Scrum master: mediator for agile teams

Scrum, a model of agile production management, has three roles. Besides the actual development team and the product owner, who are responsible for quality and functionality of the products, there is also the role of the scrum master. Even if they aren’t involved in developing a product, they play an important role in the scrum structure. A scrum master is a trainer, mediator, moderator, and assistant combined.

The scrum model was originally intended to be used for developing software. To make development teams more dynamic and efficient, this agile method was developed and concrete rules (the framework) were established. The processes can also be applied to other teams and products just as well. No matter whether software, hardware, or services are deployed – the scrum master always needs to be part of the action.

The scrum master and their tasks

What is a scrum master? A Scrum masters tasks are many. While some of them are firmly anchored in the framework and are applied in every scenario, other tasks only arise in certain situations. The main task for the scrum master is to make the whole team more efficient. The term servant leadership is often used in the context of scrum. To break this down: the scrum master is a person who understands leadership as a service. In this sense, a scrum master not only gives instructions, but also helps the team.

Setting up a scrum environment

If the company or specific team is working with scrum for the first time, it is up to the scrum master to establish this agile method. This may require persuasion, extensive training of all parties involved, and a comprehensive restructuring of the organization. And none of this should be done lightly. Productive cooperation can only be guaranteed when everyone knows their tasks, duties, and rights, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of the scrum method.

Ongoing coaching

Even if the initial training is finished and scrum is used, the scrum master is still available as a coach. The scrum master is the right source or contact for any and all questions about the scrum process – both for the product owner if they need help with creating backlogs, and the development team who might have questions about the sprint process.

Monitoring scrum processes

Scrum can only work properly and productively if all team members follow the rules. Therefore, one of the scrum masters’ roles as an expert is to monitor processes. Scrum masters intervene when teams violate the rules of the framework and they remind people of guidelines – like daily scrums, or compliance with sprint length. Of course, they should not appear as or be considered to be draconian guardians, threatening with punishments (which they have no way of carrying out!) but instead act as guides. Mistakes in the process often don’t have to do with lack of motivation, but with misunderstandings or other problems. In circumstances like this, the scrum master has to intervene supportively.

Checking the scrum artifacts

The scrum artifacts “Product Backlog” and “Sprint Backlog” are the responsibility of the product owner or development team, but the scrum master supports, checks, and helps them. For example, a scrum master can develop the backlog together with the product owner at the beginning. They should also available for questions throughout the course of development.

Moderation and organization of meetings

In the circular course of scrum, regular meetings are a part of obligatory scrum events: sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review, and the final retrospective organized by the scrum master. They take care of both time and space planning. During the meeting, the scrum master often takes on the role of a moderator. However, this depends on the type of meeting: while it should only be the development team that has a say in the daily scrum, the scrum master’s influence is much higher in the retrospective.

Communication & mediation

In order for the scrum team to work as successfully as possible, communication is crucial. The scrum master also helps here. They are the contact person for each team member and ensure that all participants always have access to the same information. Lack of or faulty communication is often the cause of problems within the team. If this is the case, the scrum master becomes a mediator and tries to solve conflicts together with team members.

Teambuilding

To avoid conflicts in the first place, a scrum master can also implement team building measures. Strictly speaking, these kinds of actions are not part of the scrum framework, but can still help the team be more productive. They also fall within the scope of the scrum master. They do not have to organize an event like this independently – they can also give reminders, for example, so that team members can organize teambuilding events independently.

Obstacle removal

Under certain circumstances, a scrum master also becomes the team assistant. Although he usually provides guidance, he can also offer practical help if obstacles stand in the team’s way. And since their primary goal is to help the team achieve higher productivity, one of the scrum masters tasks is to document faults and get them out of the way. Sometimes these obstacles (scrum impediments) are quite banal: For example, if workplace conditions are characterized by a lack of space or high temperatures, which stand in the way of efficient work, then it is the scrum master’s job to find a solution.

But if a software is outdated or inadequate, or the team needs some kind of external know-how, a scrum master takes care of these problems. In addition, these obstacles should be documented in the impediment backlog. This is a list that can be viewed by anyone, and should outline any problems as quickly as possible.

Protecting the team

In order for a team to perform at its best, they need to be left undisturbed as much as possible. Protection against external influences is therefore also an important task of the scrum master. Management or others in the hierarchy are often not well integrated into team processes, and sometimes do not understand the importance of focusing on a task. Therefore, these people often make additional inquiries to the team, which can ruin the sprint’s success or even in the worst cases, prevent it. In these situations, the scrum master needs to intervene. In general, the scrum master can also act as a mouthpiece for the team in relation to the rest of the company.

What is an example of a task that does not belong to the scrum master?

Even if you already know what the typical responsibilities of a scrum master are, you should also be aware of what are typically not their tasks:

  • No developer: The scrum method can only be used meaningfully if roles are not double assigned. The scrum master should not participate in development. This inevitably leads to the fact that they cannot exercise one or even both roles to the best of their ability.
  • No Product Owner: The same goes for mixing the roles of scrum master and product owner. Since both work next to the actual development team and are not in the team, the temptation to use just one person is great. However, this would lead to a conflict of interest as well as a competence problem – since it’s also the scrum master’s job to supervise the product owner’s work. On the other hand, both roles must meet very different requirements.
  • No boss: The scrum master is part of the scrum team and therefore cannot be superior to colleagues. Although one of the scrum master’s tasks is to assume a leading position, this cannot be equated with a boss. Within the team, there is only a hierarchy for very specific elements (e.g. who is allowed to change a backlog), otherwise all roles act at the same level.
  • No handyman: It is true that in some situations a scrum master becomes the team assistant, but this doesn’t mean they can do everything for the team. It often makes more sense to explain to the team how they can do the required tasks themselves.  

How do you become a scrum master?

Before asking how to become a scrum master, you should first find out what kind of person is suitable for the role. Certain character traits can make a person more suitable to become a scrum master from the outset. For example: a high sense of responsibility is necessary. Scrum masters cannot hide away or avoid confrontation or conflict with others. After all, a scrum master has to deal with people around the clock, and these interactions can often lead to conflicts.

In addition to soft skills, there are also certificates that you can study towards. In a scrum master course, which usually lasts about two days, you learn the basics of scrum as well as techniques for working successfully with a team as a scrum master. Two official documents are in competition with each other. Scrum master training courses can be completed in compliance with the rules of Scrum.org or the Scrum Alliance. After the course, you can call yourself either a professional scrum master or a certified scrum master.

There is disagreement over the importance of expertise in the team’s area of work. In the early days of scrum, this question did not even arise: the first scrum masters were probably software developers who underwent further scrum master training. Therefore, expertise was a given from the outset. However, in the meantime, Scrum is used in so many companies that there are plenty of people changing careers and the profession now resembles that of a coach who supports a team. But many people still believe that a scrum master should have professional experience in the field they are supporting. Others believe it is more important that the scrum master is an absolute expert in the scrum method.