The Scrum Master–Definition, Roles, Responsibilities, and Characteristics

• Agile

Behind all the nonstop planning, blueprinting, tracking, and measuring that makes scrum possible, the scrum master takes responsibility to ensure the efforts and energy of the entire team is coordinated and directed towards achieving their goals.

The scrum master serves as the centerpiece of the team, coordinating the flow of information between team members and all relevant stakeholders.

In fact, the scrum master unites all the energy of individual team members and directs it at the project, piloting carefully, and making necessary adjustments to ensure the team hits its targets.

So, without the scrum master, the scrum team effectively ceases to exist; all that’s left is a bunch of highly capable experts who’ll struggle trying to do their bit in the project—without any cohesion and without much success.

That’s how relevant scrum masters are in the bigger picture of the Scrum methodology.

Learn more about what it means to be a scrum master, what the scrum master can and cannot do, and how to assist your organization’s scrum master to do their best work.

The characteristics of a great scrum master

In order to successfully serve as a centerpiece, as well as the channel between the planners (i.e. product owner, stakeholders, etc.) and the doers (i.e. the scrum team), there are several characteristics required of the scrum master to successfully pilot a scrum team. These include:

1. Strong Agile and Scrum foundations

In order to function effectively as the lead person of a scrum team’s executive (doing) component, having considerable practical knowledge of the principles of the agile and scrum are non-negotiable requirements.

The scrum master must:

  • Demonstrate a practical understanding of scrum and agile principles
  • Have in-depth experience working as part of an agile team, preferably in other non-scrum master roles.

Only a scrum master with an intimate understanding of how scrum principles play out from the texts into real life can pilot a scrum team into project management success.

2. Organizational and Team Management Skills

Project management is the business of managing people. You need to empathize with the needs of your team to serve as an adequate scrum master.

The scrum master must:

  • Be a great leader – not a boss, the scrum master must initiate change by doing, not commanding
  • Understand the scrum team’s challenges—from experience preferably; you can’t help those whose plight you can’t understand
  • Never take sides, but always facilitate conflict resolution, and, above all

The scrum master must not just be technically capable, but as well, have in-depth emotional and mental maturity, as well as experience starting, building, and managing a scrum team.

3. Technical Proficiency

As a rule of thumb, only technical people understand technical problems, know how to manage them, solve them, and prevent them entirely. Every scrum master must have a technical foundation—enough to be actually useful to a scrum team.

All in all, the scrum master must be capable, versatile, responsive, and relatable in order to deliver technical expertise to his/her team members.

Role of Scrum master

What to expect from a Scrum Master

When a team is going agile, it helps if team members are proactive with their responsibilities, without being told or reminded over and over. Success in agile is dependent on speedy iterations and it does not help if no one can put a finger on what they should be doing.

So, where does the scrum master fit in a team going agile? What are the scrum master’s practical responsibilities in the entire agile process? Find out below.

1. Sprint Planning

At the sprint planning stage, the scrum master is indispensable. Aside from assisting the product owner to relate to the scrum team, the scrum master:

  • Breaks the backlog item/story point into actionable tasks for the scrum team
  • Preemptively identifies project blockers
  • Communicates the team’s capacity to the product owner so the team can get realistic workloads and deadlines
  • Helps the Scrum team in planning a course of action for executing the sprint

The scrum master is responsible for making sure there’s consensus between the product owner and the team so the backlog items selected can be fully delivered at the end of the sprint.

2. Daily Scrum/Standup

At the daily scrum, the scrum master is responsible for:

  • Taking point and piloting the standup, i.e. keeping it short, to the point, participative, and productive
  • Noting down project blockers identified by teammates and clearing them right away
  • Offering mental support and encouragement to the scrum team

Once the sprint kicks off, the scrum master serves as an all-round mentor that assists and motivates the scrum team to get the job done.

3. Sprint Review

Here the project deliverables are tested to see if they meet the story points selected and the scrum master takes the stage and ensures that:

  • The project deliverables are tested 360 degrees roundabout, and are 100 percent functional
  • Necessary modifications are made and finishing touches are applied until the project deliverables are ready to ship

The scrum master keeps the team coordinated to ensure their results are consistent with the needs of the product’s end users, expressed in the story points.

4. Sprint Retrospective

The scrum team looks at the sprint in retrospect to see what went well, what didn’t, and what could be improved for future sprints.

The scrum master takes responsibility for:

  • Creating an ideal environment for the scrum team to air their views
  • Taking note of the scrum team’s wins, learnings, and problems and guiding them in creating an actionable plan moving forward
  • Guiding the scrum team to execute on the action items identified in the point above

The scrum master pulls all other stakeholders and resources together to ensure everyone’s on the same page and focused on delivering better projects moving forward.

Things that scrum master cannot be responsible for

The scrum master can’t serve as the only channel between the team and other stakeholders. The project will suffer and might eventually fail due to under-communication. Also, the scrum master can assist but can’t participate actively in the team’s day-to-day work. The team members have adequate autonomy in Scrum and the scrum master acts to enable them.

Common pitfalls that scrum masters face + how to overcome them

Piloting a scrum team is a tricky task that requires wearing several hats. In the midst of all that, it’s easy to get into several dead ends without realizing it. Here are some pitfalls that can befall scrum masters, as well as actionable tips on getting out.

1. Personal Underdevelopment

Nothing hurts the scrum master’s ability and credibility with the team than not staying on the cutting edge of his job. The scrum master then becomes unable to help his team do their best work, and sadly, may even not recognize he’s the problem.

The solution:

Commit to consistent personal development, in order to stay useful and productive, both as team lead and member as well.

2. Taking Sides

It’s inevitable that conflict will arise as the team develops, but the scrum master must never take sides. This will destroy the team members’ trust in the scrum master and slowly kill off the team’s efficiency and capability.

The solution:

Listen to every conflict impartially and settle issues as amicably as possible.

3. Outright solving problems for the team

This will hinder the full development of the team’s abilities and will require the scrum master to keep putting out fires day-to-day or projects will keep stagnating.

Why?

Because the team simply never learned to do it themselves.

The solution:

Focus on teaching how, not on doing.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the importance of the scrum master’s role cannot be overemphasized. The scrum master coordinates the flow of resources into, out of, and within the team and makes it possible for team members to focus on getting to-do items done.

The scrum master simplifies and makes scrum work for the rest of the team.