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The key to mastering your Scrum Master role is communication

Published 22 Oct 2018 by Alice Jones, CANDDi
Read this in about 4 minutes

Harnessing the Scrum process is about committing to change. Every good sprint retrospective should generate tweaks and improvements for the next working iteration.

It’s a great sentiment, and one that I happily enjoyed from a comfortable distance until one of these changes appointed me as Scrum Master for the entire marketing team. Feeling excited (and more than a little intimidated) about my new responsibilities, I set about learning everything I could about the role.

A few sprints and a great deal of research later, I’m ready to share my findings about what it means to be an effective Scrum Master."

What is a Scrum Master?

The first thing I realized when I became a Scrum Master was that I was neither master of the team, nor master of my role. While the latter is something that will hopefully change with time, the former is something that should always remain the same. Since self-management is at the core of the Scrum process, it’s important to understand that the Scrum Master’s role is not to control the team, but to enable and empower it.

The specific role of a Scrum Master is to manage the team. They help to identify and eliminate any blockers that may hinder progress, and ensure that everyone is on the same page for the most critical tasks of the day.

If you’d like to know more about what it takes to be a Scrum Master, take a look here.

What makes a good Scrum Master?

Being an effective Scrum Master is about recognizing the difference between leading and listening.

Business writers love to use analogies to define the role; the Scrum Master is the Head Chef, who oversees the creation of diverse dishes with a firm hand; or, more often, the Scrum Master is the Conductor who ensures that their orchestra is able to perfectly harmonize. The issue with these comparisons is that they put too much emphasis on authority, and not enough on the Scrum Master’s role of enabling communication.

I’ll give you an example of this, since it’s by far the most important lesson I’ve learned since assuming the role.

When I first began as Scrum Master, our daily stand-up meetings were little more than a formality. Instead of an attentive team captain making sure everyone was on the same page for the day ahead, I more closely resembled Ferris Bueller’s teacher, half-heartedly going through the motions for my disinterested class.

This was a wasted opportunity. After amending our approach to these meetings, they have become a much more productive use of time.

Rather than simply demanding:

Tom, what are you doing today?

I create a conversation, by asking:

Tom, what are you doing today? Do you need input from any of us to complete that? Is there anything you are worried about getting out for the end of the sprint? Why?

Now, instead of simply running over the positives, we use the daily stand-ups to attack the potential negatives. The result is a more cohesive Scrum team, with each member tuned into to the requirements and expectations of the others. Now, if someone is blocked or concerned by something, it gets flagged up immediately instead of one week later during the retrospective of a disappointing sprint.

Making the most of tracking tools

Another practice which really helps to unify the Scrum Team’s efforts is to use your issue tracking software to its fullest extent. We use Jira, which allows us to plan and track every task of the sprint with an easy-to-understand interface. The ability for any team member to get a comprehensive understanding of the Scrum Team’s progress at a glance is invaluable, but there are ways for the Scrum Master to utilize issue tracking software even further.

At the start of every sprint, I take 15 minutes to study Jira and identify the longest, most complex tasks that require input from multiple team members. I then list these in a short summary email for the Scrum Team, which ensures that everyone is aware of which tasks should be prioritized or given special attention.

Jira also presents data about current and past sprints in a number of interesting graphs and charts. I’ve found the most useful one to be the Burndown Chart, which plots the progress of your current sprint against a projected ideal. It’s a fantastic way to visualize your Scrum Team’s journey through its task completion, and to recognize underperformance early enough in the sprint to effectively troubleshoot it.

If I were to extract only one piece of advice from all of my experiences as a fledgling Scrum Master - or Scrum Apprentice - it would be to talk to your team. This might sound obvious, but try really talking to them; there shouldn’t be a single issue you tackle in your role without first considering their input.

Communication is a two-way street, which makes the role just as much about listening as it is about talking.

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