This is the first in a series of three posts about how specific Scrum roles can help you achieve innovation goals and business value.

Why the ScrumMaster is Crucial for Achieving Innovation Goals

When resources are tight and talent is hard to find, it can be tempting to cut corners when building a Scrum development team. Some companies leverage the concept of a dual role, putting a developer or product owner simultaneously in charge of their own and the ScrumMaster’s duties. Or, when deadlines are looming, a ScrumMaster could be spread over four plus projects. After all, ScrumMasters are really just scheduling meetings, right? This urge can be especially strong when building a team for innovation work, where technological unknowns and budgetary risks are inherently high.

This attitude is detrimental to the success of your business and innovation goals.

Scrum, at its heart, is a social engineering framework. Moreover, it’s the team member roles and responsibilities that lead to the success or failure of an agile implementation. The Scrum process, when properly implemented, forces people to communicate effectively and to work together efficiently, while focusing on the highest business priority. In Scrum, everyone is on the same team and is pushing towards the same end goal of delivering the most business value in the shortest time possible. But, it is Scrum’s built-in delineation of ownership that drives accountability and leads to success.

While the product owner’s focus and top priority is the needs of the business, the ScrumMaster’s is the effectiveness of the development team and their ability to deliver. As a result of this intentional duality, a natural and healthy tension exists within the team dynamic, ensuring both of these important perspectives remain at the forefront of team prioritization conversations. When the roles and responsibilities of team members become muddled, the concept of absolute ownership is diminished and the critical balance is thrown off, making business goals much harder to achieve.

ScrumMaster is More Than Just a “Master of Ceremonies”

Within a successful Scrum development team, the ScrumMaster is much more than just a “master of ceremonies.” They are the true keeper, or absolute owner of the process, and therefore the ultimate driver of team accountability. This is evident in a few key ways.

First, the ScrumMaster is responsible for making sure the team’s delivery plan is realistic. Specifically, during sprint planning, ScrumMasters ensure that the development team is breaking down the work small enough to reduce the risk of unknowns. One “rule” ScrumMasters can use to support the proper level of planning is to limit the size of a user story. Ascendle’s rule of thumb is to split stories to no larger than 25% to 33% of the team’s average velocity from the previous three sprints. At times, the ScrumMaster may need to push back on a larger story and help the product owner break it down to pieces the team can manage within a sprint. If this rule is not followed it can be difficult to identify issues during a sprint before it’s too late to react and rectify, leaving a large story incomplete when the sprint ends. A ScrumMaster’s truest value is in executing a fine-tuned process that drives sprints to completion, in a sustainable and replicable way.

Another tactic the ScrumMaster can use to encourage manageable segmentation of work is to encourage that subtasks be four or fewer hours of work. All planned effort for that subtask can, and should, be executable within one workday. This makes managing work in progress very clear – no subtasks should stay in an implementing state for more than a day. If the rule is not followed, and a large subtask (say 8-12 hours) stalls in the implementation phase, it may not be noticed for several days. In a two-week sprint, this easily threatens the success of the sprint. Keeping subtasks at four or fewer hours reveals impediments sooner and helps the ScrumMaster guide the team through a successful sprint.

The ScrumMaster also ensures the team is empowered to fully commit to their delivery goals. The ScrumMaster’s day is filled with facilitating and planning conversations that proactively identify needs and potential impediments, as well as monitoring the progress of the subtasks and stories the team committed to completing. In sprint planning and daily stand ups, they encourage and provoke conversations that anticipate team needs and external resource dependencies, always looking ahead to clear the path to success. Occasionally this includes protecting the team’s “heads down” time by blocking distractions, even those that may come from the product owner. For example, the ScrumMaster may push off discussions of upcoming pivots or product changes until after the completion of the current sprint. Additionally, they hold the team accountable for their delivery commitment by continuously tracking progress of subtasks throughout the duration of the Sprint, ensuring the team stays on track for success. Every day the ScrumMaster manages accountability by reviewing the sprint burndown with the team, which keeps the overall sprint goals in focus through the practical lens of daily progress.

Lastly, the ScrumMaster embodies the concept of continuous improvement and leads the team to always strive for betterment. One way they do this is by making sure retrospectives encourage an environment of openness and respect. By doing this, they create a “safe space” for honest discussion. Then, they translate team discussion and takeaways into actionable team improvements. By doing this, the team builds trust and constantly raises the bar for themselves. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Roles and Responsibilities Matter Even More with Innovation Work

ScrumMaster duties and a strict adherence to process are paramount when it comes to innovation work, which is inherently filled with risk, potential impediments, and uncertainty-driven pivot points. By forcing work to be thoughtfully broken down and establishing realistic sprint goals and commitments, ScrumMasters provide team members with a clear focal point and opportunity to succeed and deliver true business value to the stakeholders.

Companies can spend countless time ideating into a rabbit hole. But ideas and proofs of concept do not deliver business value. Value is only achieved when the product is in the hands of a paying customer. The path from innovation ideation to realizing business value can be daunting when the endpoint isn’t clear. It’s precisely this situation for which a properly implemented agile approach is best suited. Because the methodology guarantees that each iteration produces a fully “shippable” solution, the business has complete control over when the product is ready for release, resulting in faster time to market and unlocking the potential for iterative feedback cycles with customers, all of which results in a highly-focused development timeline and reduced exposure to investment risk. In innovation work, when the potential of getting lost in technical research or development options is at its highest, the ScrumMaster’s unique team perspective, and strict adherence to process, is critical to success.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

Part 3 of this series can be found here.

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