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Six Attributes of a Good ScrumMaster

5 February 2007

Mike Cohn
Mountain Goat Software

In my last column I asserted that in an ideal world a team would select its own ScrumMaster, but that it isn’t always practical. I promised that my next column would discuss what to look for in a potential ScrumMaster, whether the selection is being made by the team itself or by someone outside the team. In this week’s column, I present six attributes that your next ScrumMaster should demonstrate.


In most organizations, when someone is given responsibility they are concurrently given the authority necessary for success. ScrumMasters are in a different situation. While a ScrumMaster does not assume responsibility for the success of the project—that remains with the team—a ScrumMaster does assume responsibility for the team’s adoption of Scrum and practice of it. A ScrumMaster takes on this responsibility without assuming any of the power that might be useful in achieving in it.

A ScrumMaster’s role is similar to that of an orchestra conductor. Both must provide real-time guidance and leadership to a talented collection of individuals who come together to create something that no one of them could create alone. Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart has said of his role, “People assume that when you become a conductor you’re into some sort of a Napoleonic thing—that you want to stand on that big box and wield your power. I’m not a power junkie, I’m a responsibility junkie.” In an identical manner, a good ScrumMaster thrives on responsibility—that special type of responsibility that comes without power.


A good ScrumMaster is not in it for ego. A good ScrumMaster will take pride (often immense pride) in her achievements but the feeling will be “Look what I helped accomplish” rather than the more self-centered “Look what I accomplished.” A humble ScrumMaster is one who realizes the job does not come with a company car or parking spot near the building entrance. Rather than putting his own needs first, a humble ScrumMaster is willing to do whatever is necessary to help the team achieve its goal. Humble ScrumMasters recognize the value in all team members and by example lead others to the same opinion.


A good ScrumMaster will work to ensure a collaborative culture exists within the team. The ScrumMaster needs to make sure team members feel able to raise issues for open discussion and that they feel supported in doing so. The ScrumMaster should help create a collaborative atmosphere for the team through his words and actions. However, beyond modeling a collaborative attitude, a good ScrumMaster will establish collaboration as the team norm and will call out inappropriate behavior (if not already done by other team members).


While the ScrumMaster role does not always require a full-time, eight-hour-a-day commitment, it does require someone in the role who is fully committed to it. The ScrumMaster must feel the same high level of commitment to the project and the goals of the current sprint as do team members.

A ScrumMaster should not end very many days with impediments raised by the team that are left unaddressed. A team’s impediment list cannot be swept clean by the end of every day because some impediments take time to remove. For example, convincing a manager to dedicate a full-time resource to the team may take a series of discussions with some time between them.

While the ScrumMaster may not be a full-time job, the ScrumMaster should plan on being the ScrumMaster for the full duration of the project. It is very disruptive for a team to change ScrumMasters in midstream.


To be successful a ScrumMaster will need to influence others both on the team and outside it. Initially, team members may need to be influenced to give Scrum a fair trial or to behave more collaboratively; later a ScrumMaster may influence a team to try new technical practices such as Test-Driven Development or pair programming. A ScrumMaster should know how to exert influence without resorting to a command-and-control “because I say so” style.

Most ScrumMasters will also be called upon to influence those outside the team. A traditional team may need to be convinced to provide a partial implementation to the Scrum team, a QA director may need to be influenced to dedicate full-time testers to the project, or a vice president may need to be convinced to try Scrum at all.

While all ScrumMasters should know how to use their personal influence, the ideal ScrumMaster will come with a degree of corporate political skill. Corporate politics is often used pejoratively; however, a ScrumMaster who knows how decisions are made in the organization, who makes them, which coalitions exist, and so on can be an asset to a team


The best ScrumMasters have the technical, market, or specific knowledge to help the team in pursuit of its goal. LaFasto and Larson have studied successful teams and their leaders and have concluded that “an intimate and detailed knowledge of how something works increases the chance of the leader helping the team surface the more subtle technical issues that must be addressed.”

Lockhart, K. 2006. Responsibility Junkie. Harvard Business Review (October): 30.

LaFasto, F., and C. Larson. 2001. When Teams Work Best. Sage Publications.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Anonymous, 2/13/2007 11:35:31 AM
I think the role of the ScrumMaster is organizationally conditional. Our organization is very large - more than 7,000 in the IT department and navigating any institution that size is difficult for even experienced people. Our ScrumMasters have to be able to be part of the team and that brings to light an interesting question - is the ScrumMaster truly part of the team if she or he isn't actually doing other work with the team other than the SM? We think he or she is a part of the team. That means that he or she shares in the successes and the failures of the team. The nuances between organizations requires that consideration be given to exactly what the ScrumMaster's role is to the team (and this is defined by Scrum) and within the organization (defined by the organization.) In our organization, the ScrumMaster still wears the project management hat, so his/her responsibilities transcend that of simply a ScrumMaster. I would guess that is the case in other, especially larger, organizations. ScrumMasters in our company are driving cultural change, too, so there are other characteristics that an organization might be looking for in addition to those cited by Mike. Certainly, one very important competency is the ability to effectively lead self-directed teams; these teams are boss-less, but they should not be leaderless.

Tom Mellor
Anonymous, 2/13/2007 11:35:56 AM
I agree with all the above points. In many places adopting Scrum is a radical
departure from the usual way of executing projects. In my expereience, I think a ScrumMaster also
has to understand the idea of emperical process control, to the point that he/she can resist
all sort of change requests coming from the client/PO/senior management within a Sprint,
without panicking. He/She should be calm, and project confidence that in the end a high
quality product will result. Particularly be able to provide an environment of stability
to the team.
so I root for adding "Calm" to the above points.
After all Scrum is also intended to bring calm inside of the giant change machine.
Anonymous, 3/19/2007 12:23:56 PM
I agree and think this also points to one of the weak spots of Scrum. Finding Scrum Masters with such human, social and political skills (next to technical, market, or specific knowledge) is not easy. As far as I can tell the Scrum Master certification training focuses too much on process and technology and leaves the new born Scrum Masters in the cold when it comes to human interaction.
Mike Lowery, CSM,CSPO, 6/13/2007 3:45:50 AM
All of Mikes points above help master the role of Scrum Master and someone who does all of this will be an asset to their organisation. However i think there are a coulple of other attributes a Scrum Master needs.
Strength - strength of will is needed to do all of the above actions especially when the organisation does not fully support your delivery methods. Strength of character / integrity is needed to ensure that you don't buckle under the pressure of the "angry VP".

Thick skin - I believe that if a Scrum Master is doing well you could ask any team member "do you have any negative iterference from the rest of the business" and the answer should be "No". What they don't see and don't need to know (back to being humble) is the battering the Scrum Master takes on their behalf to ensure that they get the sort of environment dev they need.

On one project i worked on another Scrum Master (though they did't not deserve the word) tried to get the team i worked in to do extra work for him every day. I glared, shouted at or moved him away so that he did not bother the dev team, his next step was to wait until i went home and speak to them then. Once the team pointed this out i took further and less punative steps to ensure he never did this again.
Jay Conne, CSM, 7/2/2007 1:22:58 PM
Mike & Mike,

I find it interesting to contrast the humility attribute and the strength attribute. Mike Cohn states well the balance of healthy pride and a team success focus. I would even add the business success focus - and further, the businesses client's success focus. Like looking many cars ahead as a good driver, optimizing the whole value chain is what made Toyota so successful. Strength is often taken as the opposite of humility. Mike Lowrey describes it as strength of character. I take as having the integrity to fight for what you value, even in spite of strong opposition and lapses of character by others. These are fully compatible and good for us to dwell on. Jeff Sutherland in our Deep Agile seminar in Boston spoke of telling clients that they could not succeed with their illogical assumptions and leaving until they could address their fundamental contradictions. That requires courage and clear thinking.
Andy Murthar, CSM, 8/1/2007 9:26:42 AM
I agree with Mike Cohn on all the attributes. In particular with regards to 'Knowledgeable'. I am a Scrummaster without any formal programmer\developer skills and at times i struggle to understand the complexity of project task or I am unable to assist in finding technical solutions. This can be both frustrating for myself and also undermine my position within the team envirioment. However, this means I have to focus more on the other attributes mentioned which carry their own benefits. Also, it is unfortunate for 'anonymous 17 mar 07' , I found the technical part easy to understand and the need for 'human' qualities was discussed in my course with jens ostergaard and jeff sutherland.
Rahul Sawhney, CSP,CSM, 8/8/2007 3:55:10 AM
Need for human qualities can not be understressed for the role of ScrumMaster.
But is this really true:
"While a ScrumMaster does not assume responsibility for the success of the projectΓÇöthat remains with the teamΓÇöa ScrumMaster does assume responsibility for the teamΓÇÖs adoption of Scrum and practice of it." Aren't scrum masters held responsible by most companies for success or failure of their projects? Isn't that the reason why a ScrumMaster should be "thick skin" as mentioned by Mike W Lowery? Or, is there a contradiction somewhere?
Mike Cohn, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 8/8/2007 4:36:30 PM
Since a ScrumMaster is a part of the team, he or she is held accountable for the success of the project but only to the extent that every team member is. The ScrumMaster should not be singled out for any special recognition or blame in the event of success or failure.
Mike Lowery, CSM,CSPO, 9/7/2007 7:01:30 AM
I mentioned having a thick skin in the context of all the additional requests for work outside of a sprint the team would get or relations with business senior management ("what the hell is a product burndown". Not in the your late take the blame Scrum Master, context. Invariably / sadly the rest of the business see the scrum master as point of contact / focus for a teams activities. This is just another aspect of Agile adoption that needs to be addressed.
Johan Platteau, CSM, 11/19/2007 4:26:56 PM
I agree on these attributes, a scrum master is a facilitator and thus should be privileged with tremendous skills I especially like the humble attribute, not for the least because it makes a more conventional project manager think about its role (heck why can't I lead the steerco ;-))
Glen Wang, CSM, 3/6/2013 9:29:35 PM
I like this sentense -
IΓÇÖm not a power junkie, IΓÇÖm a responsibility junkie.

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