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What does a Scrum Master Actually Do
Jacqueline Metrowich
Senior Scrum Master, DVT

What does a Scrum Master Actually Do

Friday, 01 April 2022 10:09

This question has cropped up several times in my career as a Scrum Master, Agile Coach and Agile Trainer, and it has inevitably led me to ask what the reason for the role is? Why is there a need for a Scrum Master role in the first place? And why can't teams just do Scrum?

I will share these findings and thoughts in my article.

  • The role of the Scrum Master as per the 2020 Scrum Guide
  • The reason for Scrum Masters
  • A team without a Scrum Master
  • Nature, science, and systems
The role of the Scrum Master as per the 2020 Scrum Guidei
"The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum,” as defined in the Scrum Guide. “They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization."

Not only does the Scrum Master provide training on the theory behind Scrum (empirical process theory, Deming Cycle, Flow), but they also coach the team, and the organisation itself, on the reasons for doing Scrum. The Scrum Master has a similar role to a sports coach, as they cover the "rules" of the game and provide feedback and coaching during the game. Over time and with practice, team members will become masters at Scrum too, and some may even transition to become a Scrum Master.

"The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework."

The Scrum Master provides ongoing coaching to reap the benefits of Scrum and for the team to be successful, i.e., continuously improving and "win games". The Scrum Master must also keep up to date with developments in the Agileii and Scrum community and research practices that the team could use to enhance performance.

"Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization."

Scrum Master Coaching & Self-Management

Over time the team should be able to self-manage and cross-function without the Scrum Master's lead. However, this will depend on the team members' backgrounds and the organisation's overall culture. When there are team member changes, the team's dynamics and level of maturity can be affected. Every time a new team member joins the team, the Scrum Master must train, coach and integrate the new person into the team.

Scrum Master Quality Control

The Scrum Master helps the team focus on goals and deliver quality solutions. Initially, the Scrum Master's role is to help the team define product and performance goals and practices that ensure quality. Quality in this instance means delivering solutions that are fit for purpose, satisfy customers, are error-free and easy to maintain. In an ongoing role, the Scrum Master provides the team with an objective mirror to assess how they are doing and where they can improve quality.

Scrum Master Responsilities

The Scrum Master removes obstacles that the team has to overcome, either by coaching the team members to remove them themselves or by actively removing the barriers that are outside the team’s control or influence. Removing impediments is an ongoing responsibility for the Scrum Master.

Facilitating Scrum Events

The Scrum Master must facilitate effective Scrum events and workshops for the team and the organisation. These events must be productive, positive, and collaborative and require careful preparation. The end goal is that other team members become confident enough to assume this responsibility.

Scrum Master Techniques

The Scrum Master has expertise on techniques that will boost the team’s performance and value creation. These are new ways of doing the work that help the team to be more effective.

Scrum Master Decision Making

In Scrum, the Scrum Master guides and facilitates decisions made by the team, whereas in contrast, a sports coach would make all the decisions regarding line-up and strategy for the team.

The Reason for Scrum Masters

The Scrum Master facilitates the process within a project. The word facilitator originates from the word facile, which means to make something easy. The Scrum Master takes care of the process, making it easier for the team to focus on getting their work done thoroughly.

The role of the facilitator includes being objective and neutral in problem solving and conflict negotiation; and they also ensure that collaboration takes place.

Like a sport coach, the Scrum Master is invested in the team’s performance, therefore they:

  • create an environment for safe practice.
  • give team performance feedback.
  • co-create a programme for performance improvement.
  • motivate the team with goals to achieve.
  • facilitate continuous improvement.
  • continuously explore new research on enhancing team performance.

Just as a sports team coach is not a player on the field, a Scrum Master should not be a developer in the team. By not being involved in the development work of the team, the Scrum Master can:

  • provide input and an objective perspective to help the team make decisions; or
  • make decisions when the team is unable to do so.
  • see the team as an entity and not favour one individual over another.
The Role of the Scrum Master.

Would you expect a high performing sports team not to have a coach? I expect your answer would be “no”. Likewise, a team without a Scrum Master will not reach high performance on the team development continuum.iii

Scrum Master is a role and not a title, therefore anyone in the team could take on the role, but they may not be able to do it well if they focus on development work and carry the responsibilities of a Scrum Master.

The 2017 Scrum Guide defines Scrum as “simple to understand; difficult to master”.

If there is no Scrum Master, or a Scrum Master who does not have the time capacity and/or appropriate skills:

  • The business may pressure the team to deliver more features than they can sustainably produce. Too much pressure and little time can result in lower quality and 'firefighting' to address production issues - leaving the business with unachieved goals and no growth.
  • This vicious cycle will continue, as the team does not have time to stop their work and reflect to find ways to improve their processes and performance.
  • The customers and stakeholders will be disappointed as the team will not meet their needs.
  • Team members will become unmotivated and resign; the organisation incurs the cost of recruiting, upskilling and integrating someone new.

A good Scrum Master will be able to change the ‘vicious cycle’ of an underperforming team over time. It requires a complete mindset shift and, neuroscience tells us that changing our brain’s pathways can take anywhere between 6 months to a year – and only by doing a little bit at a time. Facilitating this change takes a lot of effort and focus.

Scrum Master Leadership

On the converse, the benefits of doing Scrum well through the leadership of a good Scrum Master are:

  • The team can deliver what the customers need as quickly as possible, and the organisation thrives.
  • Stakeholders and customers are happy.
  • Team members are happy and don't leave – therefore staff turnover and the associated costs reduce.
The Scrum Master as a Catalyst

In nature and science, the Scrum Master's role easily aligns with a catalyst in chemistry.

In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that causes a chemical reaction to take place more quickly.iv In the same way, a Scrum Master will facilitate a human reaction or process to take place without being consumed in the reaction. Even though the Scrum Master does not add anything tangible to what the team develops, they act as catalysts: helping the team to gel and work smoothly and more efficiently together, by removing friction and making the process and the work easier.

Catalysts may also speed up a chemical reaction by lowering the amount of energy needed to get it started. In industrial processing, they are fundamental in chemical reactions that turn raw materials into products.

Likewise, in the human body, catalysts are essential, and take the form of proteins and enzymes which help digest food or transmit messages to the brain that cause us to move.v

Therefore, it should not be so unexpected or incomprehensible to find catalysts in human systems; and these catalysts – the Scrum Masters – are essential in a quality producing team.

This idea of there being catalysts in teams is discussed in the book by DeMarco, Tom and Lister, Timothy. (1987). Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Catalysts, pgs. 10-11). Dorset House Pub. “The catalyst is important because the project is always in a state of flux. Someone who can help a project jell is worth two people who just do work.”vi

Scrum Master Comparisons

Over the summer holidays our family visited a few national parks. We went on a game drive, and I listened to the ranger and the kind of work they do in the park; I thought about how a Scrum Master role could align with that of a game ranger. I have heard the analogy of a Scrum Master being compared to a shepherd; however, the game ranger role is far broader: The game ranger and the Scrum Master take care of an ecosystem to ensure that the entities within it can thrive. In both cases these entities have a high-level of self-organisation and are complex-adaptive systems which the Scrum Master and game ranger must preserve, protect and support. They must be careful not to interfere with the ecosystem detrimentally. Part of these roles is to research and find new ways for their living systems to be more successful.

I hope that the facts and ideas I have shared will provide a better understanding, and acceptance of how the role of the Scrum Master fits into the organisation and the Scrum team. The analogies and scientific examples should help to explain the value of the role to the next person that asks, “What does a Scrum Master actually do?”.

i Scrum Guide
iii Agile – Agile is an approach to software development that is based on the values and principles of the 2001 Manifesto for Software Development
iii Team Performance Curve – Katzenbach and Smith

Published in Agile
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