What makes a good Scrum Master?

The Scrum Master job is proving to be quite an enigma, management seems to struggle to see the value, there are numerous myths about how a Scrum Masters goal is to make themselves redundant which further fuels the confusion of management as to whether they are even needed, others have a view that a Scrum Master role is part time, and a Scrum Master can effectively cover 2 or 3 teams, I even saw an advert recently for a Scrum Master to have 5 teams!

There are endless discussions on Scrum forums about a split SM role a mix of Dev/SM or tester/SM or even Product Owner/SM and each time I wonder if they don’t understand the purpose or the value or have simply had some really awful SMs and just see the role as a glorified meeting chair and someone to do the admin. A good Scrum Master can have a huge impact on a team.

Then the flip side of that is that the job description makes a Scrum Master seem relatively straightforward, but anecdotally in the company I am currently working with there are 7 scrum teams and in the last year they have had 10 people attempt the role, mostly they were just covering one team. The attempts have been a Dev/SM, a tester/SM, a former PM, a Product Owner/SM, a former Dev and a dedicated SM covering 2 teams.  Generally speaking the attempts have been unsuccessful, and never as a result of a lack of Scrum knowledge, or the ability of doing their previous role, those selected were generally senior and very capable, but clearly that alone is not sufficient.

Some struggled to balance a split role, some underestimated what the role of SM involved some were too soft, some were too hard some felt that they could not effectively perform a split role and wanted to revert to their former role, others were simply not a good fit.
It seems an odd thing to say but in my opinion the job of Scrum Master is as much about personality as it is about skill set.

So what makes a good Scrum Master?  My summary would be two ears and a very hard nose. Most of the time is spent listening, being an advisor, scanning for problems, counselling and coaching, offering guidance when asked. Is essence making use of your ears.  But less frequently you need to stick your nose in – even when not invited, and you may get resistance. You may need to challenge senior management, or actions in the team, you may need to intervene in conflicts or resolve difficult impediments, you may need to resolve disputes, and you may need to challenge the team. Hence the hard nose, you have no authority so this is often simply only backed by your personal gravitas, your confidence and the credibility you hold in the team and the organisation.

But even then there is so much more to the job which may explain why it is such a difficult role to do well and may explain why the number of job adverts for Scrum Masters has rocketed in the last few years.

Gravitas, confidence and credibility (and trust)
To be effective you need to be able to communicate with senior management as one of their peers, you need to have the confidence to challenge their decisions and offer advice and guidance for this you need credibility.

On the flip side though, you need to work closely with a team. To be effective they need to see you as one of them, they need to trust you, to be open and honest with you. They need confidence that you will act in THEIR interests and that you are there for them.
They too also need to respect you, if you are giving them advice they need to believe you know what you are talking about and for this a sense that you have been there before and got the t-shirt really helps.

Objectivity
I work with a fantastic Product Owner, he is very well respected by everyone and prior to my joining he did a split PO/SM role. He will be the first to tell you this is a bad combo, but he managed it remarkably well, but had the good sense, the confidence and the credibility to know when to ask for help. (As an aside I think a willingness to ask for help and knowing when to ask is a strong skill that far too many people lack or see as weakness).
He and I see the roles of PO and SM as a partnership, we work very closely together, but that is not to say we don’t challenge each other regularly.

He considers the most significant attributes I bring to the table are independence and objectivity and I am inclined to agree. By being slightly removed from the team and the project, not having responsibilities, or deliverables and not being personally invested in the code or the design I can bring an independence in my advice, my suggestions are not encumbered with an agenda or a vested interest, just a desire to improve the team and do the job better. This may be one explanation why the SMs plucked from the team have struggled.

A final problem that a Scrum Master faces is that there is no measure of success. A successful project is down to the Product owner, he takes the responsibility, shared with the team.  Problems in a team reflect badly on the Scrum Master, but when a team is doing well the reverse is not true, the credit – quite rightly goes to the team. 

Think of a sports star and his coach, if a sports star does well he is showered in praise, if he performs badly he fires his coach.  The team is the talent, the coach is responsible for enabling them to perform at their best. The reward is seeing the team do well.

My final comment is to address the myth that a Scrum Master should be striving to make themselves redundant. Again I’ll compare to a sports team, if you pick the best team in any sport, they have reached the pinnacle of their profession – top of the league, winners of a cup. Do they then declare they no longer need a coach? I doubt it, even the best sportsmen and sportswomen at their peak have room to improve and it would take shocking arrogance to believe there is nothing more that can be improved or learned in any profession and in particular a team context. 

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