A scrum master servant leader can lead his team to greatness with this advice from Geoff Watts’s wonderful book Scrum Mastery.
The following is a guest post by Charlie Davidson.
Please see the Editor’s note below regarding the variation in spelling of the term Scrum Master.
Scrum’s framework is easy to understand but hard to master.
The ScrumMaster role is no different.
Let’s spend some time exploring the challenges ScrumMasters face and how to overcome them. Especially in the role of Scrum Master as a Servant Leader.
It’s important to say this leans on the teachings of Geoff Watts and his brilliant book Scrum Mastery. The good versus great concept is one he frequently uses, and I’ve purposely quoted him throughout this post to give it structure.
But we get ahead of ourselves.
What is SCRUM and a Scrum Master?
I’ll keep this light, as I’m sure many of you are familiar with the framework.
If you’re not, check out some of the more basic guides first. I’d suggest the official guide as a good starting point.
Related reading: Scrum Master vs Project Manager: What’s the Difference?
Scrum is the most commonly used agile delivery method in the world.
It’s a lightweight framework that empowers teams to build quickly through iterative design. An iterative approach means delivering part of a product, getting feedback, and then adapting the product and the team based on that feedback.
Scrum teams regularly build better products faster, while being happier too.
Scrum Masters: Team Servant Leaders
The Scrum Master is a servant leader role that helps the team, and the broader company, understand the Scrum theories, practices, rules, and values.
This role is often mistakenly seen as a junior position. In reality, it requires maturity, influence, and creativity to support the Scrum framework effectively. The Scrum Master servant leader has a big role in a scrum team’s success.
The official Scrum guide has a section describing the role too.
Good Scrum Masters versus great Scrum Masters: 3 Areas Scrum Masters as Servant Leaders Can Shine
OK, so we understand Scrum and Scrum Masters.
What kind of challenges does a Scrum Master face? What makes a great Scrum Master? Especially in the role of a servant leader?
Let’s focus on three practical spaces where great Scrum Masters can shine, using some of the more notable quotes from Geoff Watts.
Category 1: Working with Senior Management as a Scrum Master Servant Leader
I’ve already mentioned that companies can perceive a Scrum Master as a junior role. Instead, they see the Product Owner as the senior counterpart.
In my experience, junior servant leader Scrum Masters struggle to influence and coach senior management. But there are ways to increase your influence.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
“A good ScrumMaster helps a Scrum team survive in an organizations culture. A great ScrumMaster helps change the culture so Scrum teams can thrive.”
The best Scrum Masters will change companies, not teams.
It’s sad, but many companies don’t gel with Scrum values.
Sometimes this is down to overly protective middle managers, worried about losing control. Other times, it’s senior management not trusting the concept of self-organizing teams.
To change this, you need to go to the top. It takes guts, persuasion, and data to change things.
PRACTICAL TIP: Try running internal training courses to educate the broader company on Scrum, it’s benefits, and any company data to make it relevant. If you bump into a senior manager, why not invite them along. You’ll be surprised by how many will say yes.
2. Product Owner Access
“A good ScrumMaster will ensure the team have access to a Product Owner. A great ScrumMaster will ensure the team have access to the Product Owner.”
The best Scrum Masters ensure the Product Owner has the correct knowledge, responsibility, and availability.
The Product Owner has the ultimate decision-making power. I work with many customers using Scrum, and in my view, less than half choose the right Product Owner.
Usually, this is down to the decision-maker being too busy.
The consequence is that decisions are not made in the Sprint Review, causing delays.
PRACTICAL TIP: Use retrospectives to hold Product Owners accountable. When the team can’t make decisions, work with them to solve that problem. For example, if the Product Owner doesn’t have time for the team, analyze their workload, helping them find ways to delegate tasks elsewhere.
“A good ScrumMaster will push for permission to remove impediments to team productivity. A great ScrumMaster will be prepared to ask for forgiveness.”
This quote is one of my favourites.
The best Scrum Masters break the rules to get things done quicker.
By-passing stakeholders, when you know they’ll say no, takes guts. Great Scrum Masters realize when it’s time to go rogue and have the conviction to follow it through.
Forgiveness comes when results are positive.
PRACTICAL TIP: We know some people are more tolerant than others. Push for changes that these more tolerable people are responsible for, building a reputation for making the right call, before challenging elsewhere.
4. Team Focus
“A good ScrumMaster protects the team from distractions. A great ScrumMaster finds the root cause of those distractions and eliminates them.”
A great Scrum Master servant leader goes deep into finding the cause of problems and have the hard conversations that follow.
It might be a bullying manager or an underperforming teammate who is so damn likeable. Solving root causes is hard.
Why? It’s time-consuming and involves hard conversations.
Here’s the thing: Fixing root problems results in significant team efficiency improvements. Great Scrum Masters thrive at tackling them. It also makes life better for the team.
PRACTICAL TIP: After a retrospective, spend time reviewing issues raised by the team. Discuss these with different stakeholders before stitching together their feedback. The root problem will quickly bubble to the surface.
Related Reading: 7 Problem-Solving Steps to Conquer Even the Toughest Problems
Category 2: Influencing the Team as a Scrum Master Servant Leader
Influencing the team is one of the essential tasks for a Scrum Master.
But how do the great Scrum Masters do it?
“A good ScrumMaster will hold team members to account if needed. A great ScrumMaster will hold the team to account for not holding their teammates to account.”
A great Scrum Master servant leader coaches the team to call out problems, instead of doing it themselves.
Scrum teams should agree to a set of values. It holds them together.
It could be the official Scrum values, but usually, teams build upon this. It might, for example, be committing to turning-up to meetings on time or paying attention to teammates when they’re talking.
But what happens when the team breaks their commitments?
A good Scrum Master should step in. However, getting a team to be comfortable calling each other for rule-breaking, now that’s something special.
PRACTICAL TIP: When you see someone breaking agreed rules, count to ten and see if the team calls it out. If they don’t, pause the group, acknowledge the issue, and then invite the team to discuss why they didn’t feel confident raising it.
“A good ScrumMaster will say what needs to be said. A great ScrumMaster knows the power of silence.”
Great Scrum Masters purposely create awkwardness with silence to make a point and coach the team.
One of the most common characteristics of a Scrum Master is being a “people person” and having personal skills.
The problem is that it’s easy to talk too much when you have these qualities. To fill in the silences. To keep talking.
Silence is powerful because it’s unnatural. People don’t expect quietness, and it makes them think. Waiting an extra few seconds, and then a few more, gets the team talking at the right moments.
PRACTICAL TIP: Explain to the team that you use silences for coaching. It takes away the awkwardness for newer Scrum Masters and tells the team you expect them to go further when you stay silent.
Related reading: 7 Ways to Instantly Improve Your Active Listening Skills for Better Communication
7. Team Improvement
“A good ScrumMaster notices areas for improvement in the team. A great ScrumMaster recognizes and highlights strengths for the team to build on.”
A great Scrum Master servant leader uses positivity to help team confidence while still providing performance feedback.
One of the critical roles of a Scrum Master is to nurture the team, which results in faster, and better, delivery.
By highlighting team weaknesses, the team can reflect, adapt, and grow.
However, Scrum Masters at the top of their field tend to avoid this, instead focussing on team strengths. The result is closer team commitment, without impacting team development.
PRACTICAL TIP: Be detailed in your feedback to help the team use it in future situations more. Likewise, avoid giving positive feedback for trivial reasons to maintain its meaning.
“A good ScrumMaster will help maintain team harmony. A great ScrumMaster will guide a team through disharmony to reach a new level of teamwork.”
Great Scrum Masters leverage team frustration to help improve that team in the long-term.
As Scrum Master servant leaders, we build teams by bringing people together; we want them to gel.
However, to significantly grow, you sometimes need to rock the boat.
Team disharmony quickly highlights the root problems. It allows us to fix and build, and not paper over the cracks.
PRACTICAL TIP: Spend time with your team in the run-up to a retrospective and understand what each team member wants to share. In the retrospective, use this information to tease out disharmony, getting a broader team buy-in, and an action plan to resolve it.
Related Reading: Productive Conflict at Work: Simple Guidelines to Keep it Positive
“A good ScrumMaster asks to understand. A great ScrumMaster asks so the team can understand.”
Great Scrum Masters ask questions when they know the answer because they know some of their team don’t.
With time, we ask fewer questions. We’ve heard it before.
Great Scrum Masters understand we shouldn’t stop asking questions.
Even if you know the answer, other team members might not. By asking on their behalf, we improve team knowledge, cross-skills, and self-sufficiency.
PRACTICAL TIP: In a Sprint Review, make a point to ask at least three questions to the presenter that you think someone else in the room won’t know.
Category 3: Getting Things Done as a Scrum Master Servant Leader
Scrum Masters get judged on how their team improves over time, often measured with team velocity.
There are many ways to improve velocity, and if you can tackle it from different sides, the cumulative effect can be staggering.
“A good ScrumMaster holds a balanced retrospective. A great ScrumMaster holds a focussed retrospective.”
Great Scrum Masters will understand what they want to get out of a retrospective before it even starts, and run it accordingly.
The real work in running a retrospective is in its preparation.
By working with the team leading up to a retrospective, you explore what they want to share and get an idea of the broader message. What’s gone well, and what hasn’t.
Why is this important?
It allows the Scrum Master to craft a message to lead the team down, resulting in helpful feedback and constructive next steps.
PRACTICAL TIP: Just like a sprint goal, if there is something you need to get out of a retrospective specifically, consider giving the team a scope (or theme) for an upcoming retrospective.
11. Sprint Review
“A good ScrumMaster facilitates the sprint review to look back and review the product built in the previous Sprint. A great ScrumMaster facilitates the sprint review to look forward and shape the products in future sprints.”
Great servant leader Scrum Masters will ensure the team understands how the release of a Sprint relates to the Product Owners broader product vision.
Is this quote for the Product Owner or the Scrum Master? The reality is that it’s both.
Yes, the Product Owner owns the product’s directions, but the Scrum Master facilitates meetings and team velocity.
By helping the team to look forward, the Scrum Master empowers the team to own the product.
Scrum teams are responsible for day-to-day product decisions, using direction from the Product Owner.
These decisions add more product value when the team knows where it’s going.
PRACTICAL TIP: Pick one to two shippable items which have been demoed in the Sprint Review and ask the Product Owner how this relates to the broader product vision (even if you know the answer!).
12. Sprint Goals
“A good ScrumMaster helps ensure the high-value product backlog items are selected in sprint planning. A great ScrumMaster helps craft an inspiring, engaging and synergistic sprint goal.”
Great Scrum Masters ensure a Sprint contains backlog items that share a common theme or goal.
Two similarly size teams run the same length Sprint.
One group has a mixture of unrelated tasks, while the second has requirements that all involve one topic. The estimated workloads are both the same size too.
Which team completes the most work?
The team that focussed on a single topic does.
Sprint goals exist for this reason, and it’s a shame more teams don’t use them.
PRACTICAL TIP: Instead of having the Product Owner set the goal, get them to set a prioritized backlog list. Next, encourage the team to find commonly linked backlog items loosely based on that list and get them to set their own goal.
Wrapping Things Up
Remember it’s tough trying to become a great Scrum Master.
The Scrum Master role as a servant leader is incredibly varied, and those who thrive need to excel in several different fields.
They need to rub shoulders with senior management. They need charisma to influence the team. They also need creativity to help teams to get things done.
I hope you read some Geoff Watts quotes and recognized them in yourself. Why not pick a few more to try out?
Editor’s note: This article contains various spellings of term Scrum Master. The author shares information and quotes from Geoff Watts’s book Scrum Mastery. Watts uses the term “ScrumMaster.” For quotes, the single word “ScrumMaster” is left intact. Additionally, Scrum Alliance and other sources use the term ScrumMaster.
However, the Scrum Guide and other publications write the term as two words as Scrum Master.
I’ve edited the article to contain both spellings.
I hope this eliminates any confusion over the variation of spelling.
Charlie Davidson is a Senior Digital Project Manager and ScrumMaster, based in the UK. He’s worked with digital agencies since 2009 and enjoys facilitating teams, building solutions, and refining processes.