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ScrumMaster: A Nonplaying Captain of the Team

14 March 2014

Ajay Kabra
QAI India Ltd

In the third and last part of this series, describing a new dimension focusing on the various roles in the Scrum team, I will focus on the ScrumMaster. (Earlier articles included Project Owner = Strategic Thinking and Good Enough Is the Enemy of Great.)

Many books have been written and workshops conducted on the role of the ScrumMaster in any Scrum team/project. A lot of focus has been provided in CSM workshops and other certifications on the role of the SM. The most interesting part of the SM profile is that one is not managing the development team but is still accountable for the outcome of the system. It is like a coach sitting outside the boundary line and watching the team play the match. Interestingly, the coach cannot participate in the activities of the team, cannot guide them during the match; he or she has to wait for an appropriate time to have discussions with the team.

There are at least two major influences that affect how individuals perform in their environment. These influences include:
  • The type of leadership that exists
  • Personal motivation
For a ScrumMaster to be successful, it requires influencing ability that includes (but is not restricted to) the following:
  • Communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Team effectiveness
  • Leadership and motivation
Equally important are elements such as:
  • Responsibility
  • Humility
  • Collaboration
  • Commitment
  • Influence
  • Knowledge
I will focus on the influencing ability.

Communication skills

Having effective communication skills is imperative for success in the role of the ScrumMaster. Positive communication certainly increases the opportunities for the SM to effectively deal with the stakeholders inside and outside of the project. Having good communication skills will enable the SM to get ahead in certain areas where others who are less assertive may not succeed.

A couple of important elements to keep in mind while practicing the fine art of communication are:

Body language
  • Do not shy away from the team member or other stakeholders with whom you are speaking. Be sure to maintain a relaxed but not slouching posture, regardless of whether you are the one speaking or listening.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Nod occasionally to acknowledge a strong point in the conversation.
  • Stand with hands clasped in front of you, never crossing your arms.
  • Do not display nervous ticks such as wringing your hands, picking at your nails, or doing anything that the person communicating with you will view as a distraction from their conversation.
  • During your communications with others, always give them time to communicate their issues as well. Remaining focused on what they are trying to communicate will show them that you are indeed open to assisting with their issues.
  • Many people's communication lines tend to break down because of impatience, when someone is in a rush to get out of the conversation. Since you cannot control the other side, do yourself a favor and take a breath.
  • The conversation you're involved in is important. This is one area where many project managers who convert to ScrumMasters fail because they have lived the life of command and control, which is directly opposed to the role and profile of the SM.
  • If you are confused as to what someone is requesting, than repeat back to him or her what you think they said and ask if that is correct. Often this will inspire the speaker to go more in depth about their needs, which will help you understand them fully.
The main task for the SM should be to understand the team's and the stakeholders' needs and requirements.

Interpersonal skills

One of the most important pillars for the ScrumMaster to demonstrate is good quality of interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills include the habit, attitude, manners, appearance, and behavior we use around other people, which affect how we get along with them.

Interpersonal skills involve:
  • Effectively translating and conveying information
  • Being able to accurately interpret other people's emotions
  • Being sensitive to other people's feelings
  • Calmly arriving at resolutions to conflict
  • Avoiding gossip
  • Being polite
To have good interpersonal skills, the ScrumMaster should:
  • Practice empathy. Putting oneself in the position of another person allows one to see things from a different perspective. When people feel understood, they tend to be less combative, leading to greater understanding and unity.
  • Be inclusive. At work, practice helping people to feel included. Avoid behaviors that exclude others or make them feel like outsiders.
  • Be trustworthy. Relationships are more stable when two people trust each other. Keep commitments and confidences to increase trust.
  • Examine personal ethics. People tend to trust those who are self-aware and who do not abuse their power. Practice integrity in relationships by examining the impact of behaviors and decisions on others.

Leadership and motivation

The ScrumMaster plays a critical role in leading and motivating the development team to excel to the heights of great performance and good working software deliverables.

The development team may be motivated by factors in the external environment such as pay, supervision, benefits, and job perks. This is referred to as extrinsic motivation. They may also be motivated by the relationships among the members and the kind of work that they do. This type of motivation is called intrinsic motivation. These factors often exist simultaneously, but we will distinguish between them as they relate to specific levels of motivation.

We will now explore motivational elements of a different nature and see how a ScrumMaster can adopt and have these implemented in the work culture to ensure that the team is motivated to deliver excellent software and solutions to the customer/PO.

Need for achievement: Team members in this category have a strong desire to perform challenging tasks well. They have a preference for situations where personal responsibility can be taken to achieve successful outcomes. The goals they set provide for moderate and calculated risk, and the team members seek performance feedback to allow for modification and to ensure success.

Need for affiliation: Team members in this category display a need to establish and maintain friendly, compatible relationships. They have a need to like other people and want others to like them. They have an ability to create social networks that will result in meeting those needs.

Need for power: Team members in this category have a strong need to have influence over others. They wish to make a significant impact and impression on those with whom they come into contact.

Different team members are motivated by different elements. The task of the ScrumMaster is to identify the individual team member's areas of interest and their motivation level. Not all of the above would be required to motivate every individual. Each person is different and so their needs are different.

Now, speaking about leading . . .

In many circles, there is continuous debate about whether leaders are born or developed. If we reflect on our discussion about motivation, we will see that humans are complicated and made up of a number of traits. As with motivation, these influences are both inherited and acquired from our environment and influences. I will continue this discussion on the assumption that leadership can be developed.

Leadership may be defined as: the influence that particular individuals (leaders) exert upon the goal achievement of others (subordinates) in an organizational context.

There are other issues that must also be acknowledged. There are two types of leaders: emergent leaders who earn leadership positions through their expertise, skills, abilities to influence others, or personal acceptability in the eyes of the group; and assigned leaders who are given power to exercise influence through appointment. The ScrumMaster should be the emergent leader who earns his or her stripes in the system. Just because one is a ScrumMaster, the position does not provide automatic control over the team. For that matter, the ScrumMaster does not control the team.

Emergent leaders (ScrumMasters) hold their positions as a consequence of their appeal to their development team. Their role is safe only as long as the group is attracted to these attributes and conditions. Should these positions change, or the group finds other influences, a lack of support or outside forces may undermine the Scrum Master's role. The role, therefore, is dependent on performance and any real or perceived faltering will quickly translate into lack of support, which would produce an unproductive ScrumMaster.

The most important activities of the ScrumMaster are to clarify the path to various goals of interest to team members. Thus, effective ScrumMasters form a connection between team goals and organizational goals. The role of the ScrumMaster is about increasing team performance through motivation.

Environmental factors that impact leadership include the following:
  • The appropriateness of the Scrum Master's style to the situation will have a major impact on the behavior of the team.
  • Task clarity, urgency, and subordinate empathy will affect performance and motivation.
  • The ScrumMaster's qualifications and knowledge will build team confidence and loyalty.
  • There is probably no substitute for being in the right place at the right time.
As a close to this series of different thought processes on various roles in Scrum, I would say that we need to think about different ways of adopting the methods of executing the Scrum projects. Scrum and related guidelines were produced/documented about two decades ago, and things have moved on since then. Methods of doing things have changed, and therefore there needs to be a new thought process in place to adapt to the changing environment.

As we say in Agile, "inspect and adapt."

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: 4.5 (2 ratings)


Raju K, CSP,CSM, 3/14/2014 8:46:20 AM
A different way to look at Manager angle. Nice article.
Farah Rahmatullah-Khan, CSM, 8/2/2017 11:15:03 AM
I disagree about your view on the SM being a "Non-Playing" captain. Because we have a huge part to play in the team's success. SM is a Servant/Leader. I think as the servant part we need to be super involved, and ask the team daily what their impediments are, look for a solution for them so they can stay focused on their tasks. A team member needs to collaborate and set a meeting, we set that meeting for them so again they can focus on their tasks at hand. We might not be on the development side of the team, we're still very much involved in leading the team to success. Once we as the SMs of the team remove their impediments, give them the support and tools they need we get to hold them accountable to their commitments. In order to challenge the team, we need to make sure we are doing our part.

And don't get me wrong, I really like this article you have a lot of great points about the way to lead, it's just we can not forget about the servant part of our leadership.

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