When your organization begins using Agile methodology for projects in the development pipeline, success hinges of many things, but none more important than the team members themselves — their success and their buy-in. And in an Agile environment, if your software engineers are the players, then the Scrum Master is the team manager and is instrumental to achieve the results you want from your newly streamlined pipeline. With that in mind, let’s explore some of the skills and traits that make a world- class Scrum Master.
What Makes a Great Scrum Master?
A great way to think of a Scrum Master is as the coach of the Scrum team. They are there to help the players succeed and to help the team win — where winning is understood to be achieving the business goals for whatever software development is underway while helping the individual team members get better. In a well-designed team, the two go hand-in-hand: individual and team success. Team cohesion and empowerment are the core of what great Agile teams do.
Scrum Master Skills
A Scrum Master needs to have many of the core skills expected in technical and leadership roles: communication, adaptability, technical capability, and flexibility. These are important, but they are not what differentiates a good Scrum Master from a great one. What does differentiate a great Scrum Master is a strong analytical mindset and superb facilitation skills.
Facilitation skills are the close cousin of communication skills, but they are different in important ways. The Scrum Master should lead the Scrum process and offer ideas on how to improve the effectiveness of meetings, discussions and Scrum events. They should also increase the transparency of the processes within the team. The Scrum Master advises teams on which techniques are helpful and which aren’t. Sometimes, the Scrum Master must take on the role of psychologist to manage the stress level of the team or to resolve conflicts. Conflict resolution expertise is an added benefit in these situations.
The Scrum master provides support and coaching to team members. Scrum Masters help their dev teams, product owners and the entire organization understand what Scrum is and when (and how) it works best. Remember, the Scrum Master is not a manager. A Scrum Master is a servant-leader and should be an example of persuasion, the right approach, and process discipline (though with a firm grounding in the real world). Scrum Masters should push the team to maximize their efforts as a part of the team, through persuasion, and not using authority or ‘because I said so’ mentality.
Scrum Masters are typically not the technical mentor for software developers. This should be done by either a technical lead or software architect who is part of the team. If an organization has a separate architect group or innovation team, these groups can also provide technical mentorship. Technical mentorship is something that every developer wants and eventually aspires to provide. The Scrum Master does not need to provide it, but if they know there is a vacuum, they should be helping to address it for the sake of the individual, team, and success of the business.
How to Acquire Scrum Master Skills
With all this expertise, you might be wondering how to acquire this unique skill set. Part of this is about practice and experience, where you can see first-hand how to become a more intuitive facilitator and leader. When it comes to Scrum specifics, the best ways to gain this expertise are continuous education (reading, classes, certifications, blogs, etc.) and practice. The best way to completely digest the Scrum Master’s roles and responsibilities is to read the “Scrum Guide” from the authors of the Scrum framework, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland.
If possible, you should also seek the advice of experienced Scrum Masters within your organization. Large organizations may find it beneficial to employ not just one but multiple Scrum Masters. Seeking the mentorship of those more experienced than you can provide valuable insights. It can be advised to run training classes for aspiring Scrum Masters that teach both theory and practical insights from those doing the job day-to-day in a consulting setting.
Some of the more experienced Scrum Masters might have a certification attached to their title. The question is if certification is necessary to be a good Scrum Master or to acquire a Scrum Master position. In short, the answer is no, but it is highly recommended. Even the best self-taught or highly experienced individuals can benefit from certification.
The primary benefits of certification are a comprehensive understanding of fundamentals and fully articulating the ‘why’ of something. Knowing the ‘why’ is particularly important when you begin working with an individual or organization who is new to Scrum.
Often, people are attached to the benefits of earlier development methodologies. For these individuals, it is very helpful and important to articulate ‘why’ the Scrum Master (or product owner or team members) do what they do and why the Scrum Master recommends things be done a certain way.
However, if you decide to take the self-education route, you need to strategically select your educational resources in the appropriate way. Today, there is a bounty of Scrum courses, but not all of them are of high quality.
If you would like to save time, take a look at the courses from the founders of Scrum, found here. However, if you would like to save money, you can study independently and read “The Scrum Guide,” complete the Scrum open assessments and read “Scrum and XP from the Trenches.” The quickest way to get up to speed is to read the books and to take a certification course of your own.
Scrum Master Skills are Every-Role Skills
Once you have acquired the skills and the certification, there may be concerns about pigeon-holing yourself into the Scrum Master role. However, the skills that are necessary to be a great Scrum Master are highly transferable to other roles. In fact, they are directly transferable in the sense that even non-software projects can be run with Scrum. They are also indirectly transferable, in that encouraging participation, commitment and buy-in are at the core of any team, regardless of the nature of the work.
Core principles, such as ownership or inspect and adapt, have universal value, as does the concept of servant-leadership, which has been espoused by many organizations, methodologies and leaders across the world in many different industries and pursuits.
However, don’t worry about needing to look for new positions any time soon, as the long-term outlook for a Scrum Master role looks promising. Software and technology are essential to nearly every business and Agile is at the core of most companies that develop software (whether that is a by-product of what they do). As a result, enterprises need Scrum Masters, many medium-sized businesses need Scrum Masters, and high-tech companies of all sizes need Scrum Masters.
Thus, experienced Scrum Masters with good knowledge and practice in Scrum should consider learning various Scaled Scrum approaches, such as SAFe, less, Nexus and Scrum@Scale. This will allow them to work and apply their knowledge on much bigger projects.
Once you’ve mastered Scrum, it can also be worthwhile to study other alternatives. By knowing about multiple Agile methodologies, you can easily try alternative strategies as needed for a project or support effort when the situation itself does not lend itself to Scrum.
Being a Scrum Master tends to attract a specific type of employee, but in studying the methodologies of Scrum and learning the tactics for facilitating and leading an Agile organization, anyone up to the challenge can take advantage of all the benefits that Scrum has to offer.