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Two Important Coaching Practices to Be a Successful ScrumMaster

06/17/2014 by Jerry Rajamoney

Have you ever wondered what important coaching practices are exhibited by a successful ScurmMaster? Google search on this topic and you'll find many thousands of links, and each link gives different ideas and suggestions. Let's try to look at these from a different view/perspective.

I have practiced many and listed two that are (in my view) important. This article is the reflection of those practices I have exhibited as part of my work as a ScrumMaster/Agile coach working with multiple Scrum teams over many years.


Being a certified coach from the International Coaching Federation (ICF), I find that there are many ICF coaching principles that can be used by a ScrumMaster to be more successful. I have documented these from the coaching-principle view.

The sublist of principles that are parallel to each other are:
  • Establishing trust with the team and management
  • Active listening
  • Powerful questioning
  • Direct communication
  • Creating awareness (by asking powerful questions)
  • Accountability and ownership
Among the principles on that list, I found active listening and powerful questioning to be two important skills a ScrumMaster can use to be more successful. Both are helpful for the ScrumMaster, as many times he or she is involved in resolving conflict and promoting an effective communication process between the teams and management or within team.

Let's look briefly at the descriptions of these two skills.

Active listening

As defined by the ICF, this is the ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client's desires, and to support client's self-expression. The ScrumMaster:
  • Attends to the client and the client's agenda and not to the coach's agenda for the client.
  • Hears the client's concerns, goals, values, and beliefs about what is and is not possible.
  • Distinguishes between the words, the tone of voice, and the body language.
  • Summarizes, paraphrases, reiterates, and mirrors back what client has said to ensure clarity and understanding.
  • Encourages, accepts, explores, and reinforces the client's expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, suggestions, etc.
  • Integrates and builds on the client's ideas and suggestions.
  • "Bottom-lines" or understands the essence of the client's communication and helps the client get there rather than engaging in long, descriptive stories.
  • Allows the client to vent or "clear" the situation without judgment or attachment in order to move on to next steps.

How active listening helps a ScrumMaster

The ScrumMaster can use active listening skills during client interactions and Scrum team interactions to sense the situation. He or she can observe verbal and nonverbal feedback:
  • Detects and uses feedback from verbal and nonverbal cues
  • Focuses more on the nonverbal part, as that gives many more cues

Powerful questioning

As defined by the ICF, this is the ability to ask questions that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the coaching relationship and the client.
  • Asks questions that reflect active listening and an understanding of the client's perspective
  • Asks questions that evoke discovery, insight, commitment or action (e.g., those that challenge the client's assumptions)
  • Asks open-ended questions that create greater clarity, possibility, or new learning
  • Asks questions that move the client toward what they desire, not questions that ask the client to justify or look backward

How powerful questioning helps a ScrumMaster

As a ScrumMaster, you play the role of a facilitator. So in most situations you are expected to ask "open-ended" questions of the team, so that they figure out the solution for the problem themselves. Open-ended questions are powerful because they let the team work together.

By asking powerful questions, the ScrumMaster is not forcing his or her ideas on the team but rather is making the team accountable, by acting like a mirror of the situation.

A situation where I applied the facilitation skill

In one of my coaching engagements, the Scrum team consisted of UI developers (two members), business-layer developers (three members), and database developers (three members). In the first few sprints, I observed that many committed stories were half done, but no one was talking about how to solve this. With a few more details, I could see that the UI work was getting done faster, but the other two pieces (the business layer and the database layer) were not happening as expected. Many stories were half done. We got to a point in one sprint where overall progress looked OK according to the burn-down chart, but when you drilled into the details, it was clear that the UI developers were way ahead and the business and DB way behind.

I brought this up in a manner that made it as matter-of-fact as possible: "We're not going to be as successful as we could be in this sprint, given our current team structure. Can we look at ways to shuffle some of the work around to improve the situation?" They were really reluctant to go down this path, to be honest. It took a lot of fairly careful facilitation to bring them to a consensus that failure wasn't really the most appealing option available. Ultimately they decided to get the UI developers to help with some of the business and database work, to make sure the stories were fully done across all layers.

The complete lists of coaching competencies are available at the ICF website, and the link is