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Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
January 24, 2018 · 10 min read

5 Scrum Masters Share Best Advice for Leading High-Performing Teams

5 Scrum Masters Share Advice

If you’re working on a complex project, whether it’s a mobile app, website redesign, or product, there’s really no better way to manage your team and your time than with Scrum.

Named for its similarity to the Rugby “scrum” where teammates huddle together and plan their moves, Scrum is an Agile project management framework that involves high-performing, cross-functional teams coming together to plan, build, and iterate until the project is finished.

At the very heart of Scrum is a special role known as the Scrum Master.

Yes, this might sound like something out of dungeons and dragons, but the truth is that if you’re building a project using Scrum, you need someone to guide and keep your team on track. But what exactly does a Scrum Master do? A simple Google search will will bring up hundreds of courses teaching you the ways of the Scrum Master, but unfortunately that’s where it stops.

We wanted to learn what it’s like leading a high-performing Scrum team from the people who actually do it. So today, we spoke with 5 top Scrum Masters from around the world, who have worked for companies like American Express, Cisco, and Dell, to help uncover the reality of being a Scrum Master—their role, responsibilities, and how they manage an effective and efficient Agile team.

If you’ve ever been curious about what it takes to be a Scrum Master, this will get you there.

Before we dive in… Technology is the backbone that keeps great Scrum Master’s on track. If you’re looking for a powerful project management tool designed specifically for Agile and Scrum, check out Planio. You can even get a free 30-day trial by signing up right here.

What is a Scrum Master?

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take,” wrote American mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Scrum follows the same sentiment. You know the direction you’re working in, but are well aware that the path that gets you there might change along the way. If we think of Scrum in this way, then the Scrum Master is the one making sure that the team stays on course towards their final destination, no matter what steps they take.

More specifically, the Scrum Master has a set of specific skills that allow them to get the best from their team, while also holding the team accountable to themselves and the commitments they make.

This could mean anything from facilitating the daily Scrum meetings (called standups), to shielding the team from outside stakeholders who might want to expand the project’s scope, to coaching Agile project management principles and making sure nothing is getting in the way of the team doing their best work.

As Andy Sio, an Agile coach and founder of Strategic Quadrant puts it, a Scrum Master is like a doctor for your Agile team:

“Like a doctor, the Scrum master needs to monitor ‘vital signs’ to determine whether the teams are progressing and performing to the best of their abilities. If not, the Scrum master needs to diagnose root causes and work with the teams to identify workable solutions to overcome the issues.”

As Scrum Masters spend the majority of their time communicating status, goals, and issues for internal and external teams, Sio also says it’s important that they focus on developing soft skills such as effective communication, facilitation, and even work on their charisma.

“You want people to feel good after leaving the meetings,” he explains. “And effective meeting facilitation skills will do that while yielding higher team discussion and engagement.”

This might sound like a management position, but it’s important to understand that the Scrum Master is not a manager. In Scrum, teams are self-managing, meaning the Scrum Master is more of a coach and guide. In fact, most of the Scrum Masters we spoke to described themselves as a “servant leader”—a leader who exists to serve the people, not the other way around.

“Being a servant-leader, a Scrum Master who has high charisma is more likely to effectively lead, influence, attract, and motivate teams and people around them. These attributes are key to changing a culture that is part of any agile transformation work,” explains Sio.

What are the Scrum Master’s Roles and Responsibilities?

If the role of the Scrum is to guide and coach the Scrum methodology, how exactly do they do that? And what are their exact responsibilities to the team?

A Great Scrum Master

“In my eyes a great scrum master has these 3 competencies: She’s organized, asks the right questions, and is a good problem solver,” explains Grayson Smith, a Product Manager and Scrum Master at Jackrabbit Mobile in Austin, Texas.

“As a scrum master, you are responsible for making sure process is followed and everyone’s time is valued properly. What this process is, though, is up to your team to define.”

If you’re not sure where to begin, Smith suggests starting with some of the Scrum basics and then adopting a structure based on what works best for your team. Some of the base responsibilities of all Scrum Masters include:

Most of all, however, Smith says that a good Scrum Master serves the team and acts as a gateway between the team and the stakeholders, knowing when to put up the walls to allow work, and when to bring them down:

“A good scrum master also understands how to balance taking the reins to solve a problem themselves, and when to involve the product manager or product owner.”

How Successful Scrum Masters Support High-Performance Teams

A Scrum Master is only as good as the people on their team. Especially given the fact that Scrum teams are self-managed. According to Sio, this means “a good performing Scrum team needs to have team members who are self-motivated, cross-functional, and customer-focused. More importantly, like sports teams, Scrum teams need to focus on the team’s success over individual success.”

As a Scrum Master, your role is to always have the final product in your sights, pointing your high-performing team in the right direction and letting them have at it. Let’s run through each of the main responsibilities of a Scrum Master and hear how these Masters handle them efficiently and effectively.

Product backlog refinement and estimation

An Agile project starts with knowing the clear steps you need to take to build functional software for your users. This means breaking down your big, final goal into tiny increments to work on.

This is called the product backlog, and in Scrum, the Scrum Master helps this process by working with the Product Owner to “groom” it. Grooming involves going through each piece, or “user story” and estimating the time and effort it will take to finish.

During these grooming sessions, there are a number of ways the Scrum Master can help, such as:

The beauty of Agile is that teams don’t have to have a complete, well-refined product backlog prior to starting development. But rather, there’s an understanding that the backlog will change and be refined throughout the process.

“What I usually do is to help scrum teams focus on product goals and visions to deliver customers values,” explains Sio. “Then, scrum teams should develop and sequence a high-level roadmap to achieve those goals. Having said that, scrum teams need to spend the time to break down the high level of work into smaller and independent user stories, which allow the teams to deliver value to customers faster.”

To break down bigger goals into smaller user stories, Shaun Gamboa, a veteran scrum master and former innovation manager at the District 3 startup incubator, suggests following the S.M.A.R.T framework. This means making sure each independent user story is:

Once the backlog is properly groomed and user stories are clearly defined, it’s time to start building.

Sprint planning

The development cycle of Agile and Scrum is all based around short-term Sprints in which items from the Product Backlog are built into working product. A typical sprint lasts between 1–4 weeks and should remain the same length throughout the entire project as this enables teams to plan future work more accurately based on their past performance.

At the beginning of a sprint cycle, the Scrum Master works with the Product Owner and team to help estimate and plan out what can and should be completed by the end of the sprint. While the Product Owner will decide what User Stories are most important to focus on at this point, it’s up to the Scrum Master to facilitate open dialog and discussion to make sure the team isn’t taking on too much.

“While I usually change my approach based on the team I’m working with two constants are that I always set aside time to groom the backlog myself and I always have a discussion-based sprint planning session,” explains Smith.

This discussion-based planning can take many forms. But for Gamboa, the best analogy for how to plan your sprint is to think of it like setting up a scientific experiment:

“When I plan sprints, I take 100% of what we believe “done” will look like and break it down by increments. The sprint then, is a hypothesis that everyone has agreed upon that will be an 1/nth increment towards “done”. As we work, we’re testing our hypothesis through building, measuring, and learning, so we can adjust our approach the next time around.”

One thing that’s important to note is that the Scrum Master doesn’t have any decision-making authority at these sprint planning meetings. They’re simply there to help guide and estimate the time each sprint will take.

Standups

Throughout the duration of a sprint, the Scrum Master plays an important role in checking in daily with the team and making sure any roadblocks are dealt with swiftly. During these daily 15-minute “standups” the Scrum Master usually asks a series of standard questions:

Gamboa breaks this down into an even simpler statement, saying standups are all about “Communicating how we will win today and how we can help each other today and tomorrow.”

While it seems simple, these short questions can quickly turn into long conversations. So, it’s important that the Scrum Master keeps a handle on the communication.

“If team members don’t follow the standup update structure you have set up, tactful reminders from the scrum master can keep the standup relevant and efficient,” explains Smith. “As discussions arise that might best be solved by a few people on the team, and not the team as a whole, it is your job to raise that fact and ask those team members to have a parking lot discussion after the standup.”

Additionally, it’s up to the Scrum Master to make sure everyone feels comfortable about the work that’s being done. Daily standups often go against the way most of us are used to working. During Sprints, team members develop an intrinsic interest in shared goals and learn to manage each other to achieve them. Being accountable to a peer group is unfamiliar territory for most workers who are used to a more hierarchical environment. Yet, this is where the Scrum Master’s skills of observation and persuasion come in handy.

To help push through the discomfort, Smith says it’s vital that the Scrum Master asks engineers clarifying questions during the standup. This serves 2 purposes:

  1. It helps the team better understand something that you perceive the person might not be explicitly stating, but means to say
  2. It allows the team as a whole to potentially solve a problem on the spot with the help of a bit more context and information

Lastly, it’s important that the Scrum Master limits the daily standups to just the engineering team, even if there are external stakeholders who want to take part:

“If not managed properly, these folks can make the standup absolutely useless for the team itself as it often turns the meeting into posturing for higher ups, as opposed to a quick huddle to help the team solve problems among themselves,” explains Smith. “Explaining to stakeholders the proper outlet for their feedback, as well as the way that them attending standup affects the candor of the team can help avoid this.”

Sprint retrospectives

Each Sprint ends with a retrospective—a meeting where the team comes together to reflect on their own process, inspect their behavior, and find ways to adapt it going forward. Not everyone is comfortable with this level of scrutiny on how they work, and so it’s important for the Scrum Master to create a environment of psychological safety and support.

Sio describes the primary goals of a Scrum retrospective as twofold:

  1. Identify specific areas that teams can implement and improve in the next or near-future sprints
  2. Celebrate team success and keep up morale

“I like to use the start, stop, and continue method,” says Sio.

“I hand out post-its to team members to write down what they would start, stop, and continue doing in the next sprint. Then, I collect the post-its by grouping similar ideas into an affinity diagram. I also use a multi-voting approach to have team members vote on the most pressing issues that the team wants to address in next sprint.”

The Post-it system works especially well as it allows the Scrum Master to hear from more introverted team members who might not feel comfortable speaking up in a group.

Start Stop Continue Method

This is especially important, as the goal of a retrospective is always to help the team see where they can do better during the next sprint, even if it’s hard to hear.

As Gamboa explains: “A successful retrospective means someone’s feelings probably got hurt but then they took that lesson and became a better team member and person from it. An unsuccessful one means no one had anything to say.”

Measuring metrics and defining success

Scrum relies heavily on measuring your results and adjusting your approach accordingly. A successful Scrum Master can help by beings the eyes and ears of the team—keeping a pulse on whether you’re hitting the metrics you need to hit. And if not, helping find ways to change.

But what metrics should the Scrum Master be looking at?

According to Kamlesh Ravlani, a certified scrum master and coach at Agile for Growth, there are dozens of metrics used by Agile teams, including:

However, it’s impossible to optimize around all of these metrics. So instead, Ravlani says it’s important that you identify 2-3 key metrics you want to optimize for.

“I’ve a Rule of Thumb that I use with the leaders and teams I coach,” he explains. “Any Metric that the leaders, stakeholders and team members want to measure and track should have: a) A defined target, and b) an end date after which measuring this metric may not yield much benefits for the organization and hence would be stopped.”

As an example, let’s say your team lead wants to measure the Cycle Time—one of the most fundamental metrics used by most Agile organizations. The shorter the Cycle Time, the faster you are able to pick the new ideas, implement them, and release to your customers.

Sounds great, in theory. But Ravlani explains that simply optimizing for this one metric without a clear goal and end date doesn’t give you a real picture of whether or not your team is being successful.

“Most Agilists forget that releasing features faster may not reflect true benefits for the customer as well as the organization,” he explains. “Going faster is beneficial only if the organization is heading in the right direction. If it is not, it can actually hurt the organization. It’s like a headless chicken, does it matter if it’s running fast or faster?”

Having an end date besides your target also helps you to take a pause and look at the benefits you’re getting from improving that metric. If at the end of your experiment you aren’t seeing the results you wanted, you then know it’s time to stop and pick another one to measure and improve.

Final thoughts on being an effective Scrum Master

The scrum master’s role is both as a leader and a follower, which isn’t easy to do. It takes a certain kind of personality to be able to listen intently to your team and not try to manage, but rather help them help themselves.

If you’re more curious about Agile product development, check out our ultimate guide to Agile and grab a free trial of Planio—the best project management tool for Agile teams.

Start your free trial right here.