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How to Think Like a Scrum Master

Matija Š.9 min readJun 18, 2024Business & Life
How to Think Like a Scrum Master
Matija Š.9 min read
Contents:
What is a Scrum Master?
Constructing and validating ideas
Goal and intentions
Leading people vs managing a project
Should you get certified as a Scrum Master?
Getting started as a Scrum Master

Business Agility has been developing for the last 30 years, and only in the last 10 years have organizations started taking it seriously. Along with Agility, the Scrum Master role has developed from a side gig and a title to a genuine profession.

There are no rules saying what kind of education or background a Scrum Master should have. They come from all sorts of educational and professional backgrounds.

Often, when a new kind of job market appears, it creates a lot of uncertainty and a bit of chaos. Some view this uncertainty as a business opportunity and will find themselves attracted to it purely out of economic interest. Others, like Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, believe that chaos is a ladder they can use to become successful.

Whatever the case may be, there’s an inherent danger of something like this becoming corrupted with all kinds of ideas, practices, and movements. It is a small wonder that Business Agility has managed to fight and claw its way to a place of credibility and trust.

What is a Scrum Master?

A Scrum Master is a person accountable for establishing Scrum as described in the Scrum Guide. That doesn’t mean they should only know what the Scrum Guide says. They should also be able to interpret Agile principles and apply them consistently in different environments. Business Agility is an interdisciplinary field, and ideally, a Scrum Master should know the basics of psychology and business organization and understand the nature of the industry in which they operate.

For a while, that was exclusively software development, but recently, this role has started to spread to other industries as well. More importantly, a good Scrum Master should be able to work well with people. Being a Scrum Master is all about being able to think about the world in a very specific way.

Constructing and validating ideas

There is, in my opinion, one sentence in the Scrum Guide that holds the key to thinking like a Scrum Master.

“Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed.”

That seems rather simple. Don’t make decisions based on guesswork. In fact, most of the Scrum Guide appears to be simple but requires a lot of context to understand and master. As any developer with a bit of experience will tell you, it takes a lot of effort to achieve simplicity.

Empiricism is a way to understand the world around you by only accepting as true what you have experienced and verified. The problem is that even this seemingly fail-safe method won’t stop you from making mistakes. There’s an old joke about a scientist in a lab studying fleas. He grabs a flea from the jar, removes its antennae, and says: "Jump!". So the flea jumps around the room, and he writes down in his journal: "Fleas can jump without antennae." Next, he grabs another flea, removes its legs, and says: "Jump!" The poor flea just twitches on the table. So, he writes in his journal: "Fleas without legs can't hear.” It seems that knowledge is a very fragile thing.

Another pitfall that often troubles those solving complex problems is confusing your own hypothesis with knowledge. If you’re working on solving any kind of problem, you must come up with ideas. Some will be bad, some will be good, and if you’re lucky, a few will approach genius.

No matter the quality of your ideas, you must be careful not to confuse them with facts. Validating an idea, or rather a hypothesis, has to be strict and rigorous. When you come up with an idea you really like, approach implementation with extreme caution. Everyone has a bias towards their own ideas. It is necessary to become aware of this bias and put every idea under the same microscope. Some ideas will fall apart under this scrutiny, some will change, and some you’ll improve. It’s not easy to poke holes in your own ideas, but it’s worse when others do it for you. The worst is when things start to leak when you have already invested considerable time and resources in implementing them. This process of idea validation will also help you strengthen your position and warn you in advance of possible avenues leading to failure.

That’s why Scrum Masters need to be able to accept the fact that very few things will go exactly as planned. It can be hard to understand people even if you know them well. Just think how many arguments you’ve had with wives, husbands, and family members because of a simple misunderstanding. There is nothing that is obvious to everyone. Try stating the obvious a few times in meetings; you’ll be surprised how often you’ll find someone with a very different view.

Goal and intentions

The Scrum Guide says a lot about goals. The word “goal” is mentioned 40 times in the Guide. It is clear, then, that setting goals is an important part of the software development process. However, as a Scrum Master, you’re not developing software; you’re leading a group of people in adopting a certain mindset. That’s why I believe it is better for a Scrum Master to focus on more intentions and less on goals.

Goals lead to outcomes and achievements; intentions show you the way. Goals can change and even become obsolete. Intentions, on the other hand, are fully within your control. They are an affirmation of your personal values. If you start your days with the intention to live the five Scrum values, even if you fail to reach the goal, the work you've done will hold value and purpose. By setting intentions, you’re not committing to outcomes but to values.

Embrace the change

It is commonly said in Agile circles how difficult it can be to implement even the smallest changes. But it is also common to hear that the process of implementing changes has already brought value to the organization. The goal we’re trying to reach is almost a side effect.

It’s a common pitfall for new Scrum Masters to set a goal like: create a high-performing team. To be fair, it’s not a bad goal; it’s clear and to the point, and it’s not impossible to measure when you’ve reached it. However, reaching this goal depends on the cooperation of a group of people. Developers on your Scrum team are not something you’ll be able to control, nor should you try. You will have to teach, guide, coach, and maybe even push a tiny bit.

Scrum values

That is, in my opinion, the reason we learn about Scrum values at the very beginning of the Scrum Guide. Scrum is not a collection of tasks to be knocked off your list. If you consistently demonstrate to your team how to work according to a set of values, you will not only foster a culture of shared principles and ethics but also inspire them to align their actions and decisions with those values, promoting cohesion, trust, and a sense of purpose within the team.

In my experience, this is by far the hardest part of all Scrum practices, to teach to others. It’s difficult to talk to your work colleagues and teammates about values. It’s even more difficult when their minds are occupied with very real problems like data structures, release cycles, database configuration issues, etc.

Leading people vs managing a project

Managing a project puts emphasis on the product, meaning the product is more valuable to a business than an employee. That perspective makes perfect sense in an environment where the work is simple, repetitive, and workers are easily replaced. A leader will stand on the front lines saying: Follow me. A manager will send an email with a list of tasks.

Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.” It is important to clarify the nature of leadership in this context. Scrum Masters don’t have hierarchical authority over team members. What you’re leading is adopting Scrum as a framework and Agile principles.

As far as I can tell, the reason the Scrum Guide specifies that a Scrum Master serves others is that a self-serving Scrum Master stands in direct opposition to Agility. If you’ve read and learned the Scrum Guide but didn’t understand it, then the following might sound like a good plan.

You’re hired as a new Scrum Master, and you jump right in. You decide your team will use a certain issue tracking tool, you design their workflow and you make sure everything is nicely documented. Then, you and your Product Owner can fast-talk the stakeholders into signing a fantastic contract that will ensure there’s enough work for months to come. You make sure the developers deliver on that contract come hell or high water. At the end of the day, you’re the star, you managed the hell out of that project, and no deadlines were harmed in the process. You can do all that while adhering to the Scrum “process.” The only question is why you would not then call yourself a project manager.

What do you bring to the table?

One reason, in my view, it took so long for business owners to start hiring Scrum Masters is because it’s so hard to measure the value we bring. A programmer brings value by delivering a functioning piece of software you can sell for money. A Scrum Master brings value by preventing something expensive and unnecessary from happening.

Or maybe they refine a series of processes to the point where they help the organization make more money in the long run. It is exceedingly difficult to measure things like that. Not to mention, most people are not exactly thrilled when someone improves on a process that “already works just fine.”

Scrum Masters - Agents of Change

Scrum Masters are agents of Change, with a capital C, and she is a harsh mistress. This means you’ll be the one pointing out behaviors, rules, and processes that create shadowy corners in your organization and prevent inspection and adaptation. This applies to both the products of work and the way of work. If you’re a student of history at all, you’ll know that people who upset the natural order are not exactly met with enthusiasm. The point is you will be met with opposition. It’ll happen often and a lot. When it does, you need to be able to accept it and move on because it’s not about you. You can’t force people to change. You can show people a different way of doing things but don’t expect them actually to do it. Think of yourself as Morpheus from the movie The Matrix. At one point, he says to Neo: “I can only show you the door; you’re the one that has to walk through it.” Sometimes, you might give them a gentle but encouraging push.

Coaching anyone is only possible if they accept coaching. This means accepting that there is something to learn. Socrates was widely considered to be the wisest man in ancient times due to his saying: “I know that I know nothing.” Those who believe there’s nothing for them to learn cannot learn anything.

Should you get certified as a Scrum Master?

There are plenty of reasons to get certified. It’s a good way to validate your skills and solidify your knowledge of theory. It will certainly give you a competitive edge in the job market. If for no other reason, consider the fact that there is more value in preparing for the exam than in passing it.

I have an educational background as a translator. What this field of study has taught me is to approach every piece of writing with intention and that even a seemingly simple text can hide incredible depth. Whenever you’re reading someone else’s writing, you get a glimpse of their thought process. If you also manage to read with an open mind, it can change you.

In order to deepen my understanding of the Scrum Guide, I analyzed it sentence by sentence on a structural and semantic level. What I realized is just how much thought went into this 13-page document. After 10 years of refinement and six editions every word is placed in its place with surgical precision. It seemed only fair I think a bit more about the way I work.

If you’re already an Agile practitioner, you can use this preparation time as a kind of retrospective to analyze your work so far. This only works if you dare to be brutally honest with yourself. This isn’t an exercise in self-criticism but rather one of self-awareness and growth. It’s a way to practice what you preach. To be effective as a Scrum Master, it’s not enough to just know the Scrum framework. You must be able to apply it to a real-life situation.

scrum master responsibilities

Getting started as a Scrum Master

In the end, I would add an important caveat for all new Scrum Masters. Getting a Scrum Master certification looks good on a CV, and it shows you’re at least somewhat serious about your role. In this moment, it’s a great idea to take a lesson in humility.

Learning the mechanics of Scrum through a course or reading a book or two is a lot different from leading a group of people in adopting a new mindset. It’s the difference between reading about driving a car and actually driving it. Until you’ve felt the car move with you and respond to your inputs in different conditions, you simply have no idea. That’s why you need a good driving instructor. Or, in this case, a good mentor.

There are very few jobs where feedback from someone more experienced is as important as it is here. Having a good mentor will provide you with corrective feedback, and you’ll be able to loosen up and focus on the task at hand. Just knowing there’s someone there to show you the right direction does wonders. Being mentored will also teach you how to be a mentor, and for a Scrum Master, I don’t know that there’s a skill more valuable than that.

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