Prepare your organization for an agile future

The Scrum Master
– a key role for project success

10 minute read
Image by Lala Azizli – Unsplash
by Karla Merza,
Certified Scrum Master (PSM I)

What is a Scrum Master and how does the Scrum Master support the organization for an agile future and help the team stay on track?


The following article is a post by our colleague, Karla Merza. Karla is a Certified Scrum Master (PSM I), working in the IT field for over seven years. She is a promoter of the continuous learning process, and she is driven by supporting others in their agile journeys.
AI Insider’s note: This article is the last part of the 3-part series on agile project management. You may also want to read our previous articles in the series, How are you enabling agility in your organization? and Azure Boards vs. Jira. How to choose the agile project management tool to suit your practice.

The role of a Scrum Master in a team or organization is often misunderstood. This article’s scope is to raise awareness about what are and what are not the responsibilities of a Scrum Master and why having a Scrum Master might benefit your company. But before diving into all that, let’s understand the context.

Background

Scrum is a framework created by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland that helps organizations and teams handle complex problems through adaptive solutions, achieve goals, and create value. The theory, the values, roles, events, and artifacts are described at length in “The Scrum Guide”, a good starting point for anyone who wants to be more agile. This guide is not a rule book to be followed step by step, but a set of guidelines that can help companies or teams to use or create processes and techniques that bring value to their situation, regardless of what that value means to them. A video explaining how Scrum works, in a nutshell, is available here.

Some advantages of adopting Scrum are:

  • A working version of the product is available any time
  • Higher revenue (quick opportunity for feedback from customers due to the often releases)
  • Lower costs
  • Effective use of time and money
  • Possible changes can be incorporated easily
  • Better visibility of product direction
  • Large projects are divided into smaller, more manageable iterations
For example, in one of our projects, at AI Insider, the Scrum Team worked on a product on both the software and hardware parts. After each 2-week sprint, we were able to provide the client a working version of the application ready to be tested in the real environment. This way, we received quick feedback that enabled us to incorporate any change fast and easily.

What is a Scrum Master?

The Scrum Master is part of the Scrum Team together with the Product Owner and the Development team. All roles are considered equally important; there are no hierarchies. The Scrum Team is a cross-functional and self-managing team whose focus is to achieve the organizations’ or teams’ goals. The team is responsible for all product-related activities, from stakeholder collaboration, verification, maintenance, operation, experimentation, and research and development, to anything else that might be required to deliver an iteration of value each sprint.
The purpose of the Scrum Master is to mainly foster an environment that enables the use of the Scrum framework as efficiently as possible. The Product Owner creates and maintains the product backlog with everything known to be needed for the product. The Scrum Team delivers an increment of value at the end of each sprint. The Scrum Team and the stakeholders inspect the team dynamics, their ways of working, processes, tools and make changes, if needed, to improve the rest of their collaboration.
The Scrum Master is a coach, a teacher, a mentor, and a facilitator – a servant leader for both the organization and the team. It is accountable for promoting Scrum and helping everyone understand the theory, the values, roles and responsibilities, events and artifacts, and how they all tie together. By creating constant opportunities for inspection and adaptation, the Scrum Master is an enabler of the effective implementation of Scrum. He or she is a change agent who fosters a mindset based on collaboration and a healthy work environment. Also, the Scrum Master has a vital role in providing structure and visibility for processes and ways of working.

How does a Scrum Master support the organization?

The Scrum Master trains and leads the organization in being agile and adopting the Scrum framework. Some examples are, but not limited to:
  • Analyzing the current ways of working
  • Planning and organizing the implementation of Scrum, depending on the particular situation of the organization, including recommending a detailed transition plan to the new way of working
  • Identifying bottlenecks
  • Improving communication
  • Recommending, helping configure and/or train people to use a suitable project management tool (e.g., Azure Boards, Jira)

For instance, in one of our projects, the Scrum Master enabled the adoption and configuration of the Azure Boards according to the specific project structure. Usually, this approach is a proactive way of starting the project by putting the practical knowledge to the use of the project.

How does a Scrum Master assist the Scrum Team?

Although part of the Scrum Team, due to the servant leader quality, the Scrum Master assists the team in several ways. The Scrum Master:
  • Helps the Product Owner understand the need for a clear roadmap, product direction, and product backlog visible to everyone in the team and organization
  • Teaches the Product Owner effective techniques for defining Product Goals and backlog management
  • Coaches the team members in autonomy, collaboration, and multidisciplinarity
  • Facilitates conflict resolution
  • Drives the creation of a Definition of Ready and Definition of Done and holds the team accountable for following them
  • Detects possible risks early on and encourage the removal of impediments
  • Facilitates meetings as needed or requested
  • Makes sure the agreed processes are followed by everyone, and the Scrum events take place, are productive, and kept within the timebox
In all the meetings we facilitate, we keep in mind and follow some of the best practices. We make sure only the relevant people attend the meeting, and we send the meeting agenda beforehand, so the team uses their time as efficiently as possible. We make clear the purpose of the gathering, we ensure every team member has the opportunity to speak up, and that we achieve our scope by the end of our meeting.

What skills does a Scrum Master need?

The Scrum Master must be an active listener, an observer, have patience, good communication skills, leadership skills, organizational skills, be assertive, motivate and influence people, and build psychological safety. The Scrum Master has to be aware of the team dynamics, know when and how to give feedback or intervene, protect the team from outside disruptive behaviors, and encourage a self-managing and trust-based team culture.
Scrum Masters must have soft skills. Although technical skills are not a requirement, they are an advantage. Scrum Masters with technical backgrounds have more credibility, they relate to their colleagues easier, and, most of the time, have a better overview and understanding of the entire project. This way, their suggestions for improvement are more likely to be accepted and implemented by the team.
Of course, technical skills can be learned and soft skills cultivated, but not everyone can be a Scrum Master. To a large extent, being a Scrum Master depends on the maturity of the person and their willingness to embark on a continuous learning journey.

What are the challenges a Scrum Master faces?

Scrum framework has been used in organizations for many years now, but there are still some misconceptions and problems a Scrum Master comes across.
Here are some aspects that hinder the Scrum Master’s work and make the organization’s environment less efficient in delivering results:
  • The organization doesn’t understand what agility is.
  • The team adopts Scrum without knowing or understanding its principles.
  • The team doesn’t have any formal training in Scrum.
  • The team or the organization are resistant to change.
  • The members of the team are constantly changing.
  • The Scrum Master is an assistant for the team (e.g., Azure Boards/Jira administrator, the person who sets up the meetings in everyone’s calendars, takes notes at meetings).
  • The Scrum Master is confused with a Project Manager.
  • The team assumes the Scrum Master has to give them work, tell them how to do their job, or that they are the Scrum Masters’ direct reports.
  • The Scrum Master must plan and set goals for the team (e.g., sprint goal, choose sprint backlog, set deadlines, manage tasks, micro-manage the team).
  • The Scrum Master is responsible for removing all the impediments or solving all the problems the team has.
  • The Scrum Master is the middleman through which the team communicates with other departments or teams.
  • The Scrum Master must have another role in the team (e.g., developer or product owner).
  • The team or the organization had a Scrum Master as a project manager with the command-and-control type of leadership.
  • The Scrum Master is changed often.
  • The Scrum Master must deliver fast results, regardless of factors such as how long the team members have worked together, their understanding and/or experience with Scrum.
Looking from this angle, the successful implementation of any agile methodology, especially the Scrum framework, takes time and requires a dedicated Scrum Master that has an overview of the situations, especially the problematic ones, without being emotionally involved. It is a continuous improvement process, and taking shortcuts for fast results is not recommended.

Challenges I encountered working as a
Scrum Master and how I addressed them

Speaking up

When the team adopts Scrum without knowing or understanding its principles
The team members were talking over each other in our meetings. The solution that proved effective was a plush toy. The colleague who held the plush toy could speak up in the meeting while others waited for their turn. It was a way to align the team to the Scrum values and principles. This solution saved the team time, reduced frustration, and created a more productive work environment.

Keeping teams focused

When the team or the organization had a Scrum Master as a project manager with the command-and-control type of leadership
Some time ago, I took over two geo-distributed teams as a Scrum Master. Before I joined, the team members used to be called in never-ending meetings for reporting purposes several times a day. This approach disrupted the development time and frustrated the team members. Once I took over, I redesigned the mandatory Scrum meetings, sending the purpose and the agenda beforehand and ensuring the scope was held. Consequently, the teams felt their time was well-invested, so, overall, their focus, engagement and productivity increased.

Understanding the roles

When the organization doesn’t understand what agility is or the team adopts Scrum without knowing or understanding its principles
In several Scrum Teams, the Product Owners didn’t fully understand their roles. Due to a few discussions and workshops we had together, plus the resources suggested for them to understand a Product Owner’s responsibilities, they successfully created and shared a product roadmap with the Scrum team and the organization. Based on that, the product backlog started to be written according to the needs of the development team. This way, less time was spent in the refinement sessions, fewer bugs were found in the implementation, and the customer satisfaction increased.

Stand out

The role, responsibilities, and skills of a Scrum Master are diverse. There is one consideration that rises above these when thinking about having a Scrum Master in your organization. On top of training and leading the organization in being agile, adopting the Scrum framework, and delivering value to your customers regularly, the team members can focus on what they do best. And when the team does that, they can achieve high performance and project success towards consistently meeting the requirements of the business.
Do you have a Scrum Master role in your organization? If you do, what changes did the Scrum Master bring to your team or organization until now? If you don’t have a specialized Scrum Master in your organization or team, what problems do you think the Scrum Master can solve? And if you are a Scrum Master, how did your journey start? What did you learn from your experience, and what are the next steps for you?

If you’re keen to learn more about preparing your organization for an agile future, AI Insider can help you fully assess your current status and set up the way of working that best suits your particular needs. In every agile software development project, we act as a full IT service partner covering the delivery management, so you can focus on your business priorities. Get in touch with us, and we take the conversation forward together.
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