What Does a Scrum Master REALLY Do?

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What Does a Scrum Master REALLY Do?

Here at Snowbird Agility, we have some experience in using Agile to help teams be more productive, efficient, and dare we say, happy. We have experienced practitioners working with clients using these tools and mindsets.

If you’ve ever worked with Agile before, you know there are some roles and lingo as a part of it and sometimes, everyone doesn’t view it all in quite the same way. In our example today, we want to explore how servant leadership manifests in the Scrum Master role.

You might see the phrase, “As the Scrum Master, led the team to deliver…” on a typical résumé.  But is that what really happened?  Did the Scrum Master lead the team? While it may be surprising, this question gets debated a lot.

SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) defines a Scrum Master as, “a servant leader and coach for an Agile team who facilitates team events and processes, and supports teams and ARTs in delivering value.” So, since the Scrum Master is a servant leader, that means they could “lead the team” – right?

Not everyone sees it that way.  For instance, when the Scrum Master calls themselves the leader of the team, they may be perceived to be the “in charge” version of leader, rather than the “supported a self-organizing team” role that scrum masters are known for.

What’s the ideal state? As you might know, a Product Owner is usually seen as one of the team leaders. Yet, they represent the customer, prioritize work, interact with the team regularly, and won’t give decisive opinions on how the work is done. Instead, they advocate for the best priority of the work to suit the business needs.

A similar point of view can apply to a Scrum Master as well. A Scrum Master sometimes plays more of a facilitator role by assisting the flow of work rather than directing each step of the process. And when a Scrum Master, who is tuned in to the team, is able to respond when the team needs help without feeling the pressure to deliver decrees or orders, it’s a win for everyone.

For instance, if there is indecision between two team members in deciding which person should work on the next given set of tasks, one version of a Scrum Master could make a unilateral decision; the type of thing you might expect from a leadership role. Some people are very comfortable with this method and want the leaders to make these decisions.

Servant Leadership looks a little different. In this scenario, a servant leader could have a discussion to help the two team members decide on their own. It might take more time initially, and quite frankly, it can be hard to have the conversation. However, this is where the payoff lies, because when it is done well, it builds bridges between the team and empowers them to self-organize more effectively and efficiently down the road.

One real-world example happened when we had a project that had front-end and back-end workflows and tasks and the Scrum Master almost made arbitrary decisions to assign team members to the work. However, after some conversations realized that if they had moved forward with their plan, the team would have been quite unhappy because some of the team members had strong preferences for the work. Moving ahead with the initial assignment plan would have made no difference to the organization, but it would have affected the team and their productivity.

Instead, by having conversations with the team and representing the team to management (instead of just blindly “leading” them), the Scrum Master was able to help give the team the best working environment possible, which resulted in better outcomes for the business.

Representing the team through servant leadership isn’t always easy or quick. If it was, it would happen all the time and businesses would look a lot different than they do right now.

Servant leadership takes nuance, empathy, and an awareness of the actual people who are doing the work. There are still times when executive decisions must be made and everyone can’t weigh in. But for the day-to-day work, even in the grind and challenging moments, when the Scrum Master supports the team, they will be empowered in their work. This will build rapport and camaraderie and it will be easier to get through tough times when the team knows the Scrum Master is there to support them.

Now, when it’s time to add “Scrum Master” to your résumé, instead of saying you “led the team,” talk about how you drove solutions, delivered working software, and represented your team (you know, Scrum Master stuff 😉).

“The teams became more productive, the work became more predictable, and the age old arguments about goals, resource allocations, and ownership took a back seat – replaced by camaraderie and a good natured competitive spirit.”

Tom Munro
CEO Verimatrix

“This was a massive project, a vital role and a huge challenge: large engineering team, broad and complex product suite with multinational development operations. Sharon brought order to chaos and a ton of positive energy, charisma and team leadership. She is a rare talent, a player that I strongly recommend.”

Mike Kleiman
CEO, BandwidthX