meeting Josh.
Me: My pleasure. It was a very fruitful discussion indeed. Thanks for keeping an open mind everyone.
That is just a snapshot of one day of my life as a Scrum Master. A lot of times, what I will be doing throughout the day is unknown and unscheduled. And I must be prepared for unpredictability every single day. Every day is different and rarely repeated. Every Sprint brings different tension, surprises, and complexities.
These days more and more people are asking me "What does the Scrum Master do all day?". When I reflect every time I got this question, I realised I rarely see myself sit down on my desk for more than 10 minutes. If I am lucky it would be 15 minutes. But even so, I always manage to deliver value to the company within those 10-15 minutes of free time. A lot of times people who asked me this question cannot see any tangible work done by the Scrum Master. Many times they cannot justify hiring a full-time Scrum Master to do the work they think is easy to do by anyone.
Because many companies can not see the value of Scrum Master activities, many companies ask the Scrum Master to do project management work such as creating project reports, creating work-breakdown structure and Gantt-chart and even asking project status to the team. In other cases, some companies also ask the Scrum Master to do development work which often creates a biased Scrum Master. In some cases, some companies appoint the most junior staffs to do Scrum Master job, which is quite ironic to see the most junior staffs to do mastery work. This setup often leads to the Scrum Master doing secretarial work rather than servant-leadership work.
As we live in the fast-paced world, there are pressures to do more because we think doing more means delivering more. In industrial or mechanical work, doing more results in more output. Unfortunately, we applied the same thinking towards creative and intelligent work like software development. We thought more work and more features means a better outcome. We also applied the same thinking towards Scrum Mastery work that involves a lot of teaching, mentoring, coaching and facilitation.
When we look at Scrum Master's work, there is more value when the Scrum Master is doing less. As a Scrum Master, less talking is much better, less intrusion is better, less overhead is better, less resistance in the system is better. In fact, as a Scrum Master, there is value in stillness. It takes mastery to deliver more value with doing less. Think of the Scrum Master like the Zen Master where his/her value is found in his/her stillness rather than in his/her busyness.
We have already understood that the Scrum Master holds several stances and uses it according to the contexts and situations. What is obvious and known to many people is that Scrum Master teaches, facilitates, removes impediments, coaches, mentors and manages the system. In this article, I will share with you the values in some of the non-obvious activities Scrum Master does which people often think as invaluable activities.
According to the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master is the change leader and works at the organization level. The difference in how Scrum Master leads the change is not by using authority and not by giving prescriptions. Scrum Master does it by encouraging empiricism to happen in the system. In a complex system, we can not apply organizational change using a top-down approach and prescribe certain solutions. In a complex system, how one component in the system reacts towards change is unknown. The way to influence change in a complex system is by influencing the interaction amongst people. This can only be done by building rapport and getting to know deeper about every individual in the system. As a Scrum Master, I spend as much time interacting with the team members, the senior management and even other functions in the company like People Ops, Legal or Finance, etc. Making changes at the team level only results in a sub-optimal result.
As a Scrum Master, when we built rapport we are creating trust and psychological safety. We are creating assurance to people in the system that we are here to empathize their situation and make a change as easy as possible for them. When we build rapport and interacting with people in the system we are changing the system in a non-disruptive way. If your company sees conversation or building rapport as invaluable activities for a Scrum Master, your company do not value people being human, which is very important when making changes in a complex environment.
On average I have around 10 minutes between another session or conversation with others in the company. When I am not coaching, training, mentoring or facilitating, I invest a lot of my time observing. When observing, we are looking closely with curiosity and without any judgment patterns of behaviour, languages, and interactions between people in the system. The purpose of observing is to gain a deeper understanding of why issues are repeating, why change is slowly happening or why things may not be as we think it is. The purpose of observing is not to point fingers or judge the person who is causing issues to occur. The purpose of observing is not to judge but to understand.
During an observation, we should not apply our own judgment or preconceived ideas that will make the observation result biased. The purpose of observing is to find an opportunity where we can influence the interactions in the system so that we can change the patterns in the system. By observing, we will gain data to best influence the system through human interaction. By observing, we would also like to know whether the patterns have changed after we influenced the interaction of people in the system. When observing, make sure to do it candidly and subtly because otherwise, it will cause the Hawthorne effect.
The activity of listening is quite similar to observing. When observing I do it deliberately from a distance but when active listening I do not necessarily do it deliberately. Active Listening could happen when I am working in the middle of the room with the team or when training or facilitating a session with a group of people. Active listening is not only focused on what is being said but also what is not being said such as people’s energy level, people’s body gestures, facial expression, type of words people use and not use when communicating even silence.
Often times people think that listening as an act of doing nothing hence invaluable activities. In the very fast pace social media era, everybody wants to be heard. But there are only a few people who invest their time to actually listen to people. When we listen to people, it moves them. I've seen people's eyes sparkle when we only listen and they discovered the solution to their own problems themselves. When we listen to people, we are influencing the patterns in the system. Active listening drains a lot of energy because we need to stay focus and stay mindful.
Contemplate and Stay Mindful
After each training session, facilitated session or coaching session, as a Scrum Master I often make mistakes that should not be. Besides observing, I often invest time contemplating and staying mindful. By contemplating, we are re-thinking what did not go well and how to do it better next time. Through contemplation, we stop judging ourself and make peace with our self why certain session did not go as expected. Contemplation may result in a better strategy in facilitating an event or coaching and training people.
Besides contemplating, I have also learned from other Scrum Masters about practicing meditation in between sessions to keep our self mindful and clearing any preconceived idea that will help us as a Scrum Master to always stay present in the game regardless what is our current physical situation. By not having any preconceived idea every session, we also become unbiased and less prescriptive when helping the team discover their own solutions.
Scrum Master's works in a complex realm and need to be comfortable to dance with unpredictabilities. It is possible from my experience as a Scrum Master we are pulled out of nowhere to facilitate an event that we weren’t prepared. As a Scrum Master, there is no excuse such as, “Sorry, I am not prepared for that”. In an agile environment, sometimes the meeting agenda is emergent. Scrum Master needs to continuously upskill his/herself to be able to dance in the moment. It is quite ironic to see many Scrum Masters in the industry teach the team about continuous learning, but they do not continuously learn and upskill themselves.
Upskill here does not always mean formal classroom training. I prefer doing more of deliberate practice. I know a Scrum Master who is given permission by her manager to coach or facilitate another team from a different company for two days every month. Her manager thinks that it is the only way she can adapt to unpredictability in her current company.
As a Scrum Master, you can also upskill by reading lots of books. As people are getting busier, people find less time to read books. But for a Scrum Master, reading books is necessary to upskill our self. I know a Scrum Master who reads at least four books a month to continuously develop himself so he can influence the senior management more effectively. After reading books you can channel out what you have read into blogs or articles. I know a Scrum Master who diligently write blogs as a way to promote herself and her company. If writing is not your thing, you could also speak at conferences or regular community meetups as a way to channel out what you have learned. I know a Scrum Master in a company who is appraised by the management by how many talks or conferences she participated in a year.
Here are some non-obvious activities from my personal experience that Scrum Master do that we think is actually valuable to the company. A lot of times when the Scrum Master is doing these activities mentioned above, people perceive the Scrum Master as doing nothing. To see the value of a Scrum Master, we need to apply different thinking and see from a different perspective. There are actually values when Scrum Master does these activities mentioned above.
I hope this article helps you to see value in the activities the Scrum Master is doing towards your organization. As a Scrum Master, is there any other activities that you do people see as invaluable but you think is valuable? Write down in the comment below. I am eager to learn from your experience.