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Esther Derby's Journey to Scrum Mastery | Expert Insights & Tips

February 27, 2024

In this episode originally published on the Agile for Humans podcast, Professional Scrum Trainer Ryan Ripley is joined by the renowned Esther Derby, a pivotal figure in the agile community and author of "Seven Rules for Positive, Productive Change" and the upcoming second edition of "Agile Retrospectives". Join us as Esther shares her rich journey in the world of Scrum and Agile.



Lindsay Velecina  0:03  
Welcome to the community podcast, a podcast from the home of Scrum. In this podcast we feature professional scrum trainers and other scrum practitioners sharing their stories and experiences to help learn from the experience of others. We hope you enjoy this episode.

Ryan Ripley  0:21  
Hi, everyone. I'm Ryan Ripley with Agile for humans and professional scrum trainer with I'm stepping in as a guest host. I hope you enjoy getting to know these amazing people. Welcome to today's episode of becoming a scrum master. I'm your host, Ryan Ripley joining me today. Esther derby. Esther, of course, the author of seven rules for change the Agile retrospectives book, which will be out in second edition soon. Be sure to check that out and catch it. It's always great to see Esther thank you for doing this.

Esther Derby  0:59  
Yeah, well, thank you for inviting me. Of course, I've never actually been a scrum master on it.

Ryan Ripley  1:05  
What's that's gonna be that'll make this discussion. Interesting, then right. We'll have to see how this goes. Yeah. So we'll jump, I think right into the first question. Can you share the story of how you first encountered Scrum? And what motivated you to become a scrum master? And then Was there a particular moment or experience that sparked your interest? Yeah,

Esther Derby  1:27  
well, I, um, I first ran across scrum in the early 2000s. And what sparked my interest was that in a lot of ways, it was similar to the, the way I had approached projects when projects worked well, and I worked in, you know, I started as a programmer, and I managed projects for many years, in a big old financial services company with mainframes and waterfall processes. But I often worked in a very iterative way, right? So we would, you know, we would figure out what needed to be done. And then we build a little bit and show it to the users and build a little more and show it to the user. So so it reminded me of that it felt familiar from that standpoint. And yet, it added some really interesting things about doing requirements in a more incremental, iterative way. And so I was really fascinated by it from that standpoint. And, you know, I had I had been introduced to the agile movement at that point, I had become interested in the work they were doing. So seemed interesting thing to pursue.

Ryan Ripley  2:54  
Nice. Yeah. So was there a specific project or situation where you had a eureka moment, something that made you realize the true power and potential of Scrum? And if so, could you describe that?

Esther Derby  3:07  
Well, I think it goes back to what I was just talking about is like, working on these big waterfall projects, but being able to do something iterative and incremental within that, which is not truly Scrum. But that there was the connection to how that helped us be more accurate about how we were progressing, and helped us stay in better connection with the customers and find mistakes and errors earlier and fix them earlier. So I think that's super powerful. And I think Scrum, took what I was doing, and just kind of, you know, made it even more powerful. I also really liked that there's that iterative reflection in it. So you know, we're doing sprint reviews and demos to look at the product. And we're doing retrospectives to look at how we're working together. So I really liked that that was incorporated in it. Some people actually say that I forced that. But I don't worry at home forcing anyone.

Ryan Ripley  4:16  
No, not forcing. But it isn't. The double loop is interesting, right? We're going to look at the product. And then we're going to look at our interactions and our tools and our quality. And then we're going to take all of that learning and try to do better next time. Yep. It almost feels like kindergarten in a sense, right?

Esther Derby  4:32  
Well, it's, it seems, it seems to make a lot of sense. And what I find is that a lot of things that often happen in organizations don't make sense. But when we walk in, we kind of take on the assumptions of the system. So I thought it was a really useful way to get back to some things that were sensical.

Ryan Ripley  4:55  
Oh, I like that a lot. So as far as the scrum master role itself or as we now call it, the accountabilities and the updated scrum guide. Now, how is your perception of the scrum master changed over time? Right? Are there aspects of it that from early on looked one way? And maybe now it looks a little different? Well,

Esther Derby  5:16  
I must confess, I haven't looked at the latest edition of the official scrum guide. What I will say is that I think the role is overburdened. Right, it's asking a lot of people, or at least, you know, the way it was originally talked about, which was, you know, driving change from a position of no power driving, making change happen from a position of no power, right, and hoping to have a lot of influence over things outside of the team's control. Right. So I think I think it was, even from the start, it was a role that had big expectations for people with no power, with no formal authority. I think along the way, in many organizations, it's turned into the scrum administrator, rather than the scrum master, which I think is sad, right? Because there is a lot of potential in the role to really work with a team and help the team kind of be the mirror for the team, right? You know, help the team, step back and look at how they're doing their work, help identify the things that are getting in the way and exert some influence in the organization to, you know, make those impediments visible and hopefully get them addressed. Right. And it takes more than understanding Scrum, to be able to do that, right? It's a whole set of influencing skills that are not necessarily common sense. Right, that we aren't taught them, we aren't taught that. We need to learn them.

Ryan Ripley  7:03  
So you brought up an interesting aspects of the scrum master. And that there's they are supposed to drive and I'm not sure how I feel about the word drive either.

Esther Derby  7:14  
Like it, I don't know why it came out of my mouth,

Ryan Ripley  7:16  
maybe? Oh, no, I think it's the word that everyone uses, maybe provoke, or maybe, maybe that's even a little too aggressive. But they're supposed to do something with change, without any influence. And so you are the the author of seven rules for change. Is that, and I'm not even sure where this where this will end up. But is it realistic in today's in the modern day organization, to burden a person to affect change in these these huge companies with zero influence? Or with zero authority? And if if it is reasonable, how do they? How could they even go about that in today's org?

Esther Derby  8:02  
Well, I think you can always influence what's around you. Sure, right, you can always have, you can always do things that will make it more likely that the team will succeed, I mean, you can make sure that they have a compelling goal, you can make sure that they you know, they have work that they can actually succeed in and make progress. You know, you can't, you can help the team function better, which is huge, right? I don't want to diminish that at all. And you can raise up the impediments that are in the way that exists outside the team. I was just reading a paper by Barry Aashi, who's really interesting thinker about organizations, and he thinks about, he thinks about, you know, tops, middles and bottoms, and how, how there's a certain experience that goes with being each of those positions in an organization. And they're not necessarily static, right, you may be top on your team, but middle in the middle in your department. And so it's not like you're forever tied to one of those roles. But the power of the people at the bottom, which is where most software teams are in that way of thinking about it, is to notice the impediments, right, because they are in the perfect position to really experience the things that go on a system that impede the entire system's ability to be effective. So from that standpoint, I think I think it's a hugely valuable role to have someone whose job is to say, Okay, let's notice what's getting in the way and make other people aware of it so that we can participate in solving it. So from that from that standpoint, I think, yeah, it it makes a lot of sense. I wish, you know in Esther's best of all possible worlds, which we can all hope for that, that there was some awareness of that. how valuable it was, it is to be aware of the impediments so that the people who do have positional power can can actually work.

Ryan Ripley  10:25  
Well, and it's interesting, I think that idea of the local is so important. I do think, and I fully agree with you that the higher up we expect a scrum master to have influence, the more burdened they are like this is a really almost an impossible ask. It's, yeah, just go talk to the CEO scrum master and get them to understand what we're doing. It's, I don't think so.

Esther Derby  10:50  
Well, that ignores that there are in every hierarchy, there are status differences. Oh, yeah, you know, and, and people tend to see you in a particular role. And if you try to, like, you know, the scrum master is supposed to work with a team, right, supposed to fix the team. So, so if you go and try to, you know, fix the CEO, he's gonna say, Well, you know, I didn't invite you to give me any feedback, I didn't invite you to be my teacher, but you're breaking, you're breaking role, and you're, you know, asserting a status that is not recognized. So so the idea that SCRUM masters are supposed to teach others in the organization is from the get go, kind of putting them in a different a difficult status. Dynamic, because being a teacher is up status to yourself, and that people don't like to be down status, right. So I think

Ryan Ripley  11:55  
I'm sorry, go ahead. No, go

Esther Derby  11:57  
ahead. No,

Ryan Ripley  11:58  
I was just, there's, there's a lot of posts, and people are generating content around scrum right now about you know, what kind of authority is needed? What kind of activities? Is it even possible to be a scrum master and the origin I, I think you're really putting that that finger on this idea that. And I don't want to put words in your mouth. But this idea that perhaps a Scrum Master isn't an entry level job, and

Esther Derby  12:28  
a true level try? No,

Ryan Ripley  12:31  
and that you almost have to suffer up and down an org chart and through the politics of an organization, and through the difficulties of delivery before you can actually take on this type of role. Is that a is that a fair thing to say?

Esther Derby  12:43  
Well, I think it helps to have some contextual understanding and some organizational savvy. Because I think influence is a huge part of what's involved in that role. You know, that Raven and French, long ago did some research on sources of power in organizations and there's coercion, there's rewards, there's legitimate power, which means positional power, you know, because you're a manager, you have certain power. But there's also referent power, and network power, and expertise power. So Scrum Master may not have coercion, yay, may not have rewards, other than, you know, appreciation and so forth. They probably don't have formal word power. They don't have the positional power, but they do have the ability to develop relationships. Yep, that helps with influence to help people solve problems that helps with people perceiving you, as someone who is, you know, has expertise and and can can solve things can get things done. So I think there are ways that SCRUM masters can develop influence without authority. And in some ways, that sort of power is more likely to gain buy in than coercion, or rewards, or positional power.

Ryan Ripley  14:22  
Oh, it's good to know, I, it's just one of those debates that are raging right now and sharing it it's, and maybe that leads into our next question here. So what advice would you give to someone aspiring to become a scrum master? Particularly, is there a mindset skills habits that you believe are crucial for success in this role?

Esther Derby  14:42  
Curiosity? For sure. So curiosity in terms of rather than looking at a situation and saying, Well, that's not scrum by the book. Look at it and say how did Get this way, what purpose? Is it serving? How can we shape it to be closer to scrum so that we can move forward, right, rather than just saying, well, that's That's wrong. That's not That's not not what The Book says. Because nobody really likes to have someone come come in and tell them they've been doing things wrong. Nobody really likes that. So curiosity, influence, you know, learning, learning how to be influential in an organization when you don't have authority. And, you know, a lot of people think influence is kind of icky. I don't think it has to be. I don't think it has to be at all.

Ryan Ripley  15:46  
I think it's a beautiful thing. I mean, if you, you know, I these days, I tend to take things back to, you know, being a parent, you know, if I don't have influence over my kids life is gonna be really bad. And it's I don't mean, the positional, the coercion, I just mean, do they trust that I have their best interests at heart? Will they listen, if I need them to do something immediately? Will they? Are they willing to bring bad things to my attention? Are they willing to ask really good questions when they don't understand? That's all

Esther Derby  16:15  
influence? Right? Yeah, absolutely. And as as a parent of all your all you're relying on is coercion, you know, rewards and in your position, it's, it's that's kind of a sad thing. It's

Ryan Ripley  16:29  
inviting rebellion. Yeah. Yeah. So no, I totally agree. And fluence is a can be a wonderful thing, or you like anything else in this world, we can corrupt it.

Esther Derby  16:40  
Yeah. Well, I think if you can tell people what you're doing, and they don't run away, then you're probably influencing in a congruent way. But if you are, if you're, you know, if you told people what you were up to, and they said, Oh, get out of get out of here, then then that's when it gets tricky when you're when you're trying to influence someone to do something that's against their own best interests. That's

Ryan Ripley  17:04  
that idea of congruence is, I think, another one, we could probably spend another 20 minutes, at least. So curiosity, I think is a great one. This last question for you, Esther. And I appreciate you're working through these. What is the one book every scrum master should

Esther Derby  17:20  
read? After the scrum guide? Of course,

Ryan Ripley  17:22  
okay. Well, we're asking for a lot. But yeah, yes, please read the scrum guide.

Esther Derby  17:28  
You'd be surprised how many people have not or have not read the read anything about the Agile Manifesto. So I think those are both useful things to be familiar with. And, you know, I think retrospectives are a really important practice, because that's how teams get better by by looking at what they did and talking about it, reflecting on it, figuring out what's going on, and what can we do differently. So I would say read agile retrospectives. Second edition coming out? Sometime first quarter, I'm not we don't have a publication date yet.

Ryan Ripley  18:01  
It is available in beta. So yes, it

Esther Derby  18:03  
is available in beta at the Pragmatic Programmer site. So you can get an early copy. And read seven rules for positive productive change, because it is about changing, changing things when you don't have authority.

Ryan Ripley  18:19  
Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. And I'm glad that that you mentioned your two books, because they, I wish every Scrum Master would read them, it would change the state of retrospectives, which are, you know, as certain, again, more debates have been raging on social media, they're getting diminished down to ridiculous themes and skins. And, you know, let's, let's bring the power of the retro back, which I'm so happy to hear that that second edition is coming out soon. And then the seven rules for change, or it's just as a Scrum Master, you're not going to have positional authority, typically, although maybe you should. That's probably a good topic for the future as well, but you're likely not. And so navigating that world with where you hit where you can influence but not necessarily direct. I can't think of a better resource. So two great books will get links to those in the show notes. Esther, anything else you'd like to get in front of the audience before we wrap this one up? Um,

Esther Derby  19:22  
well, I have a podcast called change by attraction, which goes into a little more depth about some of the ideas in the book, several rules for change. And yeah, and watch Ryan stuff. He's always got good stuff.

Ryan Ripley  19:39  
All right. I paid her to say that. So that's very nice. So Esther, I appreciate you doing this. And we will certainly try to follow up for other conversations in the future. I

Esther Derby  19:51  
would I would love that.


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