Get certified - Transform your world of work today


ScrumMasters: Embracing Soft Skills

17 February 2016

Ryan Jenkins

Certified ScrumMaster® training has been a proven launchpad into leading teams as a successful ScrumMaster. However many of the challenges that you will face aren't covered in the Scrum Guide. This can be a difficult transition as you take the Scrum framework back to your teams, as Scrum is simple and incredibly effective but can be very difficult in its implementation!

Some of the new skills that you will need to learn as a ScrumMaster will be learning skills that have traditionally taught in leadership and soft-skills training to bring teams together and drive success. Some of these include how to be a coach and facilitator, resolve conflicts, remove impediments and manage stakeholders -- these are the topics that I’m going focus on here.

You are now a coach, facilitator, and change agent

While not explicit in the Core Scrum Guide, in the responsibility of the ScrumMaster these skills will become essential for your success. Learn to coach your teams in the Scrum Framework. Learn how to facilitate great retrospectives to drive the team through a Shu-Ha-Ri learning process.

As the team leader, support development of a common vision, take responsibility for the team’s failures, and give the team credit for their achievements and success. Drive the Agile message throughout your organization, starting with demonstrating the success of your team and being an advocate of Agile practices throughout the organization. Sometimes additional organizational change is required for Scrum teams to continue to grow and deliver value, often despite great resistance. Develop a basic understanding of the inputs that contribute to business value in your products through value stream mapping to understand the blockers and constraints to delivering business value.

Be responsible for enforcing rules and process

The ScrumMaster owns the process and Scrum framework for the development team but has no authority over them. This is a big responsibility, so how does it work? In the planning, review, and retrospective events at the beginning and end of each sprint, focus on coaching and guidance on things that impact the entire team. In the middle of the sprint, focus on the individual team member’s needs.

There will often be resistance to change, or to a new process. Work with team members, preferably in an individual, one-on-one setting, to understand where their concerns lie so that each team member is comfortable with the new process. There are a number of influence strategies that can be used, depending on what the concern of the team is. Each team is moving into something unknown, so ensure that the team, and the team’s management, understand that it is OK to experiment and fail. The more empowerment the team has, the more they will take ownership of their outputs. Ensure that the team has a set of working agreements agreed on by the entire team to use as a foundation.

Conflict resolution and team dynamics

Inevitably, with a team there will be problems with team dynamics and conflicts to resolve. As a new ScrumMaster, or ScrumMaster to a new team, you will want to understand any existing processes that are in place and speak with team members to get a sense of what social contracts exist within the team or organization. It is possible some changes will need to be made there to facilitate successful adoption of the Scrum framework.

When conflicts do arise, the ScrumMaster should work to facilitate a positive resolution. This will be one of the most difficult things to do as a ScrumMaster. Some basic strategies for resolving inter-team conflicts are:
  • Create a safe and positive environment to discuss the conflict within the team.
  • Diffuse any negative emotions -- keep the discussion positive!
  • Ensure that the discussion is framed around “we” rather than “me/us or them/you.”
  • Focus the discussion on the team’s goals and outputs rather than individual needs.

Impediment removal

One of the ScrumMaster’s responsibilities is to remove impediments that block progress by the team. You will need to understand impediments that can be removed by the team and ones that need outside support, so that you can act accordingly. You can be proactive with your impediment removal by ensuring that stakeholders and managers that are involved with the project are engaged and supportive. To avoid impacting a sprint deliverable, impediment removal should happen within 24 hours in most cases. Any impediments that linger throughout the sprint, or are never removed, will hurt team morale and create an environment in which the team does not feel supported.

Stakeholder management and customer engagement

As part of your new role as an Agile change agent, you will need to gain an understanding of your organization and its politics. This will help you navigate through the organization to remove impediments and drive Agile change. Begin to understand the different levels of influence that you and your team will have within your organization:
  • Direct control over outcomes. This will likely just be your team and teams that you coordinate delivery with.
  • Influence over outcomes. This will be other Scrum teams in the organization, infrastructure and architecture teams, customers, users, and stakeholders. You can gain influence with these groups by demonstrating success within the team. An important note here is to ensure that the customer is engaged with your team -- either daily with user testing, or at the sprint review.
  • No control over outcomes. This will include peripheral organizational groups, i.e., HR, legal, sales, etc.
Work with other ScrumMasters and Agile champions inside the organization to drive the changes that will enable success within your team.

Go forward and build great teams

The ScrumMaster should borrow the concept of Extreme Ownership, as seen in the book of the same name by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Everyone in the team must have a shared vision, and the leader is always responsible for the outcome of the team. As a ScrumMaster, develop a plan and lead the team achieve success as a group.

This is only a short list designed to explore some of the factors that go into leading a Scrum team. Your homework: What other skills and techniques make a successful ScrumMaster?

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: 4.4 (5 ratings)


Be the first to add a comment...

You must Login or Signup to comment.

The community welcomes feedback that is constructive and supportive, in the spirit of better understanding and implementation of Scrum.


Newsletter Sign-Up