What Does a Scrum Master Actually Do?

Yes, we SCRUM!

IT-ServiceProcessesInside
© fizkes / Adobe Stock

© fizkes / Adobe Stock

For many companies, hiring a SCRUM Master is their first step into the modern world of agile work. The alternative title "Agile Coach" has also become an integral part of many job adverts. But what exactly is meant with this job title, and what is important in this occupation is often better guessed at than what’s actually known. Find out what a SCRUM Master must be able to do, why they're so indispensable and whether it’s actually a full-time job.

The current development in the IT world is such that the classic hierarchies of project management are receding more and more into the background and agile work is taking their place. Agile refers to a working environment in which cross-functionality and self-organisation are used to achieve an optimal working environment that regularly produces finished products. Over time, a long list of agile methods has been developed, and most of which are specialised in software development. But some agile frameworks are future-facing and are now conquering many different industries. One of the best known methods (which lies in stark contrast with traditional waterfall models) is SCRUM. The term means something like "jostle" and comes from the sport of rugby, whereby in the "Scrum", the teams regroup closely together in a set piece after a stoppage in play, in order to restart the game and establish possession of the ball.

Especially companies that are new to the modern world of agile work (or wish to become part of it) kick their project off by looking for a SCRUM Master.

Manager, Mediator, Mentor – the many faces of the SCRUM Master

In the trinity of SCRUM, the SCRUM Master supports the Product Owner, who formulates the needs of the customer in understandable requirements, and the Development Team, which integrates the requirements into the product independently. The SCRUM Master supports the team in complying with the SCRUM Guidelines and they ensure a suitable working environment. What may sound straightforward and somewhat simple is actually high art; the underestimation of which can become a big mistake. After all, it's by no means a matter of dictating behaviour to the SCRUM team, but of empowering the entire team to optimise their effectiveness through independent adaptive planning. So how does the SCRUM Master get the team to organise and develop itself? The answer: Servant Leadership.

At the heart of Servant Leadership is the ability of the team to make decisions themselves. A SCRUM Master leads the team by supporting and encouraging them to organise themselves in their daily work. In their passive leadership role, the SCRUM Master ensures that the team can focus on itself. He or she continually ensures that times and rooms are available for each SCRUM meeting, and they communicate the team's needs to the Product Owner. Essential to this is the elimination of all factors that could possibly hinder the team in their daily work. These so-called impediments can be many things; from slow servers to overly loud offices to personal conflicts within the team. The SCRUM Master is ever-vigilant and open to the detection and elimination of impediments in the team.

How the SCRUM team successfully becomes its own benchmark

The acceptance and implementation of an agile working method within a company is also one of the areas of responsibility for the SCRUM Master. As an agile expert they are the contact person for both colleagues and the management level. He or she knows the product and the requirements in detail and works closely with the Product Owner to organise the outstanding requirements of the customer in a prioritised task list – the Backlog. Especially when introducing SCRUM in companies, this is one of the largest points for employees to get used to. Because, in order to promote self-organisation and to elevate the team to its optimal performance, enough space must be given. For example, at the beginning of each work phase, called a Sprint, which typically lasts between two and four weeks, a team estimates how many tasks from the Backlog it will be able to implement within that time. The Product Owner can agree on a sprint goal with the development team, which has top priority in the sprint. However, he or she has no influence on how many tasks are processed within the particular sprint. The competence required, in order to assess one's own productivity and the tasks at hand lies entirely with the development team.

While the SCRUM Master protects the team and combines the roles of Coach, Organiser, Teacher, Mediator, Manager and Mentor, they also recognise that team development is not a linear process. A team must first find itself, then gel and learn about its own strengths and weaknesses until it can finally work optimally (Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing). If a team stagnates or doesn't find a common feel for its productivity, it may become necessary for the SCRUM Master to actively promote changes within the team. The ideal opportunity for this is the Sprint Retrospective, which takes place at the end of each sprint. The team talks about what went well during the sprint, what was a hindrance and what could be improved in the next sprint. A good SCRUM Master can moderate the discussion if necessary, prepare team exercises to stimulate the team's thoughts and make the results of the Sprint Retrospective available to the team over the long-term.

Always Agile?

Being a SCRUM Master requires a high degree of flexibility, empathy and understanding for both product and team. In order to be able to optimally fulfil its multifaceted role, a SCRUM Master must have both the time and space to do so. If a SCRUM Master has many other obligations, often sits in meetings or is busy with tasks that don't directly affect their SCRUM team, he or she can't support the team sufficiently. Of course, each SCRUM team differs in size, mentality and product. It's not a golden rule that a SCRUM Master can't take on another role. But especially for new SCRUM teams and companies, which are still finding their way into an agile everyday work routine, a fully-fledged SCRUM Master is indispensable.

Official certifications for all SCRUM roles are available on scrum.org. For USD $150, applicants can test their knowledge in a one-hour multiple choice test. But this is a tough one, which is why many training courses are offered nationwide; in order to pass on agile knowledge and prepare students optimally for working with SCRUM.

Yes, we SCRUM – kothes is agile as well

At kothes, too, we recognise the advantages of working agile and are enthusiastically implementing it in several areas. Through self-organisation and flat hierarchies, we support our employees in optimising their daily work. Our three certified SCRUM Masters provide the necessary know-how. This means that we're ideally positioned, not only internally, but also for cooperation with companies across the IT sector. This allows us to work with agile development teams and is also a good contact for companies still wishing to become agile.

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