The most common question I am asked at my courses is – what makes a good Scrum Master? I always answer this question with a story from my own experience working with Scrum Masters (good and bad) over the years.
The 2 best Scrum Masters I ever had the pleasure of working with had a lot in common. They were both excellent servant leaders who fostered self-management, supported the Developers and Product Owner and guided their organisations on the path to agility. However, they did this in different ways and came from very different backgrounds. In my earlier post, I talked about Joe, a born technologist who became a master of enabling self-managment with his Scrum Team.
The second Scrum Master, let’s call him Laurence, was relatively young with only 2 years experience in IT. I worked alongside Laurence for a few months and was impressed with his skills as a coach and facilitator. He was far more effective than many highly experienced Scrum Masters I had worked with over the years. One day I asked him how he had got so good so quickly, and this is what he told me.
Laurence had studied Drama at university and was a talented actor. Unable to find enough acting work to support himself after graduating from University, he took a job in IT as a software tester. He did this for awhile but didn’t feel he was really suited to it. Then a project he was working on introduced Scrum, and a talented Scrum Master was brought on board to guide the transition. Over many months Laurence watched and learnt from this Scrum Master. He used his skills as a trained actor to observe and learn the behaviour and characteristics that made this Scrum Master effective. He “learnt” the role of the Scrum Master, just as he would as an actor learning any other role.
When this initial project was successful, the organisation looked for volunteers to be the Scrum Master for a new Scrum Team. Laurence volunteered and was given the role. Whilst still unsure of all the details of what to do, he “acted” the role of the Scrum Master as he had learned previously. He surprised himself and his team when he quickly found an affinity for the role and helped his team to develop a market-leading product in a very short period of time.
Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organizationThe Scrum Guide
Laurence’s strength was in his abilities as a coach and facilitator. When the Developers approached him with an issue or impediment, rather than trying to solve it for them, he opened and facilitated discussions with the team and helped them find their own solutions. He was better as a coach than almost anyone I had ever seen.
He went on to explain a further secret to his success. He knew he didn’t have the best answers! Laurence had only 2 years IT experience at this stage which was far less than those he was working with. As such he didn’t feel qualified to provide the Developers with ready-made answers. He had no choice but to help the team to find their own solutions. He wanted to be useful to them in this process so quickly learnt to ask the right questions and encourage the team to be open, confront the issue, explore options and then decide and fix on a course of action. He also encouraged frequent inspection and adaption to ensure the selected option was helping as planned. If a solution wasn’t turning out to have the desired effect he would raise this to the team and challenge them to find another way forward.
As Laurence didn’t have the answers the Developers wanted, he became adept at helping them find their own solutions. The Developers appreciated the role he played in facilitating these sometimes difficult discussions and helping them to benefit from their collective intelligence. They recognised that without his efforts they would have often selected a sub-optimal solution, wasted significant time or ignored important issues altogether. Laurence served as the conscience of the Scrum Team and kept them focussed on finding the best solutions and challenged them to keep doing this.
Laurence is a great example of how a Scrum Master can succeed without a strong technical background. Whilst technical skills can help in the role, they can sometimes get in the way of the Scrum Master being an enabler of self-management for the Scrum Team.
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