What Is a Scrum Master?
The scrum master, or originally called the team “master of ceremonies” or “master of scrum,” is a peer servant leader of the scrum team. They foster an environment of success by ensuring the team has everything needed to reach their goals. As scrum and agile experts, they coach, facilitate, build team consensus, respond to impediments, shield, and evangelize healthy agile practices. Scrum masters are a catalyst for helping their scrum team –of which they are a member– to improve their own performance and effectiveness every sprint.
Scrum masters not only serve the scrum team, but also the entire organization. They assist the product owner in arranging the product backlog to maximize value. They act as a coach for their team as the team learns to self-organize how they do the work, develop skills to be cross-functional, and together swarm on the various tasks to deliver business outcomes. They coach the broader organization on the best ways to interact with the scrum team and how to help the scrum team to maximize the value created for the customer and organization. They are change agents for the organization, helping groups and teams as they increase their ability to deliver value early and often. Almost like aeronautical engineers and airplanes, they vigilantly watch for opportunities to help the team reduce drag and friction.
At what point is there no longer drag on an aircraft? Never. Same thing with scrum teams–there will always be organizational drag on a scrum team, whether it’s the first sprint or the 100th sprint. A scrum master’s job doesn’t get easier over time, it actually gets harder. Once the low hanging fruit is cleared, the organizational impediments only get harder to remove, not easier or fewer.
Why Is a Scrum Master Valuable?
All scrum teams navigate Tuckman’s four stages of development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. New teams, in particular, may find themselves stuck in “storming” as they are struggling to figure out how they work together effectively. During this early stage in a team’s development, without the guidance and facilitation a scrum master brings to the table, the team may mistakenly decide that scrum is not for them. Scrum is hard! Not because of the framework, which is simple, but because it requires people to work together to accomplish customer aligned goals. Scrum masters focus on enabling high performing people and teams and it takes all of their attention and effort. Unlike a project manager or a functional manager, who may be inclined to use “command and control” approaches, the scrum master influences behaviors, spotlights impediments to success, and asks the hard questions to help the team find better paths for themselves.
New teams, as they learn scrum fundamentals, can be unpredictable. Not only do they need to traverse Tuckman’s phases, but also must make the shift to employing an empirical mindset and approach. The team learns to iteratively inspect and adapt as they develop their product, moving it from uncertainty to certainty as they progress. Scrum masters help the team to explore and manage this variability through questions, guidance and insight. They help the team to better leverage their frequent feedback cycles of sprint reviews and retrospectives. Over time, because of the scrum master’s influence, the team is able to better sustain and improve their pace of value delivery. This means that every sprint is an opportunity for the organization to realize increasing benefits from their scrum team investments.
Organizations may feel that the cost of dedicating a full-time person to the scrum master role for a new team is too expensive. However, keep in mind one of the most expensive aspects of product development is the cost of development teams. Any cost savings in helping teams to become more effective, happier, predictable and more productive goes straight to improving the bottom line. If a development team has seven people, a scrum master’s influence is multiplied by seven. Development teams who don’t have someone continually paying attention to their environment, impediments and morale must spend time and energy addressing these challenges for themselves, taking their focus and attention away from delivering results for the customer. Wouldn’t their efforts be better spent in delivering valuable product increments to achieve business outcomes?
Lastly, a cost that can be even more expensive is the cost of delay. New scrum teams have a lot to struggle with as they are getting to know each other, learn the product, and understand customer’s needs — they may have difficulty reaching consensus as they organize their work. New product owners making product decisions can struggle as they are collaborating with stakeholders, customers and sponsors who don’t always agree in their needs and opinions. Scrum masters watch for these situations and help the team to understand and address the challenges that can cause delays so the team can make decisions quickly. Backlog items, work in progress, or shelved product increments aren’t valuable to customers until delivered. Scrum masters help the team to balance the product owner’s desire for responding to customer needs quickly and the development team’s desire to build a quality product. Scrum masters enable speed.
Do Scrum Teams Need a Scrum Master? YES!
Asking a team member to be a part-time scrum master, or worse a part-time scrum master for multiple teams, is not a good idea. Avoid the temptation! New scrum teams, even mature teams, need their scrum master. The scrum master enables team work and improvement, as well as organizational improvement and reduced cost of delays. Your employees, teams, products, budgets, and customers will all benefit from dedicated scrum masters.
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