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The Mindset of a ScrumMaster

Posted By Meghan Robinson, Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I have been familiar with the Scrum method for developing software for a number of years. Scrum is a simple tool: it defines just a few meetings, artifacts, and roles. So the basic mechanics of scrum are easy to pick up. Using Scrum to its fullest potential, however, requires a much deeper understanding.

One area I have struggled with is the role of ScrumMaster. The basic responsibilities are straight-forward, consisting of activities like facilitating meetings, dealing with impediments, and updating burndown charts. But, like Scrum, it is not a question of what to do as ScrumMaster but how to go about doing it. Over the past few years when I have had opportunities to interact with experienced ScrumMasters, I have noticed that they seem to have a different mindset when it comes to dealing with teams, especially in regards to the Agile principle of self-organizing teams.

So I was excited recently to have the opportunity to take a ScrumMaster course from Mark Levison. I made it my goal in the course to learn more about the mindset of great ScrumMasters and I wanted to share what I learned.

Growing a High Performance Team

One key insight I had came from a comment by Mark that Scrum is a method of growing a high performance team. On the surface, Scrum seems to be about producing a product, and thus it would make sense that the ScrumMaster's goal is to guide the team in creating a great product. But when you view Scrum as really being about building a great team, then the role of the ScrumMaster shifts correspondingly to that of helping the team grow and improve. This is, I believe, at the heart of what being a great ScrumMaster is.

The implication of this is that the ScrumMaster tries to minimize what they do directly and instead helps the team do things for themselves. Below are some examples of doing this that were discussed in the course:

  • When dealing with impediments, the ScrumMaster should only directly work on them as a last resort. First, see if the team can handle the impediment on their own. If not, then see if the team can be coached through the resolution. Usually the only impediments that the ScrumMaster will take on themselves are external organizational problems far beyond the scope of the team. For example, if the team is having a problem with how a separate operations team is doing deployments, then rather than the ScrumMaster talking to ops on their own, bring along a team member, introduce them to the ops team, and enable them to work out their issues with ops directly.

  • Prefer asking socratic questions of the team instead of telling the team what to do. For example, if the daily scrum is taking too long and is not focused enough, then rather than telling the team what to do raise this issue with the team, perhaps offering some suggestions, and let the team decide what to do.

By helping a team to do things on their own you build up their mastery, and by letting a team make their own decisions you build up their autonomy. Mastery and autonomy are two of the three drivers of internal motivation as per the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. If you always tell a team what to do and how to do it, they will not only fail to develop initiative but will develop a dependency upon you to provide all the answers, thus losing their innate initiative.

Servant Leader

I have heard the ScrumMaster role described as a servant leader. The ScrumMaster does not manage the team nor has formal authority over the team. Instead, they act as a humble steward supporting the team and product owner as depicted in the inverted organizational chart below.

Part of being a good leader is removing obstructions and obstacles from the way of the team and acting as a shield to protect the team from outside interference. This is part of being a ScrumMaster, but there is more to it than just this. For example, Mark described how one method he uses to assess a team is to sit in the team area and simply watch and listen as the team does their work. The following questions provide some examples of things to look for:

  • How often are team members interacting with one another? Or do they stay silent in their cubicles?

  • Who communicates with who? Do developers only talk to developers, or do they talk to the product owner (or business analyst)?

  • What is the tone of the communication? How do testers communicate defects to developers and how do the developers respond? Are people positive or frustrated?

  • How many interruptions are there from people external to the team?

This practice struck me as being identical to the Toyota principle of Genchi Genbutsu, translated as "go and see at the place where the work is done".

Continuous Improvement

Teams do not start off as high performing. Only through continual improvement can teams reach this state. Therefore a key responsibility of ScrumMasters is to cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and to encourage ongoing growth. Some tips for doing this:

  • Put effort into the retrospective agenda to tailor it to the needs of the team and to adjust the activities from time to time to keep the energy level within the meeting high.

  • Follow up on improvements identified within the retrospective to ensure they are actioned.

  • When observation of the team indicates that changes are necessary, try suggesting the smallest change that will lead to improvement. Smaller changes cause less resistance and are easier to adopt.

  • Encourage lots of experiments. Having the team commit to only trying a change for a limited period of time and then being able to evaluate afterwards whether to keep or discard the change overcomes a lot of resistance and can help cut through a lot of the debate over whether to adopt a change or not.

  • Coach team members one-on-one regarding individual needs.

In conclusion, the ultimate objective of the ScrumMaster is to put themselves out of a job by elevating the team to such a high level of performance that they can take over all the ScrumMaster responsibilities.

This article was originally posted on Basil Vandegriend: Professional Software Development 

Tags:  agile  continuous improvement  corporate culture  leadership  Scrum  team 

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What Do You Look for in a Servant Leader or a Scrum Master?

Posted By Meghan Robinson, Wednesday, June 8, 2016


In my article, Which “Scrum Master” Are You Hiring?, I suggested you articulate the type of leader you might be hiring. Why? You might not be hiring a “Scrum Master” at all—but you are likely hiring a servant leader.

In this article, let’s discuss the kind of qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills you might need in a servant leader, your potential Scrum Master, agile project manager, potential account manager, or whatever role you need filled.

Start With Qualities, Preferences, and Non-Technical Skills

Your servant leader has talents that are different from the technical skills. You could lump them all into one bucket called “talents.” But I have found that not so useful. Instead, I like to differentiate those into qualities, the talents that a person exhibits that are culture-sensitive; preferences, innate behaviors that are part of a person’s personality; and non-technical skills, such as interpersonal skills that a person has acquired over the years.

No matter what position this person has, let’s start with non-technical qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills. Those are the characteristics that will help a candidate succeed in the position and fit into your organization’s culture.

Notice that I am not suggesting you start with a certification. Why not? While this person needs to embody agile values, principles, and of course, practices, a certification is no guarantee of that. However, the non-technical characteristics, the qualities, preferences and non-technical skills that you require in this servant leader role will help you define what you do need. We will discuss certification later.

What do you need in your position? Again, it depends on the servant leader you are hiring. Let’s take a few of the examples.

Is Your “Scrum Master” Working as an Agile Project Manager?

For the sake of argument, let’s say you have an agile project manager, someone who helps the team define the charter, set the release criteria for the project, facilitates the team’s work, and also is the interface with the operations committee or the PMO or some other decision-making or governance body. This person’s job is to represent the team at the project portfolio decision meetings, and to advocate for the team. This person is the outward face of the team.

In the previous article, Ruth decided to hire a very senior person who could perform both these servant leader activities and the project portfolio activities. You might disagree with Ruth’s decision, but that’s the decision she made (I certainly did!). What qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills would she look for in a candidate?

Servant Leaders Must Enjoy Working with People

One of the major qualities of a servant leader is that he or she enjoys working with people. Servant leaders serve the people on the project. They also serve the people in the organization. They might have to keep the goals of the project in mind, as they facilitate the people, but remember, they are not “driving the project to completion.” That is not the job of a servant leader, no matter what this job is called.

This role facilitates the people doing the work. Here, Ruth decided to hire a senior person, because this person needs to interact at the project portfolio level to advocate for the team. Ruth suspects that the team will be able to facilitate itself pretty soon. I was nervous about Ruth’s assumption, because in my experience it takes a while for a new team to fully transition to agile. She wanted someone who was also a great negotiator, and could communicate well, both in email and in person.

She needed someone who was, as she said, a good “diagnoser.” Someone who could look at the project measurements, hold up a mirror to the team, and ask, “What’s going on?” Ruth was sure that was some sort of an agile skill, so she knew she needed someone experienced in agile. She also knew she needed someone who could learn enough about their system quickly.

If we summarize Ruth’s criteria for her servant leader, here’s what her first iteration looks like:

Essential skills for Ruth’s Agile Project Manager
  • High collaboration skills with the project team and project portfolio team
  • High facilitation skills with the project team
  • High negotiation skills with the project portfolio team
  • High communication skills across the organization
  • Diagnostic skills for what’s going on in the team
  • Able to learn our system quickly

Ruth might have other desirable qualities, preferences, or skills, such as budgeting, or ability to travel. The fact that she wants someone who can work at the project portfolio level is part of her culture.

That’s just one kind of servant leader. There are others.

What Happens When Your “Scrum Master” is a Manager?

Harry was the senior manager who was trying to make Scrum stick. He noticed that the teams were not sticking to Scrum—they were doing water-scrum-fall—because the people are not being loyal to their project teams. The people were loyal to their functional silos.

When you have a strong matrix organization and a weak project organization, as Harry had, it’s quite easy for people to do the work for their functional teams. Their managers ask them, “Can you do this little task for me?” Who wants to say “No,” to a manager?

Those little tasks take time away from project work and make it more difficult to accomplish the project work.

What can you do? Ask the managers to help the projects, not help other work.

I had suggested they change the organization to remove the many managers and create project-based teams instead. You should have seen the look of horror on his face! Not going to happen. Instead, he suggested that the managers become Scrum Masters for other project teams—not their own projects. Well, okay, that might work.

When Harry wrote the job description for these Scrum Masters, it was clear he was focusing on impediment removal:

  • High collaboration skills with the other managers
  • High facilitation skills with the project team
  • High negotiation skills with the other managers
  • High diagnostic skills for what’s going on in the team

Harry wanted the organization to complete its transition to agile and he was willing to make the managers Scrum Masters for cross-functional teams. He wanted the managers to work across the organization to accomplish this.

When Your Servant Leader’s Primary Role is Coaching

I normally separate facilitating the team from the coaching. But Valerie decided that she needed just one person in this position. And, the coaching would have to be subtle.

To me, this is a tall order. Subtle coaching as part of facilitation? This might require a very special person. I asked Valerie what the activities and deliverables were. “Retrospectives with action items are the first piece. If we don’t have retros with action items, we are still doing something wrong. So we need someone who can facilitate our retrospectives.” I asked about metrics, because I had not seen any velocity or burn-up charts or any other useful charts.

“Yes, we need data, too. But we can’t have someone beating the team over the head with data. Otherwise this will turn into command and control again”. I agreed with her.

Valerie needs someone with very strong facilitative skills. They need the ability to run retrospectives and be able to suggest alternative approaches to the team at any time. Someone who understands what data is valuable in agile and what data is not valuable.

Valerie’s initial draft for her essential qualities, preferences, and skills were these:

  • Strong facilitation: in retrospectives, team meetings, and one-on-one
  • Strong coaching skills: one-on-one and in teams
  • High collaboration skills in the team
  • Able to suggest data gathering approaches to the team

As an initial draft to use in a job analysis, these are great. Valerie will be able to use these to create her interview questions and auditions.

Leading Geographically Distributed Teams is More Difficult

Once you add in the stress of managing a geographically distributed team, you need not only a change agent, as in Anne’s case, but someone who can understand the cultures of the people in different places.

If you are lucky, and you have a geographically distributed team with people in just one country, you might not have too many cultural issues. My experience is that when you have distributed projects, you have projects with people who are many time zones away, and who represent multiple cultures. You have problems with language, how to share the stories, and coming to a common understanding of what done means.

Your servant leader needs to help facilitate the team meetings. First find a meeting time that everyone can make. Then make sure everyone understands what’s going on.

Does your servant leader need to access the people on the project through managers in different countries? Sometimes that happens. Does the leader need to make it easy for people to explain, “I don’t understand the wording of the story. I need more information.” That happens too.

It’s quite common that a story that appears easy to one person in one time zone is non-trivial to a person in another time zone. A servant leader may have to act as a coach, to help people articulate why they are not done with a story, and diagnose remaining work to see if the rest of the team can assist with work for that story. This can be quite difficult, the more time zones separating the people. It can also appear to the distributed people that the leader is criticizing the distributed folks. This takes talent and subtlety. Maybe the team doesn’t have a common definition of done.

Arriving at a common definition of done is not trivial when people are partway around the world. It is easy for people to misunderstand words and not just miss a deadline, but create the wrong thing entirely.

Servant leaders for geographically distributed teams need to learn to build trust, to help people learn to collaborate, to help people learn to speak in a way that creates teamwork, and to avoid the management insertion that too often occurs. There are many potential pitfalls in geographically distributed agile teams.

Anne decided these were the essential qualities, preferences, and skills:

  • Able to facilitate phone calls all over the world
  • Able to manage these people’s managers—high negotiation skills, political capital
  • Able to recognize small wins and help the team deliver without being command and control
  • Influential in the team to deliver fast wins

Anne was so successful the project grew into a program. That turned into a headache for Anne.

Managing Programs Requires Other Skills

A geographically distributed project is one thing. A geographically distributed program is another beast. A program is several projects, all coordinated to meet one business objective.

Managing programs requires coordination and collaboration across the organization.

What Does a “Real” Scrum Master Require?

By now, you’re probably wondering, what the heck are the qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills for a real Scrum Master? Let’s assume we have a collocated five-to-seven person team and the Scrum Master only has this job, no other.

Tags:  agile  Leadership  scrummaster  Technology 

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What is Agile Leadership?

Posted By Meghan Robinson, Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Agile Leadership allows you to anticipate and adapt to unpredictable circumstances or environments in ways that will benefit yourself and others. While not everyone can exhibit the same levels of leadership agility, agile leaders are undoubtedly more effective leaders. 

According to research conducted by Korn/Ferry International, who assessed about one million executives, the higher up you go on the executive ladder, the more you need to become comfortable with sudden change and uncertainty. Leaders should have the capability to make sense of apparently unrelated pieces of information and ideas and be able to find solutions from them.

An agile leader would be able to make decisions on the spot even in the absence of compelling data.

In the words of Hallenbeck, Swisher and Orr, July 2011“People who are learning agile: Seek out experiences to learn from; enjoy complex problems and challenges associated with new experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them; perform better because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire. A person who is learning agile has more lessons, more tools, and more solutions to draw on when faced with new business challenges.”

According to J.P. Flaum and Becky Winkler of organisational consulting firm Green Peak Partners“a relatively new leadership quality, which researchers at Columbia University's Teacher's College call "learning agility," deserves more of a company's focus.”
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they state that learning agility refers to a set of characteristics that help a leader"stay flexible, grow from mistakes, and rise to a diverse array of challenges." 

Agile leaders are more able to:

  • Innovate
    In the words of Flaum and Winkler, learning-agile leaders are extroverted, take charge, and challenge the status quo, but may have been described as “difficult to manage”. They have original ideas and ways of getting things done. "Learning-agile individuals generate new ideas through their ability to view issues from multiple angles."
  • Outperform in challenges
    According to the duo, an individual must remain present and engaged to handle the stress brought on by ambiguity and be able to adapt to the situation quickly in order to perform. Pulling this off would require skill at observation and processing data and the ability to acquire new skills to tackle a situation when data has been revealed.
  • Reflect on experience
    An agile leader seeks continual feedback and learns from previous experiences. He is aware of his own shortcomings and blind spots and uses feedback to his advantage. According to a Green Peak Partners study, self-awareness is the single highest predictor of success.
  • Take risks
    Learning-agile leaders, according to Flaum and Winkler, are pioneering risk-takers. They are resilient and are calm in stressful situations. They are likely to volunteer for jobs where success is not guaranteed and failure may be a possibility because they like to stretch themselves outside their comfort zone.

Agile people excel at absorbing information from their experience and using it to navigate an unfamiliar situation. Agile leadership is now closely related to VUCA in the respect that Agility is considered to help counteract Ambiguity. Being Agile you will: ‘Be prepared to adapt and shift course rapidly’ and ‘Reverse potential threats into opportunities’.

At ProfitAbility we design and deliver customised business simulations for some of the world’s leading companies. The business simulations are designed specifically to change behaviour, and to deliver measurably improved business outcomes.

Agile Leadership is a new simulation designed to highlight how Agility can benefit  businesses in a VUCA world. This topic is one of the most popular subjects requested by companies looking to engage with us and some of our Business School partners.
We guarantee that our business simulations will make a difference to your organisation. That is the ProfitAbility promise. Get in touch with us, and let us help you experience a more profitable business future.


This article was originally posted on

Tags:  Agile  Leadership 

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