The great American author J. D. Salinger once wrote, “It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.” And it seems that — when it comes to Scrum Masters — there’s a lot of confusion about what it is that they actually do. But they seem to be doing it.
Some might see the Scrum Master as a project manager without a Gantt chart, a foreman barking out orders and making sure everyone is on task. Others might see them as a kind of agile police officer, there to enforce the rules and keep everyone in line. But the truth is, neither of these descriptions is particularly accurate.
So, what exactly is a Scrum Master?
The True Role of a Scrum Master
As always, the best place to look for an answer is the Scrum Guide, which states that the Scrum Master is accountable for establishing the Scrum framework within the team. In essence, their role is to help the Product Owner and Developers on the team understand Scrum theory and put it into practice.
Think of the Scrum Master as a teacher, coach, and facilitator all rolled into one. They’re there to help the team learn agile ways of working and best practices, to ensure that the team’s goals are clear and well-defined, and to make sure that the team’s backlog is well-groomed and that the members themselves remain focused on creating value.
But the Scrum Master isn’t your typical bossypants manager. They’re a servant-leader. The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, namely:
- Coaching the members of Scrum Team in self-organization and cross-functionality.
- Removing obstacles that interfere with the Scrum Team progress.
- Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.
- Providing support to the Product Owner, particularly with respect to grooming and maintaining the product backlog.
- Providing support to the Developers, especially when it comes to agile best practices for incremental and iterative product development.
In other words, a Scrum Master’s job is to make sure that the team is working efficiently and effectively, and help them stay focused on what’s important. They’re not there to tell people what to do, but rather to help them figure out what they need to do and how to do it.
Of course, the Scrum Master can’t do it all on their own. They rely on the team members to take ownership of the process and to drive the work forward. They are a coach, there to guide the team and keep them on track, but not to play the game for them.
A Few Real-World Examples
The Scrum Team struggling to finish a sprint on time. The Scrum Master works with the team to identify the obstacles that are causing delays and helps them find ways to overcome them. They might facilitate the retrospective in a way that helps the team identify problems and create a plan to address them, or they might coach the team on how to break down large user stories into smaller, manageable tasks.
The Product Owner is having trouble keeping the product backlog well-groomed and prioritized. The Scrum Master helps them understand the importance of doing so, and works with them to create clear, actionable user stories. They might also help the Product Owner understand how to prioritize the backlog based on the needs of the business and the product’s goals.
A Developer on the team is feeling down. In turn, they are coming across as disengaged and unmotivated to the rest of the team’s Developers. The Scrum Master coaches the Developer in question on how to stay engaged and motivated by aligning their individual goals with the team’s goals and by helping them to understand how their work contributes to the overall success of the product.
The team is not adhering to the Agile principles, so the Scrum Master serves as a reminder of the Agile manifesto and the 12 principles behind it. They also provide contextual, down-to-earth guidance on how to implement the Agile practices in their work.
The key takeaway?
The role of a Scrum Master can be summarized as one of a coach, teacher and facilitator who serve the team and help them become more efficient and effective in agile ways using the Scrum framework. It’s a challenging role, but a rewarding one as well, as they see the team grow and deliver valuable products. It’s not a command and control role, no no no, but one of servant-leadership.
So next time you hear somebody describe a Scrum Master as a good old project manager or an agile cop, just smile, nod, and remember: the Scrum Master is the servant leader. The one who knows that when it comes to Scrum, less is more, and that a little bit of ambiguity and confusion can be a good thing, especially when it leads to learning and growth.