• Brian Milner

5 Tips for Becoming a Better Scrum Master


Recently I hosted a Facebook Live Q & A event and one question stood out to me that needed some additional follow up: Do you have any tips for being a better Scrum Master? This was such an honest question and I appreciated the retrospective nature of it. How else can we get better if we don’t take time to examine how things are going and try to make improvements? That is, after all, one of the core agile principles. I gave a few quick answers in the event but wanted to expand on it a bit here in hopes that it would help others. What follows then are my top 5 suggestions for ways to become an all-around better Scrum Master.

1. Take time to explore what being a better servant leader looks like to you.

I wanted to word this carefully because I didn’t want you to think that someone else could tell you exactly what it meant for you. I highly encourage that you read more on it in order to spark your own ideas but I also suggest you spend time thinking about it (or dare I say meditating?) on what it means for you. There are many great thought leaders out there on the topic, and not necessarily connected to Scrum or agile in any way. Greenleaf.org is a good place to start your journey as it is a focal point for the new wave of servant leadership discussions. They have a well-crafted blog section as well as a few scarce podcasts if you happen to learn better that way. The site also gets its name from Robert Greenleaf who wrote one of the most widely read books on the topic, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.

If you are more interested in someone who addresses the topic from a Scrum or agile perspective, I would recommend Scrum Mastery: From Good To Great Servant-Leadership by Geoff Watts. While it is not specifically focused on servant leadership, it does address many of the principles and how they apply to help you become a better Scrum Master.

2. Investigate how to become a better facilitator for your teams.

Similar to the servant leader topic, facilitation is a topic that takes time to explore and whose virtues you will find extolled far beyond the agile world. If a Scrum Master doesn’t understand the difference between facilitating a meeting and leading it, there’s little hope that their teams will get the full benefits of the Scrum ceremonies. A Scrum Master is often depicted as a coach and in many senses, this is correct. The Scrum Master is outside the team. He or she doesn’t contribute to the potentially shippable product increment. They are there to serve their teams and facilitate their meetings to make the most productive use of their time.

If you are interested in exploring this topic further, I would recommend you explore the IAF (International Association of Facilitators) website. They offer numerous resources including training events and information. If you are looking for a good Scrum specific reference, I would recommend Lyssa Adkins Coaching Agile Teams. Lyssa is a leader in this space in the Scrum / agile community and has founded within the last few years the Agile Coaching Institute to offer training specific to agile facilitation. The Institute even has a class they offer that specifically focuses on facilitation in an agile context.

3. Practice giving away authority.

As Scrum Masters, many times organizations will look at us as managers or otherwise in some position of authority over the teams we work with. This is not actually the case. Scrum asks the team to make decisions and become self-organizing. This simply can’t happen if the Scrum Master is telling the team what to do all the time.

This is why I would suggest that a good Scrum Master practice giving away any authority that tends to accumulate with them. Don’t simply delegate as that implies that the power remains with you and only temporarily transfers to the team. Give the team the authority to make decisions on their own. If your team has been running two week sprints and have decided amongst themselves that they would like to try three week sprints, they should have to ask permission. Of course this is provided that the team is mature enough to understand why Scrum gives preference to the shorter sprint model. Given that, teams should have the authority to make those changes without seeking permission. If they don’t feel they have it, give it to them.

The best resource I can mention for this topic is a talk I heard at the San Diego Global Gathering in 2017 by Alistair Cockburn on Guest Leadership. There are no books on the topic (yet) but there is an excellent article he wrote on the topic here.

4. Talk Less

Seems simple enough but it’s very hard to do. This goes along with the facilitation topic but many find it extremely difficult to hold their tongue when they know they have the “correct” answer. A good Scrum Master will help the team find this answer on their own rather than telling them what is correct. Teams learn better this way and you will get the added benefit of boosting the cultural shift in your organization at the same time. If you are a Scrum Master that feels it’s always your job to tell everyone the right way to do things, you are probably not listening very well to your teams and you are preventing all the voices on your team from speaking up. In the Scrum ceremonies we are constantly asking our teams to fully participate. How can they do that when we are participating for them, in their place? Pay attention to how much you speak up in your Scrum ceremonies and begin to censor yourself and learn to ask leading questions so that your team can find their own path to the same conclusions. You’ll end up with a more engaged, more truly self-organized team at the end of the day.

5. Teach Scrum by living the Scrum Values each day

This might be the simplest and yet most important of the tips here. Courage, Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect. People learn by example much more than they learn by your words. In Christian societies they have a phrase for this - practice what you preach. If you want your teams to be more open about the way in which they are working, demonstrate this by being even more transparent with them about your own work. Teach your team commitment by following through on all the things you commit to your team to take care of. Show them how to respect each other by showing respect for each team member, even those (perhaps especially those) that others find hard to respect. These values are not simple answers to questions such as what is 2 + 2. They are concepts that require demonstration to learn. Believe it or not, that’s your job! You are there to guide them to understanding what these look like lived out on a team on a daily basis. Seek out these teachable moments where you can transfer a practical example of how a team should work together to your teams.

At the end of the day, becoming a better Scrum Master not something you can check a box on and say you’ve completed it. Being a Scrum Master means that you are yourself on a journey of discovery and will find your own way to being more effective and a better leader. Along the path you will develop your own tricks to add to your repertoire that you will be able to reuse with different teams. Don’t do this in a vacuum though! Find your local meetup group or start your own for other Scrum Masters. You will learn and grow more rapidly if you live in a community of those on the same journey.

As always, please feel free to leave a comment or send me your questions at brian@scrum360.com.

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