Scrum Master is an important role from the perspective of Scrum. It is one of the 11 essentials required to start doing Scrum. The role of the Scrum Master is not confined within the boundaries of one single team; Scrum Master has to serve the team, PO and the organisation. Hence the Scrum Master is also referred to as the “Servant Leader”. And when you want to be a servant leader i.e. serve first, lead later; more than any other skill; people skills are utmost important. In one’s journey of becoming great Scrum Master one has to keep acquiring and improving these skills throughout the journey. In-fact, acquiring and improving on people skills is not that difficult, if one commits to relentless improvement.
In this post I am sharing few of the people skills that I have found useful in my journey as a Scrum Master.
There goes a saying that – “the best gift you can give to anyone is to give your ears”. Pretty evident. When you listen to someone with empathy and intently, they feel heard and valued. As a Scrum Master we have to enable the team to self-organize, to shield them from outside interference, to help them work collaboratively with PO and stakeholders to deliver business value; and while we do all this the most important part is to listen to their challenges. A Scrum Master not only has to listen to what is being said, but also to what is unsaid or what is not expressed verbally. Listening is an art, and like any other art it can practiced and improved on. As a Scrum Master we need to develop our skills of listening. There are 3 levels to listening:
- Level 1 – Internal Listening: This is superficial listening. We listen only to what is being said and even before we hear out what people have to say completely we start contemplating on providing a solution or presenting an argument to whatever we hear. We bring in our own biases and judgement to the table. At this level all we think about is “How, what is being said is important to us or impacts us?”
- Level 2 – Focused Listening: At this level, we listen to what is being said intently without any bias. We observe the body language, feel the emotions and focus only on listening without trying to come to any conclusion before the speaker finishes. We genuinely empathize with speaker. Our own thoughts become secondary and the focus is on the speaker.
- Level 3 – Global Listening: This is when one listens even when nothing is said or heard. A common analogy that is used to describe this level is “Reading the temperature of the room”. When a Scrum Master enters the team room and can sense just from the atmosphere of the room, whether everything is right or not; that’s where level 3 listening happens.
As a Scrum Master we should strive to attain level 3, but listening at level 2 is also equally good.
In the Scrum Master’s tool box, facilitation is an important skill. The Scrum Master will have to facilitate number of events for the Scrum Team to help them understand Scrum. As a facilitator it is upto the Scrum Master to set the context of the event, help everyone understand the purpose of the event; help the participants to come with desired outcomes of the event. As a Scrum Master, we are also often required to facilitate the decision making process for the team. At times, we need to facilitate discussions between the Scrum Team and external stakeholders / participants. There would be conflicts, dysfunctions in the team that would require navigation and facilitation by the Scrum Master. There could be problem solving /root-cause analysis workshops which need facilitation and so on. Thus, for a Scrum Master it is very important to be a good facilitator and keep improvising on facilitation skills.
Some tips that I use while facilitating any event:
- Create team agreements before the start of any event.
- Ensure that the purpose is well understood.
- Ensure that everyone has good idea about how a great outcome would look like.
- Make sure that everyone participates.
- Have all the necessary prerequisites ready – like stationary, food, audio/video etc.
- Learn different techniques for decision making like multivoting, majority, supermajority.
- Learn different techniques for problem solving like 5 Whys, Brain Storming, Brain Swarming.
- Gamification of events increases engagement and adds new perspectives, so try to gamify events. For ex: Instead of the regular Sprint Retrospect with “What went well?”, “What did not go well?”, “Actionable Improvements”; try out motorboat or rocket retrospective
Another important aspect to be a good servant-leader is to be available for the team. Being Present, connected within the moment is a very important skill/trait that needs to be developed by Scrum Masters. Teams would know easily when you are disconnected and out of the context of the team.
Being present means being here now, in this moment; not dreaming the future, not dwelling in the past. Our mind is often compared with drunken monkeys; always screaming, chattering, jumping around endlessly from one thought to another. As a Scrum Master, we need to come at terms with these monkeys and allow ourselves to present in this moment. When we are present, then only we can notice what is actually happening around us, within the team, outside the team. Also, being present gives us the ability to put across our thoughts and suggestions with more clarity, certainty and impact.
One way to be in present, to be in the moment is to practice “mindfulness”; it is just another way of meditation. While being mindful, you become aware of your thoughts; you identify them; connect with them and then let them go. You don’t allow them to linger in your mind to distract you.
With great power comes great responsibilities – Spider Man
I like to add to the saying that with great experience comes great responsibilities. One of the major responsibilities of Scrum Master is to promote and support Scrum as prescribed in the Scrum Guide within the wider organization. The question is – can I lone Scrum Master do it? To me the obvious answer is No (you may differ in opinion with me, but that is what I have seen in my experience). But then, how would the Scrum Master make sure that Scrum is adopted in its entirety in the wider organization. The answer is by creating more Scrum Masters and to do this – Mentoring – is an important skill.
A mentor is a person who has in-depth knowledge of the craft and lot a experience of implementing that knowledge in real time situations. A Scrum Master while mentoring fellow Scrum Masters or other development team members has to bring in all of his/her experience and knowledge to ensure that the people being mentored get the most value out of it. As Barry Overeem has mentioned in his “8 Stances of Scrum Master” white paper, Mentoring happens at different stages through out the journey of the mentee to become a master of his/her art. When the mentee is at beginner level, the mentor acts as a teacher defining and teaching the mentee the rules of the art. In the case of Scrum Master, this often boils down to the core essentials of Scrum. At the next level when the mentee has understood the essentials, core principles,values of Scrum and starts to ponder upon the same, Scrum Master brings more perspectives and food for thought for the mentees. At the expert level, when the mentee has embodied the rules, values, principles of Scrum, and has started to explore beyond them, as a mentor the Scrum Master acts as a counselor or adviser and provides advice when the mentee asks for it.
Few tips that I have found useful while mentoring are:
- Teach when starting or absolutely necessary
- Provide them with all the resources, support and space to learn.
- Allow them to fail and learn from their own experience.
- Have patience, remember it’s their journey to mastery.
- Advice, when asked for. Do not meddle if you are not asked.
- Be available, you don’t know when they might need you
Another effective tool in the Scrum Master’s toolkit is a “Powerful Question”. A question becomes a powerful question when it opens up perspectives, is provocative in nature, creates curiosity and impact; instead of being a close ended yes/no question. A powerful question enables an individual answering the question to explore possibilities, engages, clarifies, probes for alternates, helps to identify outcomes or implementation and so on.
Why, What, How, When – all can lead you to powerful questions. However, in my experience I have seen that Why and When sometimes send the individual in a shell as these might lead to situations where one feels that his/her capability is being questioned. For ex: Why was your work not done? Now this question is not opening up a dialogue; it’s more of a challenge. Instead, if we ask What were the impediments in your progress? the individual is not singled out, but we are genuinely trying to find the challenges that stopped him/her from doing his/her work. This question also allows an individual to have an holistic view of the situation and identify the challenges.
A few powerful questions that can be asked (that I have also used at times):
- What is stopping you from taking action?
- What are the options do we have?
- How do you know that we have achieved it?
- How would you measure it?
- How important is this task for team success?
- If you know that the team cannot fail, what is it that you would like to do?
- What needs teams immediate attention?
- What it looks like, in the bigger picture for the team?
Being Scrum Master is not just about knowing Scrum but involves many other facets. It is continuous journey from good to great and involves lot of learning. As a Scrum Master one needs to be well aware of his/her strengths and keep working on improving many other skills like the ones mentioned above to become a good Scrum Master. Any one in the role of Scrum Master who wants to improve on their skills as Scrum Master, I strongly recommend the book “Scrum Mastery” by Geoff Watts. Keep Calm and Scrum On.
- Scrum Mastery by Geoff Watts
- The Eight Stances of a Scrum Master by Barry Overeem
- Co-Active Coaching
- Powerful Questions