The Role of the Scrum Master

As part of my work at AND Digital I started taking on several Scrum master roles this year. It has been a journey of growth and I came to like it a lot. While most of the times I divided my time between developing and being the Scrum master, a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to be a full-time Scrum master in a project for six weeks. While doing this I realised the potential that having a full-time Scrum master has for a team. It seems though that most people don’t think that being a Scrum master is a ‘job’ by itself. Usually, it’s just something that is done on the side.

This made me think: What does it mean to be a Scrum master?

The Scrum Guide‘s definition of the Scrum master role is very lean. Scrum is only a framework. I have found that how the role is executed in practise depends both on the individual and how they interpret the role, as well as on the environment they are in. Everyone tends to give the role a different spin based on personal preferences and talents. Also, every organisation is different and so requires different actions from the Scrum master.

I’m expecting that my own perception of what a Scrum master will change over time, so please treat this as a snapshot.

The Scrum Master as a Facilitator of the Scrum Process

This is the obvious one. But what does it mean? The Scrum master facilitates all Scrum events. The Scrum master makes sure that everyone understands the process and what Scrum is. Is part of the Scrum master’s responsibilities to be the Jira police? Well, it shouldn’t be like that in a self-organising team but a lot of young teams seem to require it from my experience.

If the Scrum master is full-time and not a member of the dev team, this has the advantage that she can be an ‘inside outsider’. What I mean by this is that they are part of the team and can see what’s going on but they are not part of the day-to-day work of the dev team, which allows them to ask higher level questions like ‘how are we doing’ more easily than a developer who is trapped in everyday issues. Being an inside outsider the Scrum master can also help the Product Owner with insights into how the dev team works. The Product Owner himself might not have visibility into the ways of working of the dev team as much, having to deal with stakeholders and product decisions day to day.

The Scrum Master as an Assistant to the Product Owner

Apart from organising Scrum events, the Scrum master can assist the Product Owner in a number of ways. In my experience Product Owners are very busy people and so they appreciate every help they can get. The Scrum master can help the Product Owner keep the backlog organised. According to the Scrum Guide this is even one of his responsibilities:

Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management

Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items

Ensuring the Product Owner knows how to arrange the Product Backlog to maximize value

Scrum masters can also help writing stories, and make sure that upcoming stories are ready to be worked on. It might just be a case of sitting down with the Product Owner and ensuring that upcoming work is well defined and meets the Definition of Done. Additionally, because the Scrum master is usually much closer to the dev team than the Product Owner, she will have more insight into how the dev team works and so can assist with splitting the work into manageable pieces (of course not without getting consent from the team).

The Scrum Master as a Project Manager

If there is nobody else to cover it, holiday and resource planning might fall under the realm of the Scrum master. In my experience, this can be good because a Scrum master will have a deeper understanding of the work and the strengths of the individual team members. This gives her the chance to think through the roadmap and judge when certain people’s absence might be a blocker. Ideally, every team member should be able to do any kind of work, but in practise this often looks different.

Going beyond that, the Scrum master can help streamline the work of other parties involved: developers, testers, UX, UI designers, architects, the Product Owner, and so on. She will anticipate when one needs input from another before blockers arise. She will make sure that the right conversations happen and introduce people to each other if needed. Done right, the Scrum master as a project manager can literally be the ‘glue’ holding a project together.

The Scrum Master as a Change Agent Within the Organisation

From the Scrum guide:

The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

Sounding straightforward in my experience this is one of the hardest aspects of being a Scrum master. Keeping this in mind is essential for all interactions of the Scrum master outside of the team. This is not about constantly ‘fighting’ back whenever interactions with the team seem inappropriate. Instead, I think it’s about continuously coaching all members of the organisation. One step at a time. Helping them improve their interactions with the Scrum team and helping them deepen their understanding of Scrum. Being patient and explaining over and over again that certain activities are helpful for the team’s productivity, but others are not, is a big part of this.

Coaching the organisation is also about being proactive and identifying when areas of the business can and should become more agile. It’s about collaborating with other Scrum masters and teams as well to improve the adoption of Scrum in general. It’s about creating an environment within the wider business that allows the team a maximum of productivity.

The Scrum Master Looks After the People

In my ideal world, the Scrum master will also have a big people focus. Being removed from the day-to-day development work, he can take the time to talk to people, build strong relationships and find out what everyone really cares about. He can then subtly influence the team to make sure that everyone gets a chance to do work that is aligned with their strengths and preferences. If possible the Scrum master will also make sure that during every sprint each team member gets the chance to teach something to a peer, learn something new and work on something that they are already good at. This ensures that team members are engaged in the long term and serves both job satisfaction and personal growth, which will result in a happier, more productive team.

The Scrum Master Introduces Fun into the Workplace

This is one of my favorites and I haven’t seen it mentioned explicitly in many places. Work can easily become repetitive if no effort is being made to change things up. Even if things are going well I see it as one of the responsibilities of the Scrum master to introduce new ways of working, find new ways of running Scrum events as well as  organising team social events. Doing this will keep things interesting and keeps the team on their feet, always ready to adapt to change and try out new ideas.

At the end of the day, it’s all about people. Being a Scrum master is about creating relationships and facilitating an environment. It’s about enabling a team to build something together.