As a product maker, chances are you are going to work closely with one or more scrum masters, or perhaps fill that role yourself. 

Either way, it’s helpful to know a bit more about a role that has become quite prevalent in the world of product development.

What is a Scrum Master?

Scrum Master is a role defined in the Scrum framework that is responsible for helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.

If you’re filling the role of Scrum Master you’ll interact with and coach people both inside and outside your Scrum Team.

Internal to your team, you act as a coach to ensure your team exhibits agile values and principles. You also act as a mirror to help your team follow the practices and methodology you agreed to use.

Externally, you help your team establish effective interactions with stakeholders and other teams. This often requires you to coach stakeholders on how they interact with the team. Sometimes you may even have to insert yourself between a stakeholder and your team in order to prevent interference or bad interactions. This activity is sometimes known as “providing air cover”.

You don’t possess any authority in this role. If you want to be an effective scrum master, you can put your command and control tendencies back on a shelf. A servant-leadership stance along with those facilitation skills will serve you much better.

Since a Scrum Master is primarily responsible for helping everyone understand Scrum, it may be helpful to describe Scrum briefly.

What is Scrum?

Scrum is one of the frameworks your team can use to apply agile values and agile principles in your team’s methodology. The framework is based on the idea of empiricism where you learn from doing and make decisions based on what you know. 

In order for empiricism to work, your process needs to be transparent. That transparency allows your team to frequently inspect both your process and progress toward your selected outcome. When the inspection identifies that things have gone awry, your team should then adapt to the new situation.

The three roles, five events, and three artifacts prescribed in scrum provide a structure that your team can use to keep your process transparent and inspect and adapt on an ongoing basis.

The three roles in Scrum are:

  • Scrum Master – helps everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.
  • Product Owner – maximizes the work produced by the development team, primarily through managing the product backlog.
  • Development Team – the self-organizing team of professionals that produces a usable, potentially releasable increment of the product at the end of each Sprint.

The people filling these roles combine to form a Scrum Team.

The five events in Scrum are:

  • The Sprint: A time-box of one month or less in which your Scrum Team produces a usable, potentially releasable increment of the product.
  • Sprint Planning: A discussion where your Scrum Team determines what your plan for the upcoming Sprint will be.
  • Daily Scrum: An opportunity for your Scrum Team to coordinate your activities for the upcoming day and identify any obstacles that need removed. (Many teams refer to this as a standup).
  • Sprint Review: An opportunity to inspect the increment of the product produced in the Sprint and make any adjustments to the product backlog.
  • Sprint Retrospective: An opportunity for your Scrum Team to inspect and adapt your process and identify opportunities for adaptation in the upcoming Sprint.

The three artifacts in Scrum provide transparency around your Scrum Team’s work.

  • Product Backlog: An ordered list of things you are aware of that your product needs in order to address the desired outcome.
  • Sprint Backlog: The subset of the product backlog that your Scrum Team is going to work on in the current Sprint.
  • Increment: The output from the Product Backlog items completed during a Sprint.

The Scrum framework is intentionally lightweight, prescribing only the things needed to ensure transparency and provide a way for your Scrum Team to inspect and adapt. It tends to leave a lot of specifics up to individual teams to determine based on their particular context. 

The Scrum Master is often the role that helps guide that effort, so let’s take a closer look at what you may do to help your team inspect and adapt if you’re asked to fill the Scrum Master role. 

What does a Scrum Master do? Role & Responsibilities

The responsibilities of a scrum master are often described as carrying water and removing boulders.

To put it a little more concretely, in order to be an effective Scrum Master you will:

Establish an environment where your Scrum Team can be effective. This is the carrying water aspect of being a Scrum Master. You want to make sure that your Scrum Team has the information, knowledge, and equipment they need to deliver the desired outcome. This includes making sure that the Product Owner and Development Team understand their roles and responsibilities with respect to Scrum.

Address team dynamics. You want to make sure that the members of the Scrum Team operate as a self-organizing, cross-functional team. You’d like to have team members address any challenges they face working with each other, but you may have to coach them to begin with. Part of establishing good team dynamics is making sure everyone has clear expectations of each other, and one key point is the expectations that the Development Team has for the Product Owner on the team.

Clear obstacles from your Scrum Team. These obstacles can be just about anything, usually outside the team such as action you’re waiting on from another team, acquiring equipment that your team needs, or identifying a subject matter expert to answer some questions your team has. You may also find that organizational policies and procedures can present obstacles, especially if your organization is fairly new to adopting Scrum. The Daily Scrum is often a good source of obstacles to fill your to-do list.

Ensure a good relationship between the Scrum Team and those outside the team. One way to avoid obstacles is to prevent them in the first place. One sure source of obstacles are people and teams outside your Scrum Team. When you can establish good relationships with the people and teams your Scrum Team interacts with on a regular basis, you’ll be able to avoid several obstacles. 

Protect the team from outside interruptions and distractions. When you can’t prevent obstacles popping up outside your team, you may have to block those obstacles. That may mean that you ask people outside your Scrum Team to go through you rather than talking directly to members of your team. The idea here is to keep distractions from the team so that they can maintain focus. This is part of the air cover mentioned earlier.

Ultimately, as Scrum Master you will probably find yourself doing whatever needs to happen so that the rest of your Scrum Team can deliver the product increment. That tends to make for very few boring days as a Scrum Master.