What Makes a Good Scrum Master and Why You Shouldn’t Put Your Devs into this Role

What Makes a Good Scrum Master and Why You Shouldn’t Put Your Devs into this Role

What makes a good Scrum Master and where should you look for talents? Being in the trenches for over a decade now, I’m quite sure what group of people I’d source from the last.

You all know that a Scrum Master helps the Scrum team to adopt the framework by acting as a coach, facilitator, teacher, and mentor. That he or she is constantly observing and putting up a mirror to the team so they can realize opportunities for improvement. And you all know that Scrum is a challenge for the team and that the Scrum Master joins the idea and sometimes puts up a challenge for the team. It’s part of the job. Saying that I hope that the Scrum Master and the organization did not force the challenge down the team’s throat, but that’s another topic.

So if the team sincerely, truly, with all their hearts and minds accepted that challenge, they will welcome – and sometimes really need – an impartial, outsider perspective on how the whole team works.

While that is something that I believe no one will argue against, it is still a common practice to assign the role to a dev team member. Frequently a team lead, sometimes a tech lead, and sometimes those two are the same person, so there’s one guy or gal with three roles.

What can go wrong?

A junior Scrum Master

Let me tell you a story.

More than a decade ago, I was proclaimed a Scrum Master by management. It was my second team lead role, and I was slowly getting what I should be doing. Or so I thought, but never mind. At that point, Scrum was nothing more than stickies on a board, with a waterfall mentality as strong as ever. Delivery at the very end of the project, iterations just a word on paper, increments deployed to production like – yeah, whatever. Scrum was not a behavior and team culture change to me. Not by a long shot.

Did making me a Scrum Master help me understand Scrum better? You bet it didn’t! Same as TDD doesn’t make your designs better. Learning about good design does. So being a team lead actually stifled my learning of Scrum. I had no time to actually learn what it was all about because of all the command & control work I had on my hands. I learned about other leadership styles much later, but this was how I operated then.

So I’ve been happy and successful, albeit somewhat stressed with subpar deliveries and customer happiness, and knew diddly squat about Scrum.

I’ve been to a CSM!

Two years later I attended The Certification. I now know Scrum. It’s a discipline, Product Owner is a crucial role, it’s about inspecting and adapting the process you create as a team collectively and empirically. Refinement, planning, review with users, 5-stage retro, SMART goals and INVEST stories. All there is is to implement this, iterate the process until it’s good and we’re golden. I’m going to take care that we’re doing Scrum, and the ones not going with the flow – well, I’m going to take care of them somehow. I’m going to convince them that this is the way and everything will be okay.

Did CSM help? Oh yes, it did! But it didn’t teach me anything about culture and behavior change that Scrum brings. I still thought a team should pass all sprints, that Sprint goal thing was like whatever, it’s about the PBIs you bring into a sprint and they can be as related as an alligator and a desktop lamp.

I was now a team lead and a better Scrum Master. A good enough one though? I don’t think so.

A coaching class later

Another two years later I finally got it! It’s about behaviour change! A respectful change that not everyone will like, or struggle with their new role and set of responsibilities. It’s about leadership at many levels, leading and following interchangeably, about creating a safe environment for ideas, conflict and dialogue. It’s now more than ever about people.

I now know how to help people with that change, that it’s a challenge along with the whole inspect & adapt loop that you have to facilitate and keep going, so there’s no way for me to be a bad Scrum Master. Right?


Well, yes…

But now you actually have to do all of it. On top of actually teaching people about Scrum, helping them implement the framework, helping them with changing responsibilities, leading, being cognizant of the stage of development they are in and a gazillion other things you also have to be a brilliant and impartial observer, coach and finally – a challenger.

So I know everything there is to know – sure I don’t but let’s pretend – but I’m now tasked with two minds in one skull problem. 

I’m now supposed to be impartial when I’m bloody not. I’m not kidding myself anymore, I know we’re all biased, and it’s hard to be unbiased even when you’re fully aware of your thoughts and you’re really trying. Let alone when you’re leading a team and struggling with JPA’s lazy load or React’s integration with D3! So scratch unbiased.

I’m supposed to coach my team which is okay, but who’s going to coach me? Coaching is not teaching and not mentoring, its vastly different. And successful people welcome coaching. If I don’t have a Scrum Master, I don’t have a coach. So scratch coaching as well.

Ok, I can be a bit biased and can live without a coach

But can I live without a challenger?

Let’s think this through. So Scrum Master is also a challenger. Pop the happy bubble and all. So he or she must challenge the team to start doing or improve a part of their way of work. When being a team lead and a Scrum Master I’m facing two problems here. 

If I see an ambitious goal and can’t see a path to reaching it, I’ll be quite reluctant to propose it. Why? Because leaders are people who see the furthest ahead, and if I don’t see a light at the end of a tunnel, or a possibility for it – then to hell with it. Which means the challenge will go unspoken, undiscussed and will die without being born.

And even if I decide to do it, it would feel like “Hey peeps, we should go do this hard thing. I don’t see how we could pull it off but you go ahead and figure it out”. This is me being a boss. You can massage the words and make it sound nicer but at the core it’s being a boss, not a leader. And I have a problem with that.

Scrum Masters approach challenges as coaches. It’s their job to ask the most difficult questions and propose ambitious goals, and they don’t have to have the faintest clue on how to achieve them! Yes, you read that right, that’s what good coaches do. They will motivate the team to put their heads together and go from a collective “this is just impossible” to “we did it!”. In a multi sprint challenge it takes perseverance, motivation and keeping a close eye on teams heart rate. That’s the coach’s job. Also, have in mind that this is doomed to failure if the team doesn’t truly want a coach.

To sum it all up

There are some responsibilities that a developer or a team lead can take on from a Scrum Master. A team can, with practice and deliberation, facilitate itself, can measure its own health, can resolve its conflicts and can build itself to some degree I guess. But it’s next to impossible for it to view itself objectively, nor can it challenge itself as good as an external observer and a challenger would.

Those are the responsibilities of a Scrum Master that bring the biggest change and the most value. And remember, Scrum is not about rising to a mediocre way of work and a mediocre product. It’s about rising way above it.


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