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Getting RE-TRAINED To Be A ScrumMaster


11 January 2011

Geoff Watts
Inspect & Adapt

There are only three roles in Scrum. This is often the first thing that people have difficulty with. There is no project manager in Scrum, there is no distinction between different members of a development team – they are just called team members.
The Product Owner is responsible for representing the needs of the stakeholders of the project to ensure that what gets delivered is valuable. She owns the budget for the project, determines the requirements and their importance and is judged on the return on investments (ROI) of the project.
The development team are responsible for turning the Product Backlog into potentially deployable increments of product on a sprint by sprint basis. They are a self-organising, cross-functional team who are responsible for committing to as much work as they feel they can do in a sprint and then are given the authority to do whatever they need to do to achieve the goal of that sprint.
Then there is the ScrumMaster. A term that has been so misunderstood, sometimes deliberately, as to cause confusion. The name itself leads people to incorrect assumptions due to the inclusion of the word ‘Master’. I have had people turn up to my classes believing this person is effectively the secretary of the development team or the “agile project manager”. This person is not in charge, she is not the expert, or the arbiter, or the go-between. She is not the manager of the team and certainly not the project manager under a new title.
I like to think of the word Master in a similar way to “master of ceremonies”. An effective MC has good communication skills, is calm, ensures the event runs smoothly, that protocol is followed and that the real stars are able to do what they need to do. An effective MC is adaptable such that if there are problems then they can help work past them.
The ScrumMaster has four main responsibilities:
  • Facilitation of the individuals and interactions
  • Agent of change within the organisation
  • Impediment remover
  • Remover of distance between business and development
The role of the ScrumMaster is a difficult one for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that they have no authority; in fact the team can fire them. A ScrumMaster will need to encourage, motivate, challenge, mediate, question, listen and sense in equal measure with the dual aims of making the rest of the Scrum team as effective as they can be and changing the organisation to be more accommodating of Scrum.
I find a lot of my time as a ScrumMaster was spent asking questions of the team and the situation in front of me, almost like I am talking to myself out loud sometimes.
Ultimately I am unimportant in this process because I am neither paying for, nor receiving, the product nor am I invested in producing it. I see my role therefore as helping those who are directly involved come to the conclusions they need to move forward. Sometimes this is easy and the team know the answer but just need to be asked a few simple questions to realise this. Sometimes it really is a complex situation where nobody knows what the answer is and the best we can do is to explore possibilities before deciding on the best answer we can find at that time. Sometimes it is necessary to let a team fail in order for them to find a better way forward. Personally I have found techniques taken from the field of coaching – reflection, questioning, drawing out goals and feedback rather than imposing – to be extremely useful in my attempts at playing the role of ScrumMaster.
So who makes a good ScrumMaster?
I was asked an interesting question a while ago by someone in one of my training classes: “How would you measure if the ScrumMaster is doing a good job?”. I liked the question and first asked the class, what skills would they be looking for when trying to identify someone to fulfil the responsibilities of the ScrumMaster with no authority. We came up with the following:
  • Empathy
The ability to identify with the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of other people. To understand “where they are coming from”
  • Listener
A ScrumMaster will spend a lot of his time listening to people…really listening, so they can play things back to the team in order for them to make decisions or consolidate. They will also be spending a lot of time and energy listening to what is not being said as well
  • Networking
In order to get impediments to progress removed and push organisational change, a ScrumMaster will need to know how things get done in the organisation and who to speak to.
  • Respect
Anybody who wants to help ensure rules are upheld in an environment where they have no authority needs to have the respect of the team. Also, in order to facilitate relationships and interactions, and almost inevitably conflicts, this person needs to be respected by the team.
  • Determined
Change takes time; cultural change takes a long time. A ScrumMaster will need to be very resilient to see through this change, even within the team in which they are working.
  • Integrity
The rules of Scrum are simple but some of them will be very difficult to follow through with in the heat of battle during a project. The pressure on a ScrumMaster to bend the rules or let this one slide is immense but they are the guardian of the process. Those rules are there for a reason.
  • Tactful
Almost on a daily basis a ScrumMaster will need to help resolve conflicts or remove impediments, even challenge people to help the team move forward. The most effective ScrumMasters that I have seen have been very diplomatic in these endeavours to tackle sensitive subjects with tact.
  • Argumentative
A good ScrumMaster should not accept everything at face value. They should not just accept “the way things work around here” or be comfortable with our working habits; they should be constantly challenging them. I remember my old boss Denis saying to me once that he knew I was doing a good job because I was being a pain in the backside (he used stronger words than that) but I was doing it in a way that wasn’t endangering my job.
  • Enabler
I would say that a manager knows and directs, while a leader asks and guides. There are people who have a naturally supportive, enabling style and those who have a naturally directing style. Neither is wrong but, in my experience, people who find enabling others to be a natural and enjoyable activity take to being a ScrumMaster much better and quicker
  • Resourceful
The impediments that teams come up with will be many and varied. To get them removed quickly will involve ingenuity on many occasions. I really like the phrase “it is easier to get forgiveness than permission” when it comes to being a ScrumMaster and encourage ScrumMasters (and Scrum teams) that if they have thought about a problem and have identified a solution, that they go for it rather than ask permission.
Human beings seem incapable of coming up with a list these days without turning it into an acronym and so, we took this list of words and came up with the following acronym to help them remember:
Empathetic listener
This turned out to be quite an appropriate acronym actually because most of the people who I have seen take on the role of ScrumMaster have had to be, to some degree or other re-trained into this new role.
Ken Schwaber and others describe the ScrumMaster as a type of servant-leader to the team; a shepherd watching over and guiding the flock. I have heard the phrase “a manager has subordinates; a leader has followers” and when we eventually worked through the question of “How would you measure if the ScrumMaster is doing a good job?” we came to the conclusion that you know if a leader is doing a bad job because people stop following you.

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.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (1 ratings)


Radu Davidescu, CSM, 1/11/2011 9:28:52 AM
interesting acronym and good values found for a good SM.

but also interesting is that in your vision PM is a woman. "She owns the budget for the project, determines the requirements" ....
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 1/11/2011 10:03:34 AM
Hi Radu

Thank you very much for your comments. I often mix up the pronouns to try and break up the default/stereotype of roles being filled by men. Of course, many people in my articles actually are women as well.

Thanks for reading

Krystian Kaczor, CSP,CSM, 1/11/2011 10:49:33 AM
Hi Geoff, nice acronym and catchy article title. I was taken here by link in my RSS reader :) This articles clarifies quite a few common wrong assumptions.
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 1/11/2011 11:58:05 AM
Hi Krystian. I am glad it caught your attention. Thanks for reading
Suneesh Nazar, CSM, 1/12/2011 9:09:08 AM
Hi Geoff,
Informative article and a nice acronym. I am going to make a chart from this and going to evaluate my role as a scrum master. This chart is going to be visible in the team room. Can I have your advice on this?
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 1/12/2011 10:03:36 AM
Hi Suneesh

Thanks for reading and commenting. This could very well be a way for you, as a ScrumMaster, to evaluate yourself for further development. It could also be a useful tool for you to solicit feedback from others around. If you are opening yourself up to the others in the team about your own expectations of yourself that is a great message to be sending and a great way of engaging the team.

Can you imagine any potential risks with this approach?

James Patrick Floyd, CSM, 2/1/2011 9:47:28 AM
Hi Geoff, appreciate the valuable insights and very appropriate acronym in this article. As I contemplated using this as a helpful reminder, I was concerned about one trait: Argumentative. I think I understand, and agree with, your context for using it but the word carries such negative connotations: "inclined to disagree or dispute,contentious". I suggest an alternative for your consideration: Assertive - "characterized by confident and bold statements and behaviours, positive and confident in a persistent way". As a ScrumMaster, I hope that I am perceived as bold and confident, without being contentious, in my coaching/mentoring/promoting of Scrum.
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 2/2/2011 5:31:45 AM
Hi James

Thanks for reading and for your suggestion. I like the idea of assertive for the "a" so I will test that with some of my classes or teams and see what they think.

Karen Spencer, CSM, 2/21/2011 10:35:49 AM
Nice article. I noticed you didn't emphasize technical expertise. Personally, I do not think an engineering degree is required, or even desirable, for the SM role. There would be too much temptation to become a directive manager if the SM was expert in the technology. However, many organizations seem to feel that the SM should have an engineering background, too. What's your opinion?
Geoff Watts, CST,CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 2/21/2011 3:52:54 PM
Hi Karen

Thanks for your comment - it is an interesting one that has a range of opinions. Personally I don't think technical expertise is necessary in a ScrumMaster (I know a lot of excellent ScrumMasters who don't have a coding background for example) but there are situations where perhaps it could be useful. A good ScrumMaster needs the respect of the team to be effective and sometimes a little knowledge in the technology the team are using may help build that respect.

Your point about the temptation to become directive is a very valid one and one that I would worry about but also the fact that A ScrumMaster would have to give up their passion (coding) to be an effective ScrumMaster and that can be difficult.

Thanks again for your comment

Leslie Lowman, CSP,CSM,CSD,CSPO,REP, 11/3/2011 11:39:29 AM
What a great article! After being in the role of SM for sometime, I read this and got a 'jolt'. This article really has me taking a closer look at the way that I fulfill that role and what role I fulfill for my team. Thanks for taking time to write this.
Hordur Bjornsson, CSM, 8/21/2015 5:49:01 AM
Hi Geoff and thank you for your question Karen

I have three years experience as a developer, and took on the job of Scrum Master four months ago. I felt that the expectations for my role were clearly that I would still be a developer and facilitate the Scrum process.

Since I take my role as a Scrum Master very seriously, the team and the organisation are starting to realise and respect the Scrum Master role and the expectations of me having to write code to be of use are diminishing.

I agree with Geoff that experience as a developer helps build respect, and also helps me empathise with the team. The team has also expressed interest in getting into pair-programming, which is very natural for me to model. If you are going to help the team improve their processes the experience helps.

I think development skills and experience is a strength for a Scrum Master if she is passionate about being a Scrum Master. You are in trouble when someone who is passionate about developing and not in being a Scrum Master is appointed as Scrum Master.

That being said, I think that development experience is not necessary but helps. For some organisations who have not yet realised the benefits of having a great Scrum Master, finding the developer with the most passion for Agile and appointing her as Scrum Master, may be a good step in moving that organisation towards more agility.

Thanks Geoff for a great post,


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