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For those not familiar with agile development and Scrum, a ScrumMaster may sound like a new term for project manager.

Those familiar with Scrum, however, know that the truth is very different. In many ways, a ScrumMaster is the antithesis of an old-school project manager. Instead of telling, the ScrumMaster coaches. Instead of directing, the ScrumMaster guides. Instead of being the authority, the ScrumMaster serves.

Since Scrum teams are self-managed and the development team is responsible for their own output and results, there is no need for an authoritarian project manager. Indeed, this is a large part what makes Agile so successful. The ScrumMaster role is designed not to manage, but to facilitate the team orientation of the project.

In this article, I’ll discuss the various roles and responsibilities performed by the ScrumMaster.

The Roles of a ScrumMaster

Agile Alliance lists the following as the primary roles of a ScrumMaster:

  • Clearing obstacles
  • Establishing an environment where the team can be effective
  • Addressing team dynamics
  • Ensuring a good relationship between the team and product owner as well as others outside the team
  • Protecting the team from outside interruptions and distractions

To this, I would also add:

  • Coaching the team on Scrum processes

A ScrumMaster Clears Obstacles

In Scrum terms, an obstacle is anything that keeps your development team from making a decision or moving forward on a task. Obstacles can come in many forms and from many different directions:

  • Waiting for clarifications or decisions
  • Waiting for tools, licenses, or resources
  • Waiting for other people

A ScrumMaster needs to be on top of all of them. The best ScrumMasters I’ve seen are experts at anticipating when such problems will arise and laying the groundwork to solve them early on.

How does a ScrumMaster clear obstacles? By using their connections and relying on support from executive level management. This is why engaging your executives and finding project champions is so important to the success of Scrum. In many instances, a ScrumMaster is able to clear obstacles because of that perceived support, even without needing to make active use of it.

A ScrumMaster must balance long-term and short-term needs as well. If the team is stuck on an issue and requires outside opinions or help, the ScrumMaster needs to help produce that assistance right away.

A ScrumMaster Establishes the Environment

A ScrumMaster needs to cultivate the right working environment for the team. This includes everything from physical workspace, to communication tools, to ensuring the team follows Scrum guidance. If a meeting room is too small for the whole team to join, that’s on the ScrumMaster. If remote members can’t participate easily because of inadequate conferencing tools, that’s on the ScrumMaster. If the team isn’t coming together during daily standup meetings, that’s on the ScrumMaster.

The ScrumMaster sets the tone for the entire project. As such, a ScrumMaster should be enthusiastic, positive, and supportive. They don’t need to be extroverts, but they do need to be skilled communicators and negotiators.

Regarding the team environment, the ScrumMaster’s responsibilities take several forms.

First, the ScrumMaster ensures that each person on the development team receives an equal voice. You don’t want your team hijacked by one person doing all the talking. Sometimes teams will defer to an individual they perceive as more of a leader. It’s the ScrumMaster’s duty to encourage everyone to participate. This allows the team to take advantage of the full diversity of ideas they represent.

Second, the ScrumMaster ensures that the routines to facilitate participation are held. Daily standups and other Scrum ceremonies are structured as times where individuals may share their ideas and opinions. Failing to hold those sessions – or holding them in a less than team-friendly atmosphere – will impact the willingness of some members to participate.

Third, the ScrumMaster must foster an environment where everyone feels safe sharing their viewpoints. Ideas must be critiqued and decisions made, but the value of each contribution must be respected. Allowing some members to mock or disrespect the ideas of others will cause the free flow of ideas to cease.

A ScrumMaster Addresses Team Dynamics

Because the team dynamic is at the very heart of Scrum, it falls to the ScrumMaster to address issues where that team orientation is not being met.

In the previous section, I discussed some of the ways a ScrumMaster needs to foster the team environment. But what if problems arise within the team?

Skilled ScrumMasters will know when (and how) to dissolve tension and when to let it play out.

But just like in a family, a tight-knit development team will have conflicts now and then. The ScrumMaster needs to make sure all members are treated fairly, that decisions are made by team consensus, and that personal conflicts are resolved. When conflicts continue or become personal, it can disrupt the team’s progress and ability to find consensus. A good ScrumMaster will first try to mediate such a dispute and find common ground. Failing that, they might seek external help to resolve any differences. As a very last resort in extreme cases, the ScrumMaster might recommend removing one or more people from the team when all other efforts have failed.

A ScrumMaster Monitors Relations Between the Product Owner, the Team, and the Outside Stakeholders

Product owners are the liaisons between the team and the business. They are responsible for maintaining the product backlog, which is the team’s to-do list. They are also in charge of prioritizing the user stories that will be included in each production sprint.

It is imperative that the product owner and the development team are on the same page. Making sure that happens is the responsibility of the ScrumMaster.

The product backlog needs to make sense to the development team. The product owner should be able to clarify and discuss the features as needed. If outside stakeholders or subject matter experts are required to elaborate, the ScrumMaster must make sure they’re available.

Because the product backlog may get reprioritized every sprint, the product owner needs long-term availability for the project. They should also be willing participants in team discussions. If the product owner is not able to devote the time required to perform those duties, it’s another obstacle for the ScrumMaster to clear.

A ScrumMaster Protects the Team from Outside Influences

Sometimes outside influences will try to control a Scrum team’s output. They’ll dictate technical design strategies or create unnecessary constraints. If these influences are allowed to control what the team does, then the team is no longer truly responsible for their results. This, of course, unravels the whole premise of a self-organized Scrum team.

The ScrumMaster must protect the development team’s ability to make their own decisions. The business gets their chance to influence results through the product owner’s prioritization of the backlog. They also influence the acceptance criteria written by the product owner, which the development team must take into account. These may include technical constraints as well, to ensure company policies are upheld. Beyond that, however, the project’s decision-making must rest with the development team.

The ScrumMaster must use their connections and support of executive level management to avoid this kind of influence. If outside managers are pushing agendas and forcing decisions, the team can no longer be held accountable for their work, and the whole basis for the self-organized nature of Scrum teams begins to unravel.

A ScrumMaster Coaches the Team in Scrum

Last, but certainly not least, a ScrumMaster is typically the most familiar with Scrum practices and guidelines. They must coach the team on how Scrum works – and more importantly, why. When every member can see the value of Scrum and operate effectively within the Scrum team is when you’ll achieve your best results. Obtaining that kind of absolute buy-in is one of a ScrumMaster’s ultimate goals. To discover how Ascendle’s professional Scrum teams can impact your business, contact us today.

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