Agile Scrum Master: the how of Delivering Results and Value


In a previous post, we looked at a few differences between the Agile Scrum Master and Product Owner roles. We noted that the Scrum Master serves as a facilitator (sometimes called a “servant leader”) whose job it is to clear obstacles for the project team so everyone can do their best work. We noted that it helps, then, if they are both relatable and have an independent mindset so they can push back against a culture of sticking rigidly by the rules, staying the course, and so on.

So that’s the high-level view. In this post, we zoom in a bit and expand upon the profile more fully.

Taking a closer look

Let’s first consider what “facilitating” means in practice. A key focus of the role is to help the project team to deliver results, and thus value—value for the customer and also for the business. That, in turn, means ensuring that the team has the skillsets required for the project, including mastery of Scrum theory and practice, and that each member is ready and willing to make the strongest contribution they can to the team’s efforts.

Theory that enables practice

“Including mastery” is not nothing, and not only because it means acquiring additional skills. Team members may well, as an initial matter and as they see it, be engaging in two kinds of activities: carrying out the substantive, product-specific tasks that fall within their specialty area and, on the other, doing those that derive from Scrum theory and practice, such as understanding how to reduce backlogs, how sprints work, and learning what Scrum events and artifacts are. One job of the Scrum Master, then, is to help team members meld these two kinds of activities so that they understand that the Scrum theory and practice are all about getting to “Done.”

The Scrum Master: someone with a broad skillset

Now, no project that’s focused on delivering value is going to find everything smooth sailing by default. So when it looks like the going’s getting tough or is about to, it’s the Scrum Master’s job to clear the path of hurdles. Those hurdles can take a number of forms. Team members—not to mention the Scrum Master themselves—may be brought into an organization just for one project, and in that scenario, they will be able to devote all of their time to it. But it is just as likely that there are other demands on a team member’s schedule, whether from their normal responsibilities or from one or another project. In such cases, there could well be logistical difficulties, for instance. The project “war room” may be in a different building from the one the team member usually works in. There may be scheduling conflicts, including around meetings. And there could even be office-politics issues if peers or supervisors feel the team member is “ignoring” their “core” tasks.

It will already be clear, then, that the Scrum Master role calls for a varied, even dynamic, skillset that includes a significant “people” component.

A cultural ambassador

Issues of these kinds call for responses at the day-to-day level. But it could be that there’s a more fully embedded or structural set of problems that need tackling if the organization is, so to speak, set in its ways and is simply not used to working in an Agile way. That is a cultural issue, or set of issues, and it requires a response at the level of organizational culture. And for the purposes of the project, it is primarily up to the Scrum Master to provide that response. Now of course it can’t be up to the Scrum Master to attempt anything like changing an organizational culture, so expectations have to be modest here. But they should be prepared, as the occasion presents itself, to make the case for working in an agile, if not necessarily an Agile, way. In that sense, they have the opportunity to serve as an Agile ambassador. These efforts might end up working just locally and just for the duration of the project. But it could also happen that there’s some uptake, and that the Agile way of working eventually takes hold and becomes embedded across the organization—though that could take years. The point here is that every little bit counts towards building an Agile culture.

A well-oiled machine

Back to the day-to-day level, and the work of the Scrum team itself, which will, of course, be the primary focus of the Scrum Master’s efforts. For instance, deadlines within each sprint need to be readily achievable, even if they are ambitious. Every team member (and not just the Product Owner) needs to be accountable for maximizing the value of each deliverable. One issue that can come up here is a lack of training for one or another member of the team. This can happen quite often: it could be that a team member’s core skillset needs to be adapted or expanded, even in small ways, to meet the needs of the project. And then of course there’s the need for all team members to adapt to the Agile way of working. The primary responsibility here lies with each team member, that being said, the Scrum Master can identify gaps in skillsets at the level of the team and the overall project and should be able to point team members to resources they can benefit from to fill them.

Relatable and approachable

As a general matter, helping ensure smooth sailing is as much a matter of keeping things running well internally as it is of clearing the path of external obstacles. Any actual or potential conflicts between or among team members will need to be attended to and either resolved or prevented. So the Scrum Master will need to be relatable and approachable, and be capable of defusing any tensions that may start to arise.

Looking for further insights?

EXIN recently hosted a webinar by the renowned IT consultant and coach Johann Botha “Inconsistent Processes and Cultural Clashes: Addressing the Major Barriers to Agile Adoption.” In his presentation, Johann discussed some of the challenges that Scrum teams can face, including inconsistencies in processes and practices and cultural clashes—and how to overcome them. We think that current or prospective Scrum Masters and Product Owners will find Johann’s insights especially valuable, so we’ve made the webinar recording available online. Feel free to check it out.

Watch the recorded webinar now!