One of the biggest hurdles for teams adopting Scrum as an agile or hybrid framework is getting used to the role of a Scrum Master. That’s especially true for those coming from waterfall paradigms, who tend to think of Scrum Masters as less directive project managers. And while there is a tiny speck of truth to that comparison, it does a huge disservice for the Scrum Master.
Being a great project manager is no guarantee that the person has the skills required to be a good Scrum Master and vice-versa. A project manager is a leader first and foremost – great at understanding the big picture and organizing their team based on the strengths of each member.
The Scrum Master, on the other hand, is a facilitator for the team and the product owner. Think of it like this: if a project is a road full of debris, the Scrum Master is the person with a shovel that clears the path so that the road can be traversed as quickly and efficiently as possible. So what skills should a person develop to be a great Scrum Master and carry out that task?
“I lead because I serve, and I serve because I lead”
While it may seem paradoxical, the notion of leadership has historically been tied to servitude. Plato thought of the philosopher-king as a servant to the city, the medieval concept of noblesse oblige entails the notion that nobility has a responsibility to serve, including protecting their followers, and even in a democracy we call those who hold office public servants.
If a leader is someone who aligns a team towards a goal, then the servant-leader achieves this not with organization and directives, but with assistance and support. A good scrum master understands that a developer is at their best when they don’t have to deal with obstacles or interruptions, so they lead by providing the best environment for their team.
A servant-leader focuses on the growth of their team, finding areas where others can improve, and providing the tools to help them achieve their maximum potential. A good Scrum Master learns to offer and provide help, they make an effort to understand how others are feeling and how to best support their team.
“People are at their best when they feel the confidence to share their inner world”
What does it mean to be a good listener? First, it means that you actively pay attention and understand what the other person is saying, as well as where they are coming from, even if you disagree. Second, it means that you empathize with the person in front of you so they feel heard and supported. And third, it means that you can make meaningful questions or give meaningful feedback.
A good Scrum Master knows that listening to their team is key to helping them achieve their potential. Daily scrums are a great source of information but they are not the only ones, a Scrum Master must pay constant attention to what’s happening with their team during development, what they talk about, and what they say on-site, during meetings, or even when sharing memes of their Slack group.
The more you listen to others, the more they trust you and open up to you. A Scrum Master will naturally perform better when others trust them, so that’s why listening is such an important trait for them.
“Be a mirror that projects the best versions of those you reflect”
Every project is an opportunity to improve ourselves. New challenges offer new experiences that help us learn and grow. Unfortunately, we are often consumed by deadlines, bugs, crunch, and other responsibilities that leave us little to no time to reflect on our own process.
The Scrum Master should learn how to identify areas of potential development for team members, as well as helping them realize that it’s an opportunity for self-actualization. A coach does not necessarily teach, but they always help others reframe a situation in such a way that they can learn something from that experience.
Coaching also involves helping team members process their emotions. Sometimes we can be overburdened by fear or anxiety, and we can always use the help of a supportive person to calm those emotions or to repurpose them for our own benefit.
“Groups are at their best when they share the best information”
Every person who has ever been a part of a workgroup knows full well that a team is only as effective as it’s communication, a Scrum Master has the responsibility to make sure that information channels are as clean as possible.
Being assertive goes a long way to achieve that goal. First, because the Scrum Master can teach others by example, helping team members appropriately share information between them. And second, because they often serve as the bridge between the development team and the project owner. As such, they have to relay information between both groups as assertively as possible.
“Groups are at their best when they overcome inner tensions”
Nothing will kill off a team’s momentum as quickly as a mishandled conflict. Be it due to miscommunication or because tempers ran hot, having a heavy emotional atmosphere will directly affect the team and their project.
Good Scrum Masters know that misunderstandings and conflicts are inherent to workgroups. Thus, they need to have the tools to help others process their emotions, reach agreements, and forgive others when the situations demand it.
This obviously goes hand in hand with the other skills we have discussed so far, but it also involves being able to understand both sides of the argument, knowing how to remain neutral and how to best help people reframe the conflict in such a way that a positive outcome for all parts can be reached.
“Be the change of paradigm others need”
When we help others with their conflicts, their emotions, or their problems, we often risk the possibility of getting sucked into their frameset and getting stuck like they are. A good Scrum Master is an expert at reframing a problem.
Reframing a problem means showing others a new perspective on things. Perhaps they are so focused on a single solution that they haven’t considered another strategy, or since they have already decided that something is a problem they are not seeing how it might be an opportunity.
The Scrum Master knows what their team is capable of (at times even better than the team itself), so for them, the challenge is to help others redefine a problem in such a way that it can be solved with the skills they excel at.
Scrum Master isn’t just another trendy word for a manager, the skillset underlying the role is completely different. In many ways, the role requires a more direct down to earth approach, as well as a closer connection with the development team, a good Scrum Master is equal times developer, coach, and psychologist, a facilitator of human processes as well as a leader.