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Scrum Fundamentals: the Scrum Master

Scrum Fundamentals: the Scrum Master
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This article on the Scrum Master is part of a series in which we will review Scrum’s fundamentals, complemented with infographics that explain them. Other articles: Sprint, Planning, Daily, Review, Retrospective and Product Owner.

Authors: Alonso Álvarez y Patricia Parreira.

When talking about the Product Owner, we said that the Scrum team is a “cohesive unit of professionals” where there are no hierarchies or sub-teams. It does not prevent that there are essential functions that must be covered in the form of “accountabilities” (accountabilities) and that the Scrum Guide used to call “roles”:

  • To build the product with quality and excellence by the Developers.
  • To maximize the value of the delivered product (the Product Owner’s objective)
  • To optimize the workflow with the application of the Scrum framework, the mission of the Scrum Master or SM.

What does this translate into?

The latest edition of the Scrum Guide says that the SM’s responsibility is to “establish Scrum” according to the definition in the Guide itself. This means helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, not just within the team but for the organization as a whole.

So, to begin with, we have someone who trains and guides, which are some of the attributes of a coach, and also encompasses the whole organization, not just their team. But the SM’s responsibility does not make them a kind of junior Agile Coach, although that is a common way of understanding it.

Nor are they a “boss”, although it is not uncommon for organizations to assimilate or “map” former team leaders to this responsibility. They seem to think that the Scrum Master has a “command and control” position, telling people what to do and how to do it.

This is a sign that they do not understand what Scrum is about and the implications of agile ways of working; or that they feel dizzy about moving from a very hierarchical model to one with self-organized teams, and it seems difficult to get rid of the need for a (hierarchical) head.

Scrum Master, the team and the organization

The Guide says that the Scrum Master is responsible for the team’s effectiveness. This is achieved by enabling the team to improve its practices. It should be noted that they not only “enable” but should also do what they can to make it happen.

The way to do this is by being with the team, guiding them, resolving doubts, promoting the unblocking of their impediments and helping them to focus on their objectives.

And not only with the team, but the SM is also at the service of the whole organization helping (“leading, training and mentoring”) when adopting Scrum, for which they will advise and help the different people involved and will eliminate the multiple barriers for the adoption of Scrum, such as those that separate the teams and their stakeholders (those areas, teams and people that have interest and influence in the team’s activity and are the source from which their work emanates).

In general, an SM is considered to be at the service of the team and the organization, but at the same time as a leader. How is this possible?

The Scrum Master as a leader

Isn’t it contradictory to say that SMs are not “bosses” and are leaders? No, because they are very different things. The SM does not lead hierarchically by telling what to do. He does it by taking the initiative, helping other people and setting an example.

It is a model of “servant leadership” which means that, as a leader, the SM is committed to helping others. He leads by action and example, not by telling others what to do.

A servant leader like the SM is concerned with people’s development and growth, helping them improve their work, and encouraging their commitment. And that means giving them the freedom to make their own decisions. It’s the opposite of the “bosses who think and workers who do” of more traditional environments.

The Scrum Master and Events

It also happens that the Scrum Master’s responsibility involves ensuring “that all Scrum events are carried out, are positive, productive and that the time-box for each event is respected”. This is what explains the name, Scrum Master. But we already know this is achieved by teaching, supporting and leading by example. Anyway, what is the role of the SM in the different events?

First, it should be made clear that the SM is not obligated to facilitate all Scrum events. There is a certain “tradition” that this is the case and that it is usually the person with the most knowledge and experience in the Scrum framework and facilitation. But any person from the Scrum team can facilitate an event, and it is healthy that from time to time, this is the case because it improves participation and involvement. It is a way to show that it is everyone’s job, not just that of a specific figure.

All events have some standard rules, such as achieving the objectives set, staying within the time limit and having the people involved. In addition:

  • Planning must be completed with a goal for the Sprint and a plan in the form of a backlog. This goal and plan must be credible and not imposed to ensure maximum involvement and commitment of the team.
  • Although the Daily meeting is an event by and for the Developers, if requested, the SM can participate in facilitating and making the meeting effective by ensuring that impediments are identified and decisions are made without exceeding the 15-minute limit.
  • In the Review, the SM should ensure that stakeholders are involved, that their feedback is gathered, and that the meeting runs smoothly and is productive.
  • The Retrospective is the meeting where the SM’s knowledge and experience as a facilitator can be a differential factor in achieving the objectives.
  • Beyond events, during the Sprint, the SM ensures that the backlog refinement process is carried out, helps to fulfill the defined responsibilities, takes care that impediments are removed and makes the Scrum team carry out its activities smoothly, productive and efficient way.

It is not written anywhere that the person with this responsibility can not perform other jobs in the team (except for the PO, the same person can never have both responsibilities), but this will depend on each person and each team.

The only certainty is that the SM responsibility is critical in Scrum, and how it is carried out will depend a lot on the team’s results.

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About the Author

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez, Netmind Lead Expert in Enterprise Agility, has over 25 years of experience and a successful track record of increasing personal and team productivity through agile methods. His knowledge spans agile related methods of Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, SAFe, Management 3.0, and Lean into software engineer areas such as cloud, video, and content management. and has played many roles in the software industry, including Developer, Consultant, QA, Project Manager and Department Manager. As an instructor, his objective is to help students gaining new skills and knowledges; as coach and mentor, he helps them overcome challenges and difficulties by putting in practice new ways of working and organizing. He is passionate about innovation, future forecasting, and overall agile philosophy, frameworks, and methods. Alonso is certified and experienced Scrum Master, Product Owner and Agile Coach. Author of two books and several articles about Agile methods and practices. Mountain bike, nature, cinema, traveling and photography are his other passions. Connect with Alonso on LinkedIn.

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