A day of an Agile Master (Part I)
One evening last year I had a class at Sofia University in a classroom full of young and eager to learn students, most of them already working in different IT companies… As I was going to speak at a conference the next day and the topic was regarding the Scrum Master maturity growth, we decided it’s a good idea to practice the talk together. After I presented all the cool stuff I had prepared, I was curious about the feedback and what the students had understood about the evolution of a Scrum Master, but at some point, a student very honestly asked me:
Hmm, ok! But really, what do you do the whole day?
On the eve after, I quickly added some slides referring to my actual work activities… And I realized this is an important aspect, to make it clear what I do and how my job adds value to the others. And here I am, a year later writing an article.
For the sake of simplicity, we will focus the article on a team context, but we can extrapolate almost everything from the team to individual or organizational levels.
Always start with the “Why?”
The Scrum Master’s purpose is to be an enabler for the team. His main goal is to help the team evolve and become high-performing and high-productive. Note, I intentionally used “evolve” and not “build” as the true Scrum Master can’t build the team according to his vision. He can only support the team’s growth in a positive direction. Think of the Scrum Master as a parent, who guides, influences, and protects his children, but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of unique evolution of the individual.
Could you comment on your experience of working with Scrum Masters?
The team is full of experts in domains, like software engineering, quality assurance, software architecture, etc. The Scrum Master must become an expert in everything outside these domains, for instance: inter-team dynamics, organizational systems, and facilitation. One more team member gives you one more expert in engineering practices. Having a Scrum Master means there is a person dedicated to everything no one is an expert in. You can find a detailed description of the role in the Scrum Guide by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. (Link)
What kind of master is the Scrum Master?
”Nah! It’s just wording…“
Actually, wording highly matters! Тhe mess built upon misunderstood key terms becomes a huge issue with time. The “Master” in the Scrum Master has NOTHING to do with “Master-Slave” relationships. The Scrum Master is not superior to anyone. In fact, the Scrum Master is a non-power role. It’s a servant-leadership role, totally the opposite of many command-and-control ones, like most management roles.
Being a Scrum Master has evolved into a multidisciplinary role. Things totally don’t end with Scrum, we need someone mastering more and more Agile practices. There is a broad range of skills, knowledge, Agile and Lean techniques which are just as important. It is essential for the person in the role to constantly improve, read books, attend conferences, take part in groups and discussions regarding agility, and most importantly learn in an agile way: practicing, experimenting, and adapting. Taking all these various skills and multidisciplinary experiences into account, we strongly prefer the term, Agile Master.
Have you met real Agile masters?
The Agile Master has a deep understanding of the purpose of the Agile techniques because he is supposed to teach and explain them. He enhances agility in all levels of the organization and to do so he has to be agile as well. He should have an Agile mind, thinking, beliefs, and behaviors – The Agile mindset.
The Lean/Agile mindset
The Agile Manifesto: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it…”
The skillful Agile Master is an expert in Agile and Lean. As a non-power role, the Agile Master has to lead by example. It is not enough to just teach others in аgility! You have to be agile yourself, to have the mindset, and to live and behave according to the values and principles behind the Agile Manifesto.
If you’re looking for a career as a Scrum Master, consider the above statements. In case you prefer to manage people, demand to have the authority and power to direct your ideas and solutions to others – maybe you need to rethink your choice. Actually, please, do everyone a favor and choose another job.
Scrum Master is not a step to the traditional Project management, in fact, they are incompatible. Agile leaders are considered to be the next step of the evolution beyond the good-old command-and-control management. The traditional project management background is often considered a drawback for someone applying for a Scrum Master position.
An Agile Master needs system thinking
Every organization, part of an organization, team, or a single person is a Complex System. Complex Systems are difficult to understand, they are often irrational and in contrast with common sense.
Imagine the following situation:
A new member joins a team of six people. Suddenly, a week later, this team starts to perform poorly and complain about things they were doing successfully in the past months! The managers are wondering what happened – the team was amazing and seemed to be indestructible just a week ago!
The Agile Master should understand the team as a system, having dynamics. Teams have a life cycle: they emerge, evolve, and improve, sometimes they make steps back. They are not born in the desired state; they should walk their way to this state. Often people from the management complain about why the team is behaving in a particular way. The skillful Agile Master understands the team dysfunctions and the difference between growth problems and underperformance.
System thinking helps us see how changes in one part of the system affect a totally different part of it. The Agile Master should understand that a new member means a new team, having new dynamics and balance. So, we must cover many lessons again just because of the “small change”.
Powerful observations or “The art of doing nothing”
A very important and powerful characteristic of the Agile Master is to provide outside perspective. Usually, the teams are so deep into the day-to-day dynamics, that they miss seeing important aspects, just because they are simply too close. The Agile Master should be able to take a step back, observe from a distance, and provide the Big Picture.
As Agile Masters we intentionally don’t take part in many discussions and we are not even interested in the actual case, instead, we try to observe and understand the details and dynamics. For instance: Is everybody having airtime to talk or only specific people take an active part? Is there tension in the team? Do we solve the problem or the symptom? Do the team members speak openly or there is a hidden agenda?
All these are called Powerful Observations.
Any examples of Powerful Observations?
You are not here to provide solutions!
Most of us are trained to find solutions for complex issues. The Agile Master has to learn to stop doing that. The team is the one who invents the solutions and learns how to do it better and better. Тhis is the only way for the team to grow.
The truth is that the team’s solution is always better than yours! Don’t get me wrong – it is not because your solution is poor, it is because it doesn’t fit in their hands as their own would.
When I realized that I should not find the solutions, I got a bit upset. I was pretty good at that and it was like an unused potential to me. But after a while I got it! I had to change the way I think. Instead of asking me “How to solve problem X?”, I transformed the question into “How to help the team solve problem X?”. Easier said than done, I know!
Do you recall cases when your solutions did not work?
This way of thinking led me to even more challenging problems to solve:
“Which point of view is the team missing?”, “Are they stuck?”, “How to challenge them, so they can come up with new ideas?”, “Which tools will help them?”.
So, which qualities should the Agile Master have?
The Agile Master’s primary focus is the people, their interactions, and emotions. The true Agile Master understands his teammates and likes to spend time with them. He treats them like human beings, respects them, and genuinely wants to give his best to help everyone become happier at their job. The goal is to contribute to everyone’s well-being, even at the cost of many self-sacrifices. This is what it means to be a true “servant-leader” – the Agile Master serves his teammates and while doing that he’s leading by example. This is the most powerful way to influence how people should treat each other and work together. Sometimes that could even mean confronting the managers, risking his own job (Yes, this had happened to me!).
How difficult is it for you to empathize with your team?
In Part II we will answer some of the most frequently asked questions, like:
Is being a Scrum Master a full-time job?
How many teams should a single Scrum Master have?
Should the Scrum Master have a technical background?
What is the Scrum Master’s career path?