The Agile Mindset Blog

How to Choose the Right ScrumMaster: Part 1

How to Choose the Right ScrumMaster: Part 1

In our previous blog series, we looked at traditional organizational roles that sometimes move into the Product Owner role. We also examined the benefits and pitfalls of “converting” these individuals to product owners.

Now, let’s answer the same question for the ScrumMaster role. Who makes a good ScrumMaster?

Before we can answer that question, we need to examine two other questions, first:

  • What does a ScrumMaster produce?
  • What are the characteristics of a good ScrumMaster?

So what, exactly, does a ScrumMaster produce? Note that I didn’t ask “What does a ScrumMaster do?” That is a different question. Throughout the day, a ScrumMaster may do many things: attend meetings, facilitate, answer questions. But what, exactly, do all those activities produce?

I would assert that a good ScrumMaster truly only produces two things: the removal of impediments and the facilitation of the Scrum process. All activities a ScrumMaster engages in throughout the day should ultimately aim to produce those two things. With this in mind, let’s go back to our second question:

  • What are the characteristics of someone who can effectively remove impediments and facilitate the Scrum process?

While they certainly need to be smart and well-organized, those generic terms might describe almost any professional position. So, what traits or skills might you find in a good ScrumMaster that are not as common in the general population?

A good ScrumMaster is other-oriented. Good ScrumMasters are excellent students of human nature. They read body language and facial expressions very well, and can often hear the “question behind the question” that others do not.

A good ScrumMaster has a coaching personality. They enjoy helping others grow, develop, and succeed. They often get more pleasure out of others’ successes than they do their own.

A good ScrumMaster is comfortable with conflict, when it leads to growth. When we introduce agile principles like Scrum into an organization, we are not just asking people to change the way they work. Often, we are asking them to change what they believe. Anytime you start pushing on someone’s belief system, it can feel threatening. The best ScrumMasters know that conflict is a necessary part of growth, and they welcome it.

In fact, people with these characteristics can come from almost anywhere in the organization. Even a small company may have several (if not dozens) of people who fit this description. But, if this is true, why don’t we have organizations full of spectacular ScrumMasters?

The short answer is: your ScrumMaster most likely has not been a ScrumMaster forever. While he/she may have the right characteristics, he/she did some other job before and that other job has baggage associated with it. Some skills from that previous job will translate nicely to the ScrumMaster role, but others will not. The key is knowing which skills and practices contribute to a ScrumMaster’s success and which must be left behind – or, in some cases, unlearned.

Project Manager to ScrumMaster

Many organizations implement this transition without so much as a second thought. They think, “We need someone who will look after the Team, help the Product Owner, clear up blocking issues – that sounds exactly like a project manager!” As a matter of fact, here is a fun and rather embarrassing (at least for the party involved) Scrum fact: a few years ago, one of the popular Scrum tool vendors created a Scrum “educational” video in which they referred to the ScrumMaster as “basically, a project manager.” They were mocked endlessly in the Scrum community until they finally corrected it.

While ScrumMasters and project managers certainly perform some of the same activities, what they produce is quite different. A project manager is expected to produce a project that is delivered on time and within budget. A ScrumMaster not only doesn’t have those responsibilities – they cannot have them. To do so would cause a major conflict of interest. Rather, it is the Product Owner who is responsible for the time and money spent. It is the Team who is responsible for delivering what they say they will within the sprint while maintaining high technical quality. The ScrumMaster is there to support these individuals in making those things happen.

So, what might go wrong when you take a former project manager and put him/her into the ScrumMaster role? Good project managers usually have strong, directive personalities. Often (and this is frequently automatic and subconscious, meaning they don’t even realize they are doing it), they come into a situation, take control and start telling people what to do. As project managers, they are incented to do just that – exert control.

ScrumMasters, on the other hand, must avoid being directive. As long as they tell the Team what to do, the Team will not have opportunities to figure things out for themselves and will not learn to self-manage. As long as they write user stories for the Product Owner and organize the product backlog “to help”, the Product Owner will never get better at doing those things independently. In an ironic twist, the project manager/ScrumMaster often ultimately makes the organization weaker (and certainly less agile) because they lack the courage to step aside and let the Team and Product Owner flounder a bit, so they can ultimately grow and become stronger in their respective roles.

Do former project managers ever make good ScrumMasters? Yes, certainly. But the tendency to control and take charge needs to be tamped down. Project managers who want to transition to the ScrumMaster role should practice asking questions and making observations, rather than giving directives. They should listen more than they talk. And, above all, they should give up any idea that they “control” the project, the Team – or anyone or anything, really, other than themselves. If the ScrumMaster focuses on removing impediments and facilitating, the Scrum process itself will take care of everything else.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about what might happen if we move someone from a leadership position—a team lead or manager—into the ScrumMaster role.


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