How to pick a ScrumMaster? Some qualities and skills I look for…

The ScrumMaster role is key to a successful Scrum team – in fact, for any team doing knowledge work, a hands-on, full time role charged with building the capability of the team, empowering it to make its own decisions and optimise its effectiveness, and help it ‘gel’ is a great asset. Like a coach to a football team, the ScrumMaster can become critical in developing the full capability of the team so they can do great work.
Qualities of a ScrumMaster:
The ScrumMaster is often described as a Servant-Leader – there to help the team develop their effectiveness over the long term. Rather than orchestrating the teams actions directly to achieve a goal (as might a project manager – management by objective), the ScrumMaster develops the capability of the team, helps them identify challenges/goals, and ‘oils the wheels’ to ensure good information flow and teamwork – enabling the team achieve their objectives themselves (management by capability). So although the ScrumMaster indirectly influences the success of the team and the work they do, they are not directly accountable for success or failure – that is shared across the entire Scrum team – Developers, PO and SM.
Here are some attributes  a ScrumMaster should exhibit (adapted from Mike Cohn):
Responsible – taking responsibility for developing the capability of the team, and finding ways to guide it through the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing stages. This responsibility, however, does not come with the authority to tell people what to do.
Humble: A ScrumMaster shouldn’t be in it for the personal glory/status. Their job is to make the team look good, and themselves only as part of that team. They should also be humble in terms of working with the team to find new ways of improving effectiveness, rather than imposing their version of how the team should work (excepting the mandatory constraints of Scrum). As an aside, I personally think Humble is an attribute we should all value and exhibit – it is the first key ingredient of people who want to learn. If you aren’t humble then you may think you know it all – not a good starting point for continuous learning which is key to staying relevant and effective.
Collaborative: By words and actions, developing a safe, collaborative culture in the team. Encouraging people to learn from each other, not compete. The SM shouldn’t need to be a referee – referees are only needed where people on the team are competing/arguing and one party needs to be right and the other wrong. The SM should aim for light touch or no touch in the day to day operation of the team. The scrum events are for the team, not for the SM – they only get involved to ensure they are  effective meetings. Instead they need to show the team the tools they need to self organise, and develop a sense of joint accountability for results.
Committed: The ScrumMaster must show leadership by being totally committed to Scrum and the Team they are developing/coaching. Even if it is a part-time job, it should be no 1 priority.
Influential – able to get the team to try new tools and meet new challenges without telling them they must do it
Knowledgable: The SM should have in-depth understanding of agile concepts and Scrum, and be able to articulate them. But they should also know enough about what the team does (technology, customers, etc) to understand what they are saying, help them identify challenges/shortcomings, develop key capabilities, etc.
There are also different views of how senior/junior the SM should be. A senior person may have implicit ‘authority’ over the team (even if not expressed) and the team may struggle to take ownership/responsibility themselves, looking to the senior SM to make hard decisions, smooth over cracks, etc. But a junior person, while avoiding this, may not be perceptive to the teams challenges, may not have authority to get the team resources they need, etc. I think the best balance is a true ‘peer’ of others on the team – but this mightn’t be possible always.
Another topic is – how should a ScrumMaster be selected? By ‘management’ or by the team themselves? Should a rugby team choose their own coach? I think this depends on the maturity of the team, and its members. More mature teams may have developed ways to reach consensus on difficult topics like these. They may have developed a sense of what challenges them, and where they want to develop. They may then be in a position to identify the person that would best help them achieve their goals. But I think this would be a stretch for a team starting out, or where the team has not ‘gelled’. In this case, I think an agile coach or management should involve the team in the decision, take on board their views, get buy-in – even if they don’t leave the decision entirely to the team themselves.
Also, you need to consider is how the ScrumMaster role might change over time – adaptive leadership. While the ScrumMaster might adopt a ‘directive’ style early in the teams life (telling them how to do it), they may move to more coaching, supporting and delegating styles at different stages of the team lifecycle. Search for articles on ‘Adaptive Leadership’ to get more details on this.
While Scrum does allow for a ScrumMaster to also be part of the development team, performing work on the product (coding, testing, designing, etc) its important that the role isn’t ‘diluted’ so much that it becomes second or third priority for the person concerned. While teams that are merely ‘doing agile’ – i.e. going through the motions of scrum events, etc may not feel the ScrumMaster role is significant, I find more mature teams begin to see the real value of the role and tend to make it a full time, specialised skill within the team. A part-time, thinly spread ScrumMaster role can indicate an organisation that is not investing in its long term capability – it is paying lip service to Scrum in the interests of appearing progressive while not truly transforming into an agile organisation where everyone is invested and engaged in maximising value production.
Personal experience: 
In some organisations, project managers are seen as peers to the development teams – and here, if they can make the fundamental shift from ‘I’m responsible for the project’ to ‘I’m responsible for building team capability so they can be responsible for the project’ then I’ve seen them become good ScrumMasters. Also, senior technical folks, where their personal style is inclusive, mentoring, participative, can do very well (they tend to be respected for their competence rather than organisational position). Twice in my experience, companies have rotated the roll – I wouldn’t advise it as a long term strategy, though they did eventually settle on a team member that worked well – so maybe allow a few people try it out before settling on someone.
The best ScrumMasters I’ve come across tend to be ‘nurturing’ type people, but no push-overs – i.e. they need to be determined to make Scrum work, the way its meant to work. Ideally, they are respected and others will want to support them in making Scrum successful.

Beware cheap imitations!

Over the last month I’ve been hearing disturbing reports about the standard of trainers used by a new ‘low cost’ company based in Dublin. Just today I spoke with someone who attended their Professional ScrumMaster course recently. Her comment was: “It was a complete waste of time, and the trainer had a very poor knowledge of scrum”. I also note their course descriptions are curiously similar to those available on my website…

Scrum.org has opened up Scrum training to a wider set of training companies – but the downside is the possibility of ‘cowboy’ trainers looking to make a quick buck. Always look for references if you don’t know the trainers involved and remember, saving a few quid on the training fee can be a false economy – its your time thats the real cost.

AgileTour Presentation Available for Download

Following a great day of presentations, discussion and networking last Thursday, the slides from several AgileTour speakers are now available – I’ll be adding others over the coming days:

Please attribute any slides you use or modify to the original author.

Kanban in IT – 2 day training course Dublin 28/29 Oct

AgileInnovation will be running an intensive 2 day training course on Kanban in Dublin 28/29th October. Full of interactive exercises and simulations, this course explains why Kanban works so well as an agile method and can be applied in areas where methods like Scrum sometimes struggle. We’ll cover the concepts and science behind Kanban as well as all the practices and tools used by practitioners to increase flow in their development processes, reduce waste and develop a continuous improvement culture.

For more details, see our course overview.

AgileTour Dublin 2014 – Program Announced!

AgileInnovation is co-sponsoring the Free AgileTour Dublin conference again this year. We’re planning a full day event with 2 parallel tracks covering expert presentations, experience reports from organisations using agile, and tutorials. Registration is being kindly organised by Frederic Oehl and is now open with spaces limited to 100 attendees (€20 registration fee)

  • Up to 8 organizations discussing their experiences with agile methods, including Scrum and Kanban. Issues they’ve encountered applying the theory to the real world, benefits and drawbacks of agile and things they would do differently if they could turn back the clock.
  • Presentations covering Testing in an agile team, an introduction to agile, tips and tricks for using Kanban and how to develop a continuous improvement culture.
  • And plenty of opportunities for networking and learning about agile from your peers – all for just €20!

Full Conference ProgramRegistration Link

Advanced Product Owner, Kanban and ScrumMaster Certification courses scheduled for September 2014

We’ve just scheduled these really popular courses for September – given the quality of our trainer we expect them to book up rapidly!

Advanced Product Owner (2 days) 16/17 Sept: For organizations already using agile, the PO role can be the hardest to get right. This course is for practitioners who want to deepen and scale their agile implementations – a full course description is available here.

ScrumMaster Certification (2 days) 25/26 Sept: With this course you get a really great foundation in agile and scrum, and a certification to prove it. This is our most popular course, with loads of interactive exercises and a full scrum simulation which is not only fun, but a great way to see how it really works. Details here.

Getting Lean with Kanban (2 days) 10/11 Sept TBC: A comprehensive introduction to the application of Lean principles to IT development and operations, using the Kanban method to drive continuous improvement and create efficient, productive flow in your IT organization. Details here.

 

Agile for Architects

Concepts underlying emergent architecture and design – an Agile Architecture Masterclass, Dublin June 13th
On June 13th, the Irish Computer Society are hosting an IT Architects Conference in Dublin. AgileInnovation will be presenting a MasterClass on Agile, focusing on Agile principles of specific interest to architects such as emergent design, refactoring and incremental, modular feature delivery. We’ll discuss how architecture fits with the iterative development at the core of agile and how agile can help in the design of high quality, loosely-coupled applications. For details and to register see the IASA website.