As ScrumMasters work to enhance their knowledge of Scrum and help their organizations move towards agile transformation, there is definitely a time and place to use Scrum-specific books to help with that. Books like mine, 30 Days to Better Agile, give specific and targeted advice about how to fix some of the most common problems that occur during an agile transformation.
But to build the wide and versatile skillset needed to truly excel at the job, ScrumMasters would be well-served to look at a broader set of resources. By tapping into the insights and learnings from a diverse set of individuals and ideas, a ScrumMaster can often make valuable inferences that directly apply to their Scrum practices.
Below are five great books that, at first glance, have nothing to do with Scrum. But each holds tidbits of wisdom that will bolster a ScrumMaster’s skillset and set him on the way to becoming a true servant leader.
The Fighter’s Mind by Sam Sheridan
A book about wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and MMA (mixed martial arts) might seem like an unlikely choice to build good ScrumMastering skills, but nothing could be further from the truth. In his book, Sam interviews dozens of fighters and trainers. Fighting, not surprisingly, is as much a mental competition as it is a physical one. The key to becoming a great trainer is to understand your fighter, sometimes better than they understand themselves. One trainer gives the advice: “Always trust your corner.” Sometimes, in the heat of battle, the fighter cannot see the true situation. In those cases, they should always listen to their trainer (their “corner”) because that person can see the situation more calmly and clearly.
Likewise, ScrumMasters can find themselves in a unique position to help their teams. Unlike the team members who are “down in it”, the ScrumMaster is to a certain extent “up above it.” She can see patterns and make inferences that team members may miss. This book is filled with stories and advice for helping team members succeed under sometimes phenomenal pressure, and these concepts are a valuable resource in a ScrumMaster’s toolkit.
What Every BODY is Saying by Joe Navarro
In the Retrospective meeting, a ScrumMaster can’t fix a problem if he can’t get his team to talk about the problem – but too often team members don’t feel safe bringing up difficult subjects. The result is that the whole meeting happens at a trivial level and nothing comes of it. One way to avoid this is for the ScrumMaster to learn how to interpret not just what is being said, but also what is not being said. To do that, you must be able to interpret non-verbal cues such as body posture and vocal tone.
Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent, offers fascinating advice on how to expertly read people this way. Such tools may help the ScrumMaster understand the “elephant in the room” that no one is addressing. He can then ask questions and make observations to broach the topic in a way that feels safe to the team.
Just Listen by Mark Goulston, MD
Mark, a psychiatrist by training, got his start teaching FBI and police staff how to defuse hostage situations. Then he realized something: those same “fight or flight” feelings that a gunman experiences can show up in the workplace. He says, “The same tips I teach these professionals for building empathy, de-escalating conflict, and gaining buy-in will work in any situation.”
One of the key skills a ScrumMaster needs is the ability to successfully de-escalate conflict. For some of our colleagues, change is scary – for others, it is out-and-out threatening. An agile practice like Scrum can bring a lot of change, and ScrumMasters can use the techniques taught in this book to help their colleagues through change in a way that feels safe to them. This book is a valuable reference for anyone who has found themselves in the position of trying to get past another person’s hostility to productive communication.
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
In an agile transformation, sooner or later this question will emerge: what is a leader’s role in an agile organization? How has it changed? The answer to that last question may be “quite a bit” depending on the culture that existed before. Unlike a command-and-control structure where leaders pressure teams in an effort to get the best out of them, an agile practice like Scrum relies heavily on intrinsic motivation. More specifically, Scrum asserts that an agile leader’s job is to do just two things: get the right people in the right job and remove their impediments. Then, says Scrum, the people can pretty much take it from there.
A leader who seems to intuitively understand this is Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos. Throughout the book, he details how developing and adhering to the 10 Zappos Core Values (such as “build a positive team and family spirit” and “create fun and a little weirdness”) helped establish the incredible culture for which Zappos is known.
Many an agile transformation has been killed before it every really got started because leadership viewed Scrum as a way to squeeze more work out of their employees. With the tools and examples noted in this book, ScrumMasters can coach their leaders to provide the kind of support that will actually help – not hinder – an agile transformation. They can also help their leadership see how very important it is to create a work environment that lets people fulfill their intrinsic motivations. As Tony says, if they do that, the rest will take care of itself.
The One Thing by Gary Keller
Distractions are the bane of any Scrum team. Meetings, emails, production-support emergencies – all of these things pull the team away from their goal of delivering on their Sprint Commitment. Gary Keller (of Keller Williams Realty) had these same challenges, so he started working from a prioritized list to ensure he was spending his time well. That helped some but didn’t solve the problem, so the list got shorter, and shorter… until he landed on this elegant question:
“What is the one thing that, by doing it, will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”
Often, the message Scrum teams hear is that they need to work faster. When a team delivers faster, it is usually not because they are working faster – it is because they stopped doing low-value work. Good Scrum teams understand that the biggest improvements come from working smarter, not harder. Gary’s book can help ScrumMasters foster this attitude when they seek to get better, and help them focus on simplifying and spending their time effectively.
All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks
My final resource to offer you is not a book, but an Amazon Original Series: All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks. It tackles the tough question: how do you take the winningest rugby team in the world and help them continue to grow and improve? And even more challenging, how do you do that following back-to-back World Cups wins after which a huge portion of their star players (including captain Richie McCaw) retired?
Most people know the connection between rugby and Scrum (if you don’t, check out my answer to this question on Quora here). The series is a fascinating study of what high-performing teams really look like, how they have ups and downs like all teams and, importantly, what it takes to coach them. Steve Hansen, the head coach at the time of the series, is really a model of what it takes be a great ScrumMaster. He builds players up when they are down and calls bullshit when necessary. His low-key, no-nonsense attitude is reflected in the humility and work ethic expressed by the team.
ScrumMastering is a multi-faceted job. Keen observation skills, strong emotional intelligence, and the ability to coach rather than manage are just a few of the tools ScrumMasters should work to develop. When they do, they stand a great chance of building a high-performing team. And when that happens, they can fade into the background and let the team take the credit. They achieve this oft quoted line from the Tao Te Ching: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”