Agile coaching

The Importance Of Having A Scrum Master

29 April 2019 • 4 min read

The Importance Of Having A Scrum Master(1)

The Scrum Master role can be one of the most varied and rewarding in a Scrum team. They may not own the product and set the priorities for the team; they may not have their code in a production environment for customers to use - but a great Scrum Master helps the team move forward and become a high-performing unit.

Before we delve into how a Scrum Master helps their team move towards higher performance, let’s go back and see what the Scrum Guide says.

The Scrum Guide’s definition


The Scrum Guide states that: ‘The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization.’


It then goes on to say: ‘The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.’

For me, the above means that the Scrum Master ‘owns’ the theory of Agile and Scrum and uses their knowledge to guide teams towards high performance. For instance, in the heat of delivery, it’s easy for teams to make decisions based on old habits that can cause problems later down the line. This can include skipping essential Scrum Events, because ‘we’re too busy at the moment.’ A good Scrum Master holds the team to account and coaches them to understand why missing certain events is not a good idea.


The guide goes on to say: ‘Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.’


This does not mean that the Scrum Master is a team leader but means they should lead on and develop the Agile and Lean mindset while serving the team, the Product Owner (PO) and the organisation.


Unpacking the role


The Scrum Master needs to wear many different hats at different times.


For example, when a team is new to Scrum, the Scrum Master should spend time making sure the team members understand Scrum and the theory behind the framework. In this context, a Scrum Master should be wearing the following hats:


  • Teaching
  • Mentoring
  • Facilitating
  • Coaching

The Scrum Master should help the team set up: training the team in Scrum and teaching them techniques to help them maintain the Product Backlog. The Scrum Master will probably facilitate the first few Scrum Events until the team are used to their format and will spend time removing blockers, shielding them to allow them to get on with their job as a development team. The Scrum Master will need to educate other areas of the business, especially in organisations that are new to Agile.


As the team becomes used to Scrum, the Scrum Master’s focus moves away from teaching and more to coaching the team toward high performance. As well as helping the team stick to Agile and Scrum processes, the Scrum Master also looks at how the team’s processes can be made more efficient to deliver value more quickly, without affecting the team’s ability to deliver.


Aggregating marginal gains


Let’s quickly talk about cycling. Sir David Brailsford, Ineos’s (formerly Sky’s) cycling team manager, created a highly effective approach known as ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’.


This theory looks at every aspect of an activity, breaking it down and attempting to improve it by 1%. This could be from how the riders hold their heads to reduce wind resistance, to even bringing the riders’ own mattresses to hotel rooms so they can sleep in the same position. On its own, this change won’t help them win the Tour De France, but putting all the marginal gains together added up to a big improvement overall.


In the same way, Scrum teams should look at making marginal gains within their processes to add to their overall efficiency. Scrum Masters can track metrics, including:


  • cycle time: the time it takes from development to completion
  • percentage sprint goals completed
  • churn: how many additional items were brought into sprint

By using metrics to help identify areas that can be improved, the team can then look to make small gains in each area until they’ve reached a level of efficiency they’re happy with.


Sharing the Scrum Master mentality


Assuming the team has stayed relatively consistent over time, probably at least a year, they will naturally start to take on some of the activities the Scrum Master does. They will be well versed in Scrum and will also be in a position to facilitate their own events and remove blockers, without impacting delivery.


So what happens to their Scrum Master? At this point, the Scrum Master may take on another team who needs help with Scrum and Agile - or may help the organisation move to Agile ways of working.


A final thought


The Scrum Master role is highly varied, and evolves with the team’s need. A good Scrum Master can be kept very busy adding value to the team across every stage of a product. A team will move at their own pace, and a good Scrum Master will help them naturally increase their speed of delivery and their autonomy, until the team’s own capability and understanding means they no longer need the Scrum Master.

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