Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Valerie McLean believes that people, collaboration and communication can achieve amazing things. Currently spending her days as an agile coach and mum of one.

A Scrum Master is basically just a (insert other job title here), right?

Something that seems to have been a hot topic recently in my various agile circles – What is expected of a person in a Scrum Master role? Being fairly new to a dedicated Scrum Master role myself, it has been interesting to hear different viewpoints on what a Scrum Master is, what background someone in the role should have and what their day to day tasks should actually be. From a glorified Project Manager to a technical wizard, there are a lot of ideas out there. I wanted to share some of mine.

A Scrum Master, by definition in the Scrum Guide 'is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.'

Furthermore, 'The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.'

This isn't your typical job description. Many are left scratching their heads asking, 'But what does a Scrum Master actually DO?' It’s hard to envisage how this can possibly be a full time role within a team. This is when you see companies mixing the role with another, such as development lead or project or people manager. This can see the Scrum Master producing code or progress reports as well as trying to be a servant leader to the team.

While there are no rules against this, the teams I've spoken to who seem to be getting the most out of the role are those which have a full time dedicated Scrum Master.

I wanted to explore some of the areas where Scrum Masters can be expected to branch out.

Project Management

You see a lot of job adverts looking for a Scrum Master/Project Manager. This rings alarm bells for me – I come from a project management background and I know the two jobs are very, very different. It feels to me like the company haven’t seen the value in a full time Scrum Master. These job adverts describe roles that include creating status reports, managing risk registers and so on. The scrum part of it is sometimes added as what is almost an afterthought.

I get that managers and business owners want to be able to see progress and I understand that what they may have been used to seeing are time intensive, pages-long status updates and RAG reports, but this is not, by definition, something that a Scrum team needs or that a Scrum Master would produce.

However, it is part of the Scrum Master's role to help everyone in an organisation understand Scrum - so this might mean working with the Product Owner to find other ways that management can track progress or working alongside a dedicated project manager to support them in their role.

Technical expertise

Another role you see the Scrum Master role combined with is Technical Lead (or similar). I would wholeheartedly agree that it is advantageous for the Scrum Master to have knowledge in the processes their team uses, they need this to understand what the team are doing. This knowledge allows the Scrum Master to remove impediments which are slowing the team down.

A Scrum Master without a lot of technical knowledge can learn on the job fairly easily as they grow with the team. One who has the knowledge already needs to be careful they don't end up doing the team's work for them, because they can. They can use the knowledge they have to help the team - by not having all the answers and guiding them to learn more for themselves.

Managing the team

A Scrum Master should be an equal in the scrum team, not a people manager. It's amazing how many team members misundertand this and look to their Scrum Master for confirmation that they are doing things right - during the daily scrum is a fine example: it's not a status update for the Scrum Master - its a chance to catch up as a team! A Scrum Master is not in a position of authority, but so many people are so used to a vertical management structure that they often look for someone to ask, they are seeking approval, its hard to get used to.

It is so important for the Scrum Master to be accepted and trusted as an equal to enable the team to work closely with them and get the most out of the role. Management can help with this trust building by confirming this relationship in their interactions with the team.

Providing the answers

Not so much an organisational misconception, but within a team, team members often look to their Scrum Master for help and answers. What some don’t realise is that while a Scrum Master will always do what they can to help and remove impediments, the way in which they do this will often be to help the team feel comfortable finding the answers for themselves.

By not having all the answers (even if they know the answer) this helps to team to become more self sufficient and encourages them to use their initiative, collaborate and self organise. If the Scrum Master can remove the fear of being wrong, the team will eventually feel comfortable trying new things and experiment without the pressure of needing to be right first time, all the time.

So what does a Scrum Master actually do?

I feel like I've described all the things that a Scrum Master doesn't do, so it’s maybe time to describe what someone in this role would do on a day to day basis. It's not an easy question to answer, because it would be different for each set of team members a Scrum Master is working with.

The basics are simple - ensure the team follows the Scrum framework. So that means they have all the team members, events and artifacts. Getting all of that in place is easy - then the hard work starts. You are trying to create a shared mentality in the team, one of collaboration, trust, respect. Ensure each and every person understands and adheres to the scrum values, and sees the value in the theory behind it. It's not just a software delivery process; it is so much more than that. And it's hard! It's the Scrum Master's role to ensure the team get the most out of it at all times.

This means continually observing and analysing interactions in the team and using tools to encourage positive change. A few examples:

  • An exercise or workshop to focus on a particular learning outcome.
  • A simple gesture to bring two detached team members together to discuss their work and tasks.
  • Promote Scrum at an organisational level by inviting managers to participate in a game which helps them to understand the benefits and help from the top down.

There are many things a Scrum Master can do to get the most out of a Scrum Team.

The funny thing about it is a fantastic Scrum Master will be so good at their role that they almost make themselves surplus to requirements - although I'm aware a team will always need some level of coaching and support. However, the aim is to make the team so proficient, self sufficient and efficient that they can effectively organise themselves.

I think people find it hard to understand because it isn't a role like any other that we are traditionally familiar with in organisational structures. It’s hard to comprehend or see the value in having one person doing this role without expecting them to do something else as well – something more familiar. The reality is, the more you distract the Scrum Master from Scrum, the less effective they can be at helping to create a success for the business. It's only once they reach that point of almost being redundant that they would be valuable working with another team - to bring the same success there too.

Scrum is a framework – however you decide to adopt it, you aren’t ‘doing Scrum’ unless you include all elements of it. That’s not to say it works in all circumstances, if you are finding it isn’t working in your case, you need to go one of two ways – either look closely at you implementation and find the areas you can tighten up on (including asking yourself if you actually have a full time Scrum Master), or try something different - nothing wrong with that! Just make sure whatever solution you choose, you do it for the right reasons and get behind it.

Self-organising teams aren't just for software.