Scrum has only three roles: the Product Owner, the Scrum Master, and the Dev Team.
Scrum names three roles because the framework needs all three roles, they are all as important as each other and all are vital to the successful implementation of Scrum.
But of the three key roles the Scrum Master is the least understood and most easily confused.
Is a Scrum Master necessary?, is it full-time?, is it just another name for a Project Manager?, or a team manager? Can we manage without one?
These are just a few of the questions posted endlessly in forums and asked in organisations newly adopting Scrum. [Spoiler – the answers are that if you are doing Scrum right then: Yes, Yes, No, No, No.] As for the mandatory “but we ignored x, y, and z and Scrum worked for us” follow-up comment – I’d say something may have worked for you but it wasn’t Scrum, and unless you can describe what you did in a framework that can be clearly described and reproduced successfully in a variety of situations then your justification for not following rules doesn’t help anyone else. Which brings us neatly back to the need for a Scrum Master to help adopt Scrum correctly. Once Scrum is established, the teams are performing well and have confidence in the Scrum framework then the burden on the ScrumMaster diminishes, but in the early days don’t underestimate the effort required to build a Scrum team, especially in an organisation new to agile.
Let’s start with some of the things they are not: They are not the manager of the team; they are not a project manager; they have no authority; they are not an all knowing Jedi master; they are not senior to the dev team or senior to the Product Owner, and they are not the Stig.
The goal of a Scrum Master is to help the team improve.
That’s all, they have no responsibility for delivery of a project, or the quality of code, or testing or reporting, or enforcing good practices, they have no line management responsibility. Their one and only responsibility is to help the team get better.
This can be achieved by teaching, coaching, facilitating, and removing impediments.
It is about influence not authority.
To be a great Scrum Master you need to be the sort of person who gets as much satisfaction from enabling a team to achieve, as you do achieving something on your own – and be content not getting any credit for it, because you won’t. You must also be willing and happy to surrender control to the Product Owner and the team. The ScrumMaster title is a reflection of responsibility not rank. It will quite often be necessary to sit back and watch a team make a mistake, because they will learn far more from that mistake than from you stepping in and forcing them to do it your way.
A Scrum Master is an advisor not an instructor.
A good Scrum Master is a coach, ideally they have a good understanding of good practices, hopefully from practical experience. A Scrum Master that “has been there and done that” is a huge bonus as they can bring experience as well as theoretical advice. The caveat being that they give advice – not impose their own way of doing things.
It may be the SMs role to coach a team on XP skills; or automated testing; or on public speaking; or negotiation skills; or help with story writing; whatever the team needs to improve. It also involves teaching the team Scrum practices and helping them identify where they can improve. The ScrumMaster will likely coach the team and the Product Owner and hopefully broaden this scope to other parts of the organisation over time.
But this is all done without authority, the SM has no authority over the team or the PO, the SM cannot make the team follow Scrum processes, but should help the team understand why the processes should be followed so the team can then choose to follow them.
A ScrumMaster may encourage adherence to rules the team has committed to follow, but cannot impose rules on the team. A Scrum Master should never tell someone to do (or not to do) something, more often you will hear them say “have you considered doing x” or “have you considered the implications of not doing y”. The SM is not responsible for rules being followed.
The ScrumMaster as a coach
A Coach is probably the best analogy for what a Scrum Master does. If you compare them to what a sports coach does for their team. They encourage; they watch and they advise; they guide; they protect from distractions; they can be constructively critical; they identify ways to strengthen the team in skills or teamwork; they push the team to perform to their best; they strive to improve. They also coach the team to manage resources to ensure the right people are assigned to the right tasks on the team – you likely wouldn’t put your star striker in goal, for example, but you may encourage a back-up to be used sometimes to avoid critical dependency issues later.
A Sports coach is usually someone who has a deep understanding, and appreciation for the sport and wants to share this with the team, sometimes they are previous players, sometimes just armchair experts.
How Many teams can a Scrum Master work with?
*An adequate ScrumMaster can handle two or three teams at a time. If you’re content to limit your role to organizing meetings, enforcing timeboxes, and responding to the impediments people explicitly report, you can get by with part time attention to this role. The team will probably still exceed the baseline, pre-Scrum expectation at your organization, and probably nothing catastrophic will happen.
But if you can envision a team that has a great time accomplishing things no one previously thought possible, within a transformed organization, consider being a great ScrumMaster.
A great ScrumMaster can handle one team at a time.
We recommend one dedicated ScrumMaster per team of about seven, especially when starting out.
*(Taken from Mike James ScrumMaster Checklist)
The ScrumMaster is a Scrum Expert
To be a good ScrumMaster you need to be an expert on Scrum, you need to know the framework, but that is not enough. You also need to understand it and to have applied it, Scrum is as much about application as it is about knowledge. To coach it effectively you need to believe in it and be interested in it beyond just training, it is on-going learning, developing new skills and ideas, and discussing it with others, a ScrumMaster should be a Scrum enthusiast.
The ScrumMaster as a radiator
A Scrum Master is also responsible for encouraging the team to be transparent, for radiating information to the wider community, this might be task boards, training, printed roadmaps, burndown, velocity charts, a variety of graphs, even a publicly displayed backlog. Scrum is about transparency and sharing information both good and bad is crucial.
The ScrumMaster as an evangelist
A ScrumMaster is also responsible for spreading the understanding of Scrum to the wider community, for helping the organisation understand the need for continual delivery, and how and why Scrum Teams work the way they do, helping the organisation interact with the Team, and understanding why they can’t interrupt them or why they can’t change direction or add work mid sprint.
Top tips for being a ScrumMaster
Independence – To be successful you need credibility and respect, that is far easier if the team doesn’t know you. You start from a clean slate. If you move from being a dev to being a SM on the same team you take with you a lot of past preconceptions you of them and them of you.
Objectivity – Get involved enough in a project to understand it and to advise, but not so much you are taking charge, your role is to coach not lead, if you feel yourself leading step-back. A lot has been said about having no authority but you do have a lot of influence, try to use it to influence the team to get better not to influence the product.
Take it slow – Improvement comes slowly, try not to change too much too soon, create an environment where improvement is encouraged, and change things one at a time. Not all changes are positive, and not all changes have an immediate impact, but don’t stop trying to improve.
Teamwork – encourage teamwork above all else, a team that works well together will make everything else easier.
Keep quiet – If you are talking then others are not. The Scrum Master should be encouraging the team to discuss and resolve problems not solving them for the team. Before you speak think twice, take a breath and guide don’t direct.
Scrum is fairly easy to understand but is extremely difficult to master, and being a ScrumMaster in my opinion is a very tough ‘easy job’. The expectations are high, the responsibilities unclear, and the rewards are indirect, and because the goal is improvement the job is never done. At times it may appear to look easy, but I can assure you that when it looks easy it has probably taken a lot of effort to get to that point.