A Scrum Master's Value
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Scrum Masters are servant leaders, coaches, gap fillers, and protectors of the agile teams that they support. They are both the utility player and the coach. Just like any team, each member/role will bring a different skillset that benefits the team as a whole. When skillsets are combined in the right way it makes for something very special and it's fun to be a part of. These types of teams are dynamic, efficient, predictable and are constantly able to achieve and maintain a state of high performance. Achieving high performance will deliver more consistency, predictability, productivity, and more engaged teams. In this particular post I wanted to talk about the importance of the Scrum Master role on a scrum team and how this role adds value to the team and organizations they support.
At a high level, this is how I define a Scrum Master's role and their core competencies within organizations that I lead:
As you can see, a Scrum Masters core competencies (As I have defined them) have a common theme; coaching and keeping the team focused on their sprint deliverables. A big misconception is that Scrum Masters are primarily focused on setting up and facilitating meetings but I am here to tell you that this couldn't be further from the truth. As you can see, facilitation is just one small piece of a Scrum Master's overall role on the team. Here is additional detail for each one of the core competencies listed above:
Coaches the team on agile best practices - This is the absolute most important aspect of any Scrum Masters responsibilities. They must be process SMEs that can coach teams towards continuous improvement and high performance.
Protects the team from outside distractions - The silent killer of planned work is unplanned work that comes into a sprint after it has already started. Your Scrum Master should know when to protect the team from distractions and when to adjust mid-sprint. Ideally, a team is consistently completing their planned work every sprint and it is rare that they have to pivot to deliver unplanned work.
Unblocks the team so they can focus on backlog priorities and completing their commitments. Helping teams to plan properly may reduce inner-sprint dependencies and reduce blockers in the future. If your SM cannot unblock the team themselves, that's OK! They should know who can and it should be their top priority so the team can get back to work they planned.
Creates high performing and predictable teams by using data, metrics, and the retrospective process to continuously improve.
Communicates key dependencies and connects the right stakeholders early and often. Setting up frequent touch points within the defined process is a great way to keep communication top of mind. If a stakeholder misses a key meeting the SM should make sure that they relay any important information to those that need it and fill in to answer on behalf of that missing stakeholder.
Bridges any gaps that may exist on your team which can be process or role related. SMs can wear multiple hats with an emphasis on serving the team and overcoming challenges teams face. All teams have their own challenges and a good SM can identify and fill these gaps pretty easily.
Builds relationships with the team, internal/external stakeholders, and leadership. Having these relationships will help when it comes time to escalate, communicate, or prioritize dependencies which will help to make your teams more efficient.
Facilitates ceremonies - Keep them interesting and valuable by being creative. The scrum process is redundant and predictable so it's very important to keep teammates engaged. Find out what works for your teams and their personalities, every team is different.
Represents your teams at cross-functional meetings. You team and stakeholders should trust in your ability to represent the team in important meetings, especially when they are not there.
Has fun while doing it and have a positive impact on the culture of the company you work for. This is arguably the most important piece to the puzzle. If your teams are engaged, productive, predictable, and having fun while doing it you have reached scrum nirvana.
You may ask "why can't we just get someone on the engineering team to take over these responsibilities?" Well 95% of the time this fails because of the skillset required and capacity needed to do their engineering work they were actually hired for. The easiest way to explain the importance of a dedicated Scrum Master role on a team is to use a sports analogy, naturally. If I asked you to name the best player in the NFL you may spurt out some names such as Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Christian McCaffrey, or Khalil Mack. These are AWESOME players and will go down as some of the best players in their respective positions. That being said, if we were to clone any one of these players 21 times and had them play all 22 positions on both sides of the ball, they would be the absolute worst team in the league and wouldn’t be able to compete with anyone. Imagine this; center Tom Brady snapping the ball to QB Tom Brady with the linemen Tom Brady’s blocking while trying to hand the ball off to running back Tom Brady. Although this would be incredibly satisfying and amusing to watch, it would be a massacre on all accounts. This would be true of all team sports and it's why each team is made up of different positions, skills, and roles. This doesn't just apply to the sports world, it applies to just about every team environment. A truly dynamic team is going to have the right skills and personalities that work well together to achieve the best possible outcome with a focus on continuous improvement.
In this analogy, think of your most skilled Engineer in your organization. Nine times out of ten, that cloned A-Player probably wouldn’t have all the skills needed to achieve high performance. Even in the rarest cases when they do, they typically wouldn’t be interested in exercising those skills. This mixed skillset probably isn't what gets that individual excited to come into work. Even if their manager properly allocates capacity for these additional responsibilities there is still tremendous context switching which reduces their productivity, efficiency, and overall moral. At the end of the day, Engineers were hired to develop quality software and solve complex technical problems, not fill in for a PO or SM that is missing from their team.
So why should we invest in a good Scrum Master? Well, A good Scrum Master will be able to lead teams to high performance which will deliver more consistency, predictability, productivity, and more engaged teams as stated above. These aspects are important to and have an impact on the entire company. Here's how a Scrum Master will impact each of these areas:
Consistency improvements - Leading teams to a consistent state can be very difficult but it is a Scrum Masters responsibility to achieve it with the team. The main consistency indicator is velocity and a good SM can identify the root cause for volatile velocities and find ways to improve it. Velocity is NOT a productivity metric and it’s NOT a predictability metric. For more on velocity as a consistency metric see our earlier blog here: https://www.hexavera.com/post/agile-metrics-predictability
Higher predictability - Your teams goal is to complete what they committed to during sprint planning. If they cannot, this is something the SM will work with the teams to improve. Once a team consistently completes what they planned it will become much easier to predict and deliver a longer term strategic roadmap that is cross-functional in nature.
Higher productivity - Unplanned work leads to mid-sprint context switching which is a silent killer of productivity and predictability. Scrum Masters work hard to limit mid-sprint distractions by helping teams become more predictable and protecting the team from these types of requests. In reality, sometimes a team must pivot mid-sprint but it shouldn't be the norm and a good SM will be able to mitigate these requests and plan for them in future sprints.
More engagement - Communication is key but can be difficult to foster when a team is heads down working on their commitments. SMs work to drive engagement and communication within their team but also cross-functionally with other scrum teams and stakeholders.
More holistic teams - Scrum Masters work to identify skills gaps on their team which can lead to bottlenecks and poor performance along with the Engineering Manager. SMs will work with their team to swarm requirements, share skillsets, and reduce barriers to get things to a done state. Doing this will lead to high performance and will eliminate bottlenecks in future iterations.
If a team doesn't have a Scrum Master dedicated to the role, it is likely a team that is missing a critical skillset. In most cases, this skillset is absolutely needed to achieve high performance which has been defined above. At the end of the day, if your team does not invest in a SM, someone on the team will have to attempt to fill this gap even though they weren't originally hired to do so. This can negatively impact teams in a multitude of ways and it's completely avoidable. Make the right decision, invest in good SMs/coaches, and your business will reap the rewards.
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Author – ‘Process Pat’ McClain
Experience – I am an agile/process coach that has been hired to lead large scale global process change initiatives that drive competitive advantages in different areas such as increased predictability, improved productivity, cost reduction, and increased efficiency across Product Development, Engineering, and other related organizations. These results are achieved through efforts I have led related to agile maturity, capex reporting process changes, and toolset analysis/consolidation efforts that align with the people and processes of the organization I am working with.
Disclaimer: This article is not affiliated with current employer and is based off prior professional experience over the last decade.