The Scrum Master Role: Keeping Things on Track

Shepherd with sheep on green landscapeOf the defined roles in scrum, one of the most critical to match for personality and skill is the scrum master. If you’re just learning about scrum, and want to find out more about how it can help your company move beyond old-fashioned waterfall project management, you should start by taking a course like this Introduction to Scrum. But in a nutshell, scrum is a system for managing the workflow of a team, usually in a technology field such as software development, to develop a product with specified features that meet the expectations of a product owner.

A strong scrum master has to balance the skills of a negotiator, a writer, and a project manager, and do so with the strength of personality it takes to get people motivated and shepherd them along their path through good times and bad. The personality of the scrum master needs to be strong and charismatic, yet very approachable, so everyone on the team feels confident that oversight of the project is in capable hands.

The scrum master is responsible for overseeing and officiating at all of the key rituals of scrum, including the sprint planning meeting, the daily standup, and the retrospective. The scrum master also needs to be an expert in using the tools the team has chosen to manage the artifacts of scrum, such as the backlog and the burndown charts.

There are three basic constituencies the scrum master needs to be in touch with to keep a sprint running smoothly: the team, the product owner, and the organization.

Responsibility to the Team

Scrum masters are constantly monitoring the effectiveness of the team, and making sure that development is happening in a steady and sustainable manner. Issues such as poor concentration, lack of communication, and confusion over the goals of the team are sometimes subtle to notice. A strong scrum master pays attention to the signals that show up at the various rituals, and takes action to correct any problems.

As a scrum master, it is critical to observe the interactions of the team while they are working, to make sure that important issues are being discussed. If some individuals seem to be making others uncomfortable, or leading the direction of discussions down paths that are not aligned with the goals of the sprint, the scrum master needs to step in and see if any unaddressed issues need to be resolved.

Some signs of a healthy team are team members who are ready and willing to volunteer for stories and tasks without being asked, and who move freely among tasks to provide help as needed, without regard to their job titles. Team members should also be comfortable maintaining the artifacts of the sprint, updating task lists, and attending to any changes in the backlog. A considerate scrum master may also want to consider a course like this one in using improvisational techniques to keep daily standups entertaining.

Responsibility to the Product Owner

The role of the product owner is a challenging one, and a talented scrum master will be prepared to provide the necessary support at every step in the process. Often the product owner is an internal representative for an external client who may or may not be familiar with the restrictions and expectations of scrum. Helping the product owner communicate the status of the team and the project to external interested parties is something scrum masters need to be prepared to do. Product owners may need to be encouraged to take a course in Agile Techniques.

Some product owners may have a difficult time writing clear, actionable stories for the backlog, or breaking the stories down into manageable chunks that can be completed in the span of a single sprint. The scrum master needs to be very familiar with the format of a good story, and techniques for crafting them. At the same time, the scrum master must help the product owner groom and maintain the backlog, while keeping any shifting external priorities from affecting productivity during the course of a sprint.

A product owner who is engaged and supportive will be available during the sprint to help clarify any confusion about stories, and actively participate in sprint planning and retrospective meetings. Product owners need to be comfortable listening to updates at daily standups, and bringing any concerns to the scrum master rather than going directly to the team.

Responsibility to the Organization

Scrum doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Most scrum teams are part of a larger organization, and the overall needs of the organization must be considered. Some external factors the scrum master needs to keep in mind is how a particular team is performing in the context of the overall expectations of the organization, and how the features the team is working on will coordinate with those being developed in parallel by other teams in the organization. Getting organizational support means addressing concerns about agile from people who may be more used to a waterfall approach.

It’s critical that external shifts not alter the flow of a sprint, so scrum masters need to keep their eyes and ears open. Ideally, there should be regular interaction among scrum masters across multiple teams to discuss broader issues that might affect the way their teams are working together, and to share insights into issues that could be relevant across the organization as a whole. Ultimately, scrum masters should be making sure their teams are producing what the organization needs, and being recognized and rewarded appropriately according to the standards of the organization.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the scrum master to make sure that best practices are followed, and that is not limited to the best practices of scrum. If all the rituals are observed, but good Engineering practices are getting lost in piles of technical debt, the scrum master needs to encourage the team and to raise the issue, and support them in making sure it is addressed.

If you’ve been asked to take on the role of scrum master for your team, a great place to start is a course like The Robust Scrum Master, all about the role of scrum master. It’s an exciting opportunity!