The Scrum Master - dummies

By Mark C. Layton

In The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard (published by William Morrow), the author discusses how sometimes the most effective managers he studied lacked the technical skills that their employees had. Funny enough, they also had a lot of time on their hands. So if they couldn’t do the job themselves, what were these managers good at?

The managers were able to clear the path so that their employees could get the work done. This is the role of the scrum master. Whereas the product owner is a directing role, the scrum master is an enabling role. The scrum master is responsible for the environment for success.

The scrum master’s most important trait, after deep expertise in scrum, is clout. Diplomacy, communication skills, and the ability to manage up are all good, but the scrum master needs to have the respect and clout to get difficult situations resolved. Clout is something you have or you don’t have. Where the clout comes from doesn’t matter — expertise, longevity, charisma, association — it all works in the scrum master role.

As a servant leader, the scrum master teaches, encourages, removes tactical impediments, and most importantly, removes strategic impediments so that the tactical ones don’t reappear. As with every other role, the scrum master is best full‐time and solely dedicated to the scrum master job, especially with new teams, projects, and organizations.

If the product owner is the quarterback calling the plays and the development team is the running back getting the yards, the scrum master is the front line. Yet, they’re all peers with a common goal.

Developers who double as scrum masters and scrum masters thrashed across multiple teams throw off a team’s ability to extrapolate past performance to future capability. This introduces availability variation and delivers inferior protection to a development team. This rarely makes sense quantitatively, because a minor improvement in a scrum team’s velocity often has a huge impact on the bottom line.

A development team is ideally five to nine people, Accordingly, one scrum master improves the performance of up to nine people. Likewise, even a minor reduction in performance is also 9x.

In addition to coaching the scrum team on how to optimally play scrum, the scrum master facilitates the events in scrum — sprint planning meetings, daily scrums, sprint reviews, and sprint retrospectives. Think about it:

You have a bunch of intelligent, engaged team members with a high degree of ownership in the work that they’re doing. Put these folks in a meeting together and the creative energy might cause them to explode, or at least go off on a lot of tangents. It’s the scrum master’s role to focus this energy.

The concept of servant leader dates back to around 500 BCE, from China’s Lao-Tzu, thought to be the author of the Tao Te Ching. Yet it is also mentioned in every major religion and is popular with modern-day corporate leadership models. That’s staying power.

The servant leader puts others first so that they can do their jobs. The leader enables people rather than presenting the solution on a silver plate. If someone says, “I’m hungry,” the servant leader doesn’t hand them a fish. Rather, the leader says, “How can I help you so that you’re not hungry today, tomorrow, or next year.” The scrum master helps the person build skills and find the solution that best works for the individual, whether the answer lies inside or outside the project itself.

If you’re making decisions as a scrum master, you’re not doing the right job. A development team will never become self-organizing if they’re not making their own decisions. Scrum masters extract themselves from day-to-day decisions and instead ensure a conducive environment while shielding the team from interference.

The scrum master’s influence extends to everyone involved, including stakeholders impacting the project and the product owner. The scrum master is a coach to everyone, because everyone needs ongoing education and smooth facilitation in scrum.

Studies have shown that it takes 15 minutes to get to the right level of concentration for peak productivity — often called “being in the zone.” Yet it only takes a 2.3-second interruption to burst that bubble, requiring another 15 minutes to reestablish that focus. A 4.4-second interruption triples the amount of mistakes made on a sequencing task.

As the scrum master shields the development team from external interference, the velocity of the team increases dramatically. Think about how well you work when the door’s shut, the phone’s off, and everybody’s away or asleep versus when you’re fielding constant interruptions from colleagues, family members, and even the dog?

Even when outside interference is kept to a minimum, because social density is higher in scrum, it’s not unusual for conflict to also be higher. The intrinsic pressure to get working products in short sprint windows with people who are right there can be wearing. So the scrum master’s job entails managing conflict to just the right level:

  • Task conflict is healthy (being willing to fight for what you think is right).

  • Personal conflict is not healthy (when conflict boils over from challenging someone’s idea into challenging them personally).