June 8, 2020

What makes the difference between a GOOD Scrum Master and a GREAT Scrum Master?

Even though the global Scrum adoption is now at 75% (source: 14th State of Agile report 2020), the Scrum Master profession is still difficult to grasp for many.

I have encountered and still encounter many organizations struggling with understanding the role of the Scrum Master. These misunderstandings result in sub-optimal mixed roles (developer/scrum master, tester/scrum master, product owner/scrum master, project manager/scrum master) or the complete omission of the role (the team will pick up the Scrum Master tasks).

The Scrum guide definition

“The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.”
Scrum Guide

Understanding the role became a little bit easier after the 2017 update of the Scrum Guide, when the Scrum Master’s services to the Product Owner, the Development team and the whole organization were described more explicitly.

Although pretty elaborate, the Scrum Guide is hardly sufficient in describing the complex reality of this role. That is because the Scrum guide tends to be as little prescriptive as possible. This allows organizations to add practices to the framework so that Scrum can be applied in many different contexts. The downside of this approach is that we need to “fill in the blanks” ourselves, leading to inevitable misinterpretations and faulty implementations of Scrum. Unfortunately this also applies to the role of the Scrum Master.

Barry Overveem tried to capture the role, describing the eight stances of the scrum master:

stances

Image by Barry Overveem

The Scrum Master is a relatively young profession. There is no university yet where we can graduate in Scrum Mastery, the content of its curriculum is still under construction. I think I have studied all that is currently available to become a Professional Scrum Master. The knowledge I gained becoming a PST (Professional Scrum Trainer) has proven to be extremely useful. However, I also experienced a major shortcoming: The existing Scrum Master curricula focus on understanding the framework, implementing processes and facilitation skills. Yet, that covers just a fraction of the aspects a Scrum Master needs to know (skills) or have (traits) to become an effective servant leader.

The broad palette of Scrum Master Skills

I discovered that a great Scrum Master requires a wide variety of skills.

  • The Scrum Master needs to be an excellent teacher to transfer the Scrum knowledge, because knowledge leads to understanding. Teaching is fundamental to make the paradigm shift happen towards the empirical process control that Scrum implements.
  • In addition to facilitating Scrum events, the Scrum Master creates and conducts workshops for a wide variety of purposes. The majority of development groups count multiple teams. This makes large group facilitation skills indispensable.
  • Scrum Masters act as a change agent and knows how to reveal systemic impediments. They have the skills to bring about organizational change to improve product delivery.
  • Scrum Masters have excellent soft skills because they work with people all the time. They support team members, Product Owners and colleague-Scrum Masters in dealing with issues and with discovering and adopting (new) practices.
  • A Scrum Master knows how to start, build and grow Scrum teams.
  • A Scrum Master can support and develop individuals and knows how to enable self-organization. A Scrum Master has the skills to coach anyone at any level of the organization.

Scrum Masters are not deep specialists, but deal with many deep specialists. They need to be a generalist with a broad interest and understanding. They continuously need to learn a wide range of subjects to be able to provide excellent services to the environment. A Scrum Master needs to learn about processes, change, frameworks, practices, soft-skills, psychology, software engineering, agile engineering practices and so forth.

Bundling the Scrum Master skills into a graph resulted in what I call “the Effective Servant Leadership Doughnut”:

esl doughnut

Image by Roland Flemm

Scrum Masters also need a bunch of traits

Traits are the characteristics that make us who we are. Traits can be developed and improved. When you have a trait, the behavior that comes along with it is effortless. When you don’t have (enough of) a trait, some things don’t come easy and feel uncomfortable for you. Most of the traits can be improved by practicing (adaptability, courageousness, respectfulness). Other traits are more difficult to adopt (creativity, passion, authenticity,)…

To become a good Scrum Master, we need a broad set of skills. To become a great Scrum Master, a core set of traits or talents is indispensable. A great Scrum Master is at least:

  • creative
  • curious
  • outgoing
  • authentic
  • adaptive
  • passionate
  • courageous
  • respectful

We need to be creative in many ways. We prepare workshops, plan sessions, run experiments, etc. We also need a creative mind because plans hardly ever work out as planned. That’s because people and interactions are highly unpredictable. This requires a lot of improvisation and adaptation. Closely related to creativity is curiosity. It is a form of openness that helps dealing with unforeseen situations. additionally, curiosity provides the perfect setting for respectful communication. Our job also needs us to be out there, in front of people, inspiring them. We are a motivator, telling passionate stories and taking people along towards unknown territory. We need to be strong and courageous to guide and support the people who’s habits and beliefs are about to change.

Monitoring your progress

When looking at the list of skills and traits above, try to evaluate your abilities on a scale of one to ten for each of them. The list is pretty extensive, nobody scores a ten on all of them. There’s probably/hopefully room for improvement. That is a good thing. Improving our traits and exploring the shortcomings and abilities of ourselves is essential for growing from good to great. You could work on improving yourself using the ESL doughnut to create a spider diagram of your current abilities. This serves a starting point for monitoring your progress. By choosing certain areas that need attention, you can focus on improving them and update your spider diagram as time progresses. For best results, I suggest finding a colleague to coach you on this.

Conclusion

The Scrum Master profession is extremely diverse and complex. To grow from a good scrum master into a great one we need to work on improving our skills and traits. More importantly, we need to work on our inner selves first to enable us to effectively work with people. We need to experience the effect of our behavior, learn to understand how the shortcomings and assets of our inner selves are impacting our effectiveness as a Servant Leader.

Read more on the new Effective Servant Leadership training.