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The Scrum Master Balancing Act


Scrum Master tightrope

The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as described in the Scrum Guide. The Scrum Master is a teacher, coach, impediment remover, change agent, mentor, and facilitator. They lead by example and they serve the Scrum team, the organization and the Product Owner.


It’s a lot to manage and a lot to balance. How do you uphold Scrum without becoming a Scrum dictator? How do you lead the Scrum team to ever greater adoption of Scrum within the organization… without direct authority? This article explores the challenges faced by Scrum Masters in their balancing act and how they navigate through it to ensure effective team performance and continuous improvement.


Impediment Remover vs. Self-Management


One of the key responsibilities of a Scrum Master is to remove impediments that hinder or obstruct the Scrum team's progress. However, the best Scrum teams are self-managing, capable of identifying and resolving their own impediments. This creates a delicate balance for the Scrum Master. While they should be proactive in removing obstacles, they also need to foster an environment where the team feels empowered to handle challenges independently.


How do Scrum Masters achieve this balance? It’s all too easy to dive in and help a team, but doing so is actually not always helpful. The best Scrum teams remove their own impediments. The Scrum Master should ensure that the Scrum team is in the driver’s seat and empower them to remove their own impediments.


Before a Scrum Master acts to remove an impediment, they should ask themselves these questions:


  • Is this really an obstacle?

  • Is this something that the Scrum team could manage on their own?

  • Is this an opportunity for the Scrum team to become more self-managing?

  • Have I asked the Scrum team how they want to handle it?


Only if the Scrum Master is sure that this is a true impediment which the Scrum team cannot handle on their own should the Scrum Master take action.


It is essential for the Scrum Master to refrain from attempting to solve every issue that arises within the team. While it might seem like a helpful approach, constantly intervening in the team's problems can inadvertently hinder their growth and maturity. A Scrum Master's role is to guide and support the team in adopting the Scrum principles and practices, empowering them to address challenges independently. By being too hands-on and "babying" the team, the Scrum Master risks stunting their development and preventing them from learning how to overcome obstacles effectively. Moreover, if the Scrum Master consistently takes on the responsibility of solving every problem, they may inadvertently create dependency within the team, resulting in the team members always relying on the Scrum Master rather than developing their own problem-solving skills.


A more effective approach for the Scrum Master is to act as a facilitator and coach, empowering the team to identify and resolve issues on their own. Encouraging self-management and promoting a culture of collective problem-solving can lead to a more independent, motivated, and innovative team. By allowing the team to address their challenges independently, the Scrum Master can focus on facilitating the Scrum events, removing true impediments, and creating a supportive environment for continuous improvement. This approach not only fosters the team's self-reliance but also ensures that the Scrum Master can fulfill their primary role as a servant leader, guiding the team towards sustainable and successful project deliveries.


It’s always a balancing act which takes into account the Scrum team’s current goal, the skill level of the team and the specific context that the Scrum team is working within. By encouraging self-organization, the Scrum Master empowers the team members to take ownership of their work and find innovative solutions to obstacles that arise.


Teacher vs. Dictator


The Scrum Master plays a crucial role in guiding the team through the exploration and adaptation of practices that aid the Scrum team in delivering value. As a teacher, the Scrum Master ensures that the team understands the Scrum framework and its underlying values. By providing training and guidance, the Scrum Master equips the team with the necessary knowledge to excel in their roles.


However, it's important to note that the Scrum Master should not dictate or impose practices on the team. Instead, they should foster an environment of collaboration, transparency, and trust, where the team feels empowered to experiment and make decisions based on their unique circumstances.


No two Scrum teams are exactly the same. Each team operates within a unique context, encompassing factors like team size, domain, technology, culture, and the nature of the products they develop. To optimize their efficiency and effectiveness, Scrum teams need the flexibility to identify and adopt complementary practices that suit their specific context.


For example, one of the most common complimentary practices frequently used by Scrum teams - or other types of Agile teams - is the use of user stories to articulate Product Backlog items. User stories are concise and user-centric descriptions of functionality, which aid in understanding the end-users' needs. While user stories may work exceptionally well for one team, another team may find them cumbersome or ineffective for their particular projects.


Encouraging the team to identify complementary practices empowers them to take ownership of their way of working. The Scrum Master can facilitate discussions and retrospectives where the team reflects on their processes, experiments with new approaches, and decides which practices bring the most value. This approach allows the team to continuously improve and adapt, fine-tuning their processes to fit their evolving needs.


Some examples of complementary practices that teams might consider include pair programming, test-driven development (TDD), continuous integration, code reviews, and various estimation techniques. The team may experiment with these practices and gauge their impact on productivity, quality, and team morale.


In this process, the Scrum Master should also be open to learning from the team. Every team member brings unique experiences and perspectives, and the Scrum Master should be receptive to insights that could improve the overall team performance.


By promoting a culture of continuous improvement and adaptability, the Scrum Master helps the team stay agile and responsive to changing requirements and challenges. This approach fosters creativity and innovation, as the team tailors their practices to their specific context, leading to increased productivity and better outcomes.


Scrum teams should be encouraged to identify and adopt complementary practices that work best for their specific context. The Scrum Master acts as a guide, providing the necessary training and support while empowering the team to experiment and continuously improve their way of working. By doing so, the team becomes more agile and capable of delivering value with greater efficiency and quality.


Open to Feedback vs. Accountable for Scrum framework

Feedback is a fundamental aspect of Agile methodologies, and Scrum Masters should be open to receiving feedback from the team, stakeholders, and the organization. It is essential to remain receptive to suggestions for improvement and be willing to adapt their approach to better support the team.


However, while being open to feedback, the Scrum Master also holds the accountability of establishing and maintaining the Scrum framework as defined in the Scrum Guide. This means the Scrum Master should not cancel the Sprint Retrospective (or other Scrum events) to “save time”. Instead, the Scrum Master should explain why we have the five Scrum events, three artifacts and three accountabilities in Scrum and why eliminating any part of the Scrum framework reduces the effectiveness of the Scrum team.


Striking a balance between being open to input and ensuring adherence to Scrum framework is crucial to being a successful Scrum Master. The Scrum Master is a master of Scrum - which means that they are an expert in the Scrum framework and should be able to articulate why each element of the framework is important and adds value to the Scrum team.


Serving Multiple Stakeholders

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Scrum Master's balancing act is serving the organization, the Product Owner, and the Scrum team simultaneously. Each of these groups has different needs and expectations, which can easily overwhelm the Scrum Master.


To manage these diverse responsibilities, prioritization is key. The Scrum Master needs to identify the most critical areas to focus on at any given time. Just like the Scrum team, the Scrum Master should focus on a series of small improvements. A high performing Scrum team doesn't happen overnight. Instead, lasting change takes time. The Scrum Master can start by prioritizing continuous improvement through retrospectives, where the team can identify and address pain points in their own processes and work outwards from there.


Additionally, the Scrum Master should foster a collaborative and transparent relationship with all stakeholders. By involving them in the Agile process, stakeholders can better understand the challenges faced by the team and appreciate the value of Agile practices.


Conclusion

Being a Scrum Master can feel like walking on a tightrope of conflicting priorities. The Scrum Master accountability requires a blend of leadership skills, facilitation skills, coaching skills, and adaptability. To succeed, Scrum Masters must continually strive to strike a delicate balance between being a hands-on problem solver and a supporter of self-management, a teacher who empowers the team to explore their own practices, an open receiver of feedback while being accountable for the Scrum framework, and a servant-leader who serves multiple stakeholders through careful prioritization.


By mastering this balancing act, Scrum Masters become invaluable enablers of Agile success, guiding their teams to deliver high-quality products, foster innovation, and cultivate a culture of continuous improvement.


Last chance for early bird tickets to Scrum Day

Join us for Madison's Scrum Day conference, scheduled for September 14, 2023, in Madison, Wisconsin. Scrum Day is an opportunity to connect with your peers in guided networking activities designed to maximize your networking potential. Scrum Day features inspirational speakers like Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, and Keith McCandless, creator of Liberating Structures.

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