What does a Scrum Master do?

September 10, 2014

What are the key responsibilities that a Scrum Master should look after?

One of the most frequent questions I hear, especially from managers is: “Flavius, what are the actual responsibilities of a Scrum Master? Do they just hang around the water cooler all day and every now and then make a dash to refill the stock of sticky notes and markers? ” I think the answer to this question is an important one, because the Scrum Master role is unlike any other role in IT or other industries. The Scrum Master needs to make sure on a daily basis that the team consistently produces one of the rarest treasures: innovative ideas. To the concerned manager I say: “Rest assured, to a competent Scrum Master not even 8 hours a day are enough.”

While preparing a new workshop about advanced Scrum Master skills, I reflected a bit on the question: “What does a Scrum Master do?” There are several checklists on the Internet that detail the minutia of everyday tasks; I particularly like the ones by Michael James and Boris Gloger. But I think it’s useful for a Scrum Master to think about her role also in terms of higher level responsibilities. I came up with four hats that every Scrum Master should wear daily:

  • The  white hat  is about facilitating team interactions and decision making.
  • The red hat helps the Scrum Master remember her role as a performance guardian.
  • The green hat is put on by the servant leader.
  • The  yellow hat  means the Scrum Master is working as a change agent.

Team facilitator

Scrum Master responsibility: team facilitatorThe first responsibility of a Scrum Master is to be a facilitator for their team. In this role, she makes sure that the collaboration overhead is minimized, so that the team members can concentrate on their main responsibilities.

Of course, there are the main Sprint ceremonies to be organized (Sprint Planning, Review and Retrospective, the Daily Scrum), but there are a lot of other events that a good Scrum Master will help with:

  • Release Planning
  • Release Retrospective
  • Backlog Refinement
  • Client Interviews and Demos
  • Architecture Workshops
  • ATDD/BDD Specification Workshops

To ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of every meeting, the Scrum Master not only attends it, but thoroughly prepares for it, debriefs it and follows up on action items. For instance, for a project retrospective, a Scrum Master could spend one or two days gathering and formatting data regarding cycle time, work in progress, number of bugs or added scope. For a backlog refinement meeting, she will have two sessions with the Product Owner to make sure that all the latest requirements are captured as user stories. Yet another Scrum Master might choose to hold a 30′ session with the team members before the demo to make sure everybody knows the scenarios that will be presented.

The Scrum Master should also be a facilitator for their organization. For the different stakeholders, she might provide presentations or training sessions on Scrum. Other Scrum Masters even prepare customized reports that enable the stakeholders to better grasp the situation of the team.

Performance guardian

Scrum Master responsibility: Performance guardianIn their role as a performance guardian, the Scrum Master’s responsibility is to help the team achieve the goals of the organization.

The most popular way to do this is to be the so-called Chief Impediment Remover. As soon as the team identifies a problem (ex: missing servers or licenses, slow feedback from other people, lack of knowledge), the Scrum Master will use her organizational influence to solve it.

Next, the Scrum Master works with the team, management and the Product Owner to set up a metrics system for controlling outcomes. A lot of the teams choose to track their velocity from sprint to sprint and create a release burndown chart, but an experienced Scrum Master can go beyond that. Other metrics that a team can track:

  • Product Owner satisfaction every sprint
  • Operations team satisfaction every sprint
  • Production defects per month
  • Number of client calls per release

Another way to ensure the team is performing well is to help the organization manage itself visually. The most popular tool to do this is the value stream map. The team and its Scrum Master run a joint workshop with upstream and downstream teams (ex: product management and operations, respectively), identifying how value is created across the organization, not just at the team level. The next step would be to set up a visual Kanban board that is shared by all the teams, thus allowing the organization to track work from concept to cash (a term coined by Mary Poppendieck). All bottlenecks and any type of waste will become apparent after a few weeks.

Servant leader

Scrum Master responsibility: Servant leaderThe next responsibility of a Scrum Master is to be a servant leader. What is a servant leader, you ask? Well, it’s this odd bird that leads the team to achieve great results without having any type of formal authority, like a team leader or manager might have. If you’re thinking to yourself that it can’t be done, I beg to differ. There are two things that need to be taken care of though. First, the direction proposed by the Scrum Master as a leader needs to make sense. No more “because I said so!”. Instead, the team is brought into the decision-making loop. Second, the team must want to go in that direction. This is the servant part — the Scrum Master respects the team’s decisions and does not impose her own.

So what exactly does the Scrum Master do? One set of activities in described in my blog post series on the five duties of technical leaders. Here are a few:

  • inform team members of all decisions made by management
  • remind people that they are capable and expected of delivering “A”-grade work each day
  • bring people from across the company to problem-solving meetings
  • challenge people to develop their skills
  • create communities of practice

Another important task for the Scrum Master is to help the team members better understand each other. For instance, she might schedule a session where they discuss the forming-storming-norming-performing model of team evolution or the five dysfunctions of a team.

The Scrum Master is also the team’s coach. A good Scrum Master never wears headphones, because her attention should be at all times on what happens in the workspace. Whenever a positive event happens, like a developer and a tester spontaneously forming a pair to solve a problem, the Scrum Master will go over and provide them with positive reinforcement. In the case of negative events, like two colleagues getting into a big fight, she will have private one on one sessions to try and understand the feelings and thoughts that led to the conflict and restore harmony to the team.

Change agent

Scrum Master responsibility: Change AgentAs the person who is most familiar with the processes, results and problems of a team, the Scrum Master will every now and then put on her hat as change agent. She must first assess the situation and clarify what needs to be changed and then form a team that will take care of that change.

To assess the current situation, the Scrum Master needs to be well versed in a variety of areas: product and requirements management, project execution, teamwork and team dynamics, quality etc. For every area, she should have a series of questions to ask periodically like “How much rework do we do because of unclear requirements?” or “What percentage of our work is done individually versus in pairs?”

After she reaches a conclusion, the Scrum Master will take her questions and answers to the team and see if they share her view. If yes, the team should add improvement actions to the Sprint Backlogs as tasks. The Scrum Master should follow up on the status of the items and make sure proper training and coaching is provided if the task is too difficult.

Four hats

All Scrum Masters must be aware of their various responsibilities and balance between them. It’s easy to concentrate on just one or two and leave the others behind. A former project manager might be a good facilitator and performance guardian, but he could forget to instigate change. A team leader baptized as Scrum Master might be very interested in the yellow hat of the change agent, but the meetings he organizes might be ineffective because his white team facilitator hat is gathering dust in a closet.

Which hats do you like wearing? Which ones do you forget about? Let me know in the comments below.

Hat designed by Icons8 from the Noun Project

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6 Comments

  1. Wow! Great article, Flavius! I learned quite a few things from it 🙂

  2. Thank you Igor, you are very kind.

  3. Flavius, excellent categorization. I realized, I’ve forgot something for my CV.

    Let’s not also forget the ultimate SM goal: “to make herself obsolete”.
    If to your model you’d add that those four hats would be “one size” and being hung in a commonly accessible shelf so, that anybody from a team would be able to pick it. This also shall be encouraged and coached by the SM.

  4. Pavel, thank you for your comment. I share your belief that a mature team could take turns wearing the four hats.

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