The Scrum Master in a Nutshell

Posted By - Geoff Watts


Watch the video instead of reading the article

The Scrum Master role has been around for over 20 years now but what actually is it?

Back in 2002 I was a project manager of a software team and a colleague said to me:

“Geoff, you’re not a very good project manager. And that’s a good thing! I think you are more of a Scrum Master”

I had no idea what that was so he gave me a little black book to read and I thought “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do and how I do it. But I’m not sure about having that as a job title!”

I was one of the first Scrum Masters in the world, certainly in Europe. So there was very little guidance on what to do back then so I could kind of just make it up as a I went along (which was nice).

Nowadays though, there is a lot more material and experience around about the role and yet still much confusion.

So what is a Scrum Master in a Nutshell?

Henrik Kniberg once created a great video to explain the Product Owner so I thought I would tip my metaphorical hat to him and create a similar explanation of a Scrum Master in a Nutshell.

The Scrum Master is an enabler not a doer.

The first thing to know is that the Scrum Master is there to help the people doing the work do their work to the best of their ability. They are not there to do the work themselves. In short, I see the role as bringing together  the people who want something (customers and users) and the people who will build or provide that thing (the developers).

There is a mechanical side and a cultural side to being a Scrum Master

On the surface, the Scrum Master is there to ensure that the team and organization use Scrum to build valuable products well. They will ensure that the Scrum ceremonies happen effectively and efficiently, that the Scrum artefacts are created, used and maintained effectively and that the inspect and adapt points within the Scrum framework are taken advantage of.

We will come back to the cultural side of the Scrum Master later but, for now, let’s look at the mechanical side in a bit more detail.

The mechanical side of the Scrum Master in a Nutshell

In short the Scrum Master’s basic aim is to facilitate the Scrum framework for the benefit of the Scrum Team and the organization.

Scrum is a way of working where a cross-functional team works directly with customers or customer representative to deliver value in short iterations, then learn how to make both the product and the process better every couple of weeks. The framework is made up of a number of elements and the Scrum Master is involved in all of them:

The Product Goal

While the purpose of the product is ultimately the responsibility of the Product Owner, the Scrum Master will help ensure it is there, it is clear and understood and remains relevant. Product Owners are busy people and we all suffer from short-term thinking at times and our own cognitive biases so a Scrum Master will help the Product Owner craft a good, engaging and well-understood Product Goal to set the overall ambition for the product development effort.

The Product Backlog

The Product Backlog is quite simply a prioritised list of customer needs that will help us achieve our Product Goal. Just like the Product Goal, the Product Backlog is ultimately the responsibility of the Product Owner but this artefact can quickly become unwieldy so the Scrum Master will help out in making sure it is available, well-maintained and ready to be worked on.

Learn how to master the Product Backlog

The Sprint Planning Meeting

Every Sprint starts with a Sprint Planning Meeting and this is where the Scrum Master will bring the Product Owner and Developers together for a couple of hours to work out what Increment is possible in this iteration. They will prepare and then respond to the interactions in the meeting to help them come up with an achievable and valuable Sprint Goal.

Deidré Luzmore has written some tips on getting the benefits of Sprint Planning.

For more on how to master the Sprint Planning Meeting read this or watch this.

The Sprint

A Sprint is simply a fixed amount of time (usually 1-4 weeks in length) where the Scrum Team works toward the Sprint Goal. Every working day of the Sprint the team will by trying to turn Product Backlog items into valuable deliveries that our Product Owner (and the product’s customers and users) find valuable. In an ideal world that would be that but most Scrum Teams operate in complex environments and so every now and again will come up against an Impediment…something that stops them from being productive. The Scrum Master is responsible for getting these Impediments removed and coaching the team so that the Scrum Team can carry on doing their thing and delivering great Product Backlog items.

Learn how to master the Sprint

The Daily Scrum

Every day, during the Sprint, the Scrum Team will check in with each other to inspect and adapt the Sprint progress and make their plan for the day ahead. Remember the Scrum Team is a self-managing unit that will do whatever they need to do in order to deliver. Things change in a complex environment so the Scrum Team will be checking in with each other on a daily basis to stay on track or get themselves back on track.

The Scrum Master is not there to check up on the Scrum Team but is there to ensure the Scrum Team is capable of managing itself and this is a great opportunity to find out what Impediments they are facing that they need help with.

Learn how to master the Daily Scrum with the tips in this video

Product Backlog Refinement

During the Sprint, there will be some element of preparing the highest priority items on the Product Backlog for the next Sprint Planning Meeting. The Scrum Master’s role here is again largely facilitatory from a mechanical point of view. They are there to help the Product Owner and Developers spend just enough time discussing the right things so that the next Sprint Planning Meeting can run smoothly while not taking too much attention away from delivering on this Sprint Goal.

Learn how to master the Product Backlog Refinement with this video

Sprint Review Meeting

At the end of the Sprint, the Scrum Team will get to demonstrate the progress they have made and share the tangible results of their work with an audience of interested stakeholders. This is the point where the Scrum Team can inspect and adapt the Increment and reflect on the consequences for the direction of the product. The Scrum Master will prepare this ceremony, ensure the right people are there, that it is run effectively and efficiently and that the learning is built in to the next Sprint.

Learn how to master the Sprint Review meeting in this article.

Sprint Retrospective Meeting

The other ceremony that takes place at the end of every Sprint is the Sprint Retrospective Meeting. This is where the Scrum Team take time out to reflect not so much on what they built but on how they built it. The point here is for the Scrum Team to inspect and adapt their ways of working and, again, the Scrum Master takes a facilitatory and coaching role. They ensure this ceremony happens, they prepare for it and set it up to maximise reflection and learning then ensure that the improvements to the ways of working are built in and taken forward.

Learn how to master the Sprint Retrospective Meeting

Then, provided the Product Owner wishes to continue with the product development effort, there will be another Sprint Planning Meeting and the cycle repeats.

But what about the “cultural side” of the Scrum Master in a Nutshell?

A good Scrum Master can fulfil the mechanical nature of their role relatively easily by ensuring that the Scrum framework is followed and they tackle Impediments to the productivity of the Scrum Team.

The real value that a Scrum Master adds, however, is HOW they go about doing that. And this is where the cultural side of the role comes into play.

The Scrum Master exists in order to not exist. Their aim is to do themselves out of a job and they do this by helping to embody the values of agile and Scrum into the culture of the Scrum Team and the organisation. A great Scrum Master uses Scrum to get the organisation past the need for Scrum.

A great Scrum Master builds up the self-management of the Scrum Team and the effectiveness of the organisation so that Scrum Masters are not needed in the future. When they are facilitating ceremonies and when they are removing Impediments therefore they are conscious that they aren’t creating a dependency upon themselves.

Scrum Masters are always looking at ways to help teams become able to solve their own problems rather than being the problem solver themselves. This involves a lot of active listening.

I see the Scrum Master as a servant-leader. This term originated with Robert K. Greenleaf and he posits that the primary purpose of a servant-leader is not to create followers but to create new servant-leaders. To help people grow as people…

“Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Great Scrum Masters guide Scrum Teams and organisations past the need for Scrum. This takes time and there will be many bumps and much learning along the way so they are patient and they assess the context for a balance between effectiveness now and long-term maturation.

Most organisations focus on the mechanical side of Scrum Masters

We at the Agile Mastery Institute focus our time on creating great Scrum Masters, great Product Owners and great Agile Teams who are all focused on being agile and embodying the values and principles of agile and Scrum.

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