The Scrum Master as an organizational multi-function pocket knife

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When I was a young boy, there was a series on television which I enjoyed a lot. It was called MacGyver and featured a young man that was practically a magician when it came to solving problems. With his trusty Swiss Army Knife, he could disarm bombs, create traps and just about do anything to get him out of any pickle or to help him solve a challenge presented by the next evil criminal mastermind. I sometimes get the impression that this is the way that Scrum Masters are seen. 

Often in classes and when coaching I conclude that Scrum Masters are expected to simply ‘fill the gap’. Is there a need for a manager? Call the Scrum Master. Is there someone needed to be pointed to, to take responsibility because shared responsibility is difficult to grasp? Call the Scrum Master! Are there problems to be solved that no-one else seems to have the answer for? Call the Scrum Master! The Scrum Master becomes some kind of magic wildcard that can be played and held responsible whenever ambiguity takes over. 

This is what makes being a Scrum Master so challenging. Having clarity of your role for yourself and helping your organization get clarity about your role can be a tall order. There are two key statements from the Scrum guide that can help guide these discussions:

  • The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide.
  • The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team.

Although this seems like two simple concepts I believe it is helpful to clarify. 

Promoting and Supporting Scrum

From the Scrum guide there are three focus areas clearly defined:

  • The Development team
  • The Product Owner
  • The Organisation

The Scrum Guide does a very good job of describing the three roles. If you are not certain of the mechanics and practices, make an effort to do so and to really understand the roles and why they are defined the way they are.

I would like to emphasize the intent and the mindset that underpins this role. In his book Emotional Intelligence, the author, Daniel Goleman makes the following statements based on experiments conducted by various psychologists:

«The single most important element in group intelligence, it turns out, is not the average IQ in the academic sense, but rather in terms of emotional intelligence. The key to a high group IQ is social harmony.

The single most important factor in maximizing the excellence of a group’s product was the degree to which the members were able to create a state of internal harmony, which lets them take advantage of the full talent of their members.

Harmony allows a group to take maximum advantage of its most creative and talented members’ abilities.»

As a Scrum Master, your focus should be on making sure that Scrum is being implemented well. This means systemic optimization and inherently facilitating group harmony. As an objective observer constantly evaluating and optimizing the system, you can ensure that harmony is facilitated by the values and principles of Scrum.

This brings me to one of the most asked questions when it comes to the Scrum roles: “Is a combination of roles possible?” Of course, it is but from my point of view, that is not the intention. When the Scrum Master becomes part of and subjective to the chaos in a system, it becomes increasingly difficult to model values that are not prevalent in the system. It becomes challenging for him/her to be the conductor of the metaphoric orchestra that is supposed to create perfect harmony. This negates a lot of the value that role is supposed to bring to the table. NO, should be a well-practiced word in the vocabulary of a Scrum Master. Learning to say NO to the right things is a skill to master on its own. 

Just to be clear, a Scrum Master should have a wider focus than just their development team. When Scrum Masters join forces in harmony, they can have a very valuable impact on each other’s teams as well as on an organizational level. Some examples of this can be  Scrum Masters supporting an engineering department by performing story mapping sessions for new products, facilitating department level retrospectives or providing systemic coaching to help improve the flow between departments.

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership can easily become a generalized and ambiguous term which is difficult to pin down. In a paper published by The University of Nebraska–Lincoln titled “Becoming a Servant leader: Do you have what it takes?” the concept is nicely clarified.

  • Calling: Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice self- interest for the good of the group? Servant leaders have a natural desire to serve others.
  • Listening: Do people believe that you want to hear their ideas and will value them? Servant leaders are excellent listeners. They are receptive and genuinely interested in the views and input of others.
  • Empathy: Do people believe that you will understand what is happening in their lives and how it affects them? Servant leaders can “walk in others’ shoes.
  • Healing: Do people come to you when the chips are down or when something traumatic has happened in their lives? Servant leaders are people who others want to approach when something traumatic has happened. 
  • Awareness: Do others believe you have a strong awareness of what is going on? Servant leaders have a keen sense of what is happening around them.
  • Persuasion: Do others follow your requests because they want to or because they believe they “have to?” Servant leaders seek to convince others to do things rather than relying on formal authority. 
  • Conceptualization: Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the organization when you are around? Servant leaders nurture the ability to conceptualize the world, events, and possibilities.
  • Foresight: Do others have confidence in your ability to anticipate the future and its consequences? Servant leaders have an uncanny ability to anticipate future events.
  • Stewardship: Do others believe you are preparing the organization to make a positive difference in the world? Servant leaders often are characterized by a strong sense of stewardship.
  • Growth: Do people believe that you are committed to helping them develop and grow? Servant leaders have a strong commitment to the growth of people. 
  • Building Community: Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization that you lead? Servant leaders have a strong sense of community spirit and work hard to foster it in an organization.

As is plain to see, Servant leadership is a lifelong learning process. It is a core competency and central to the role of Scrum mastery. Coincidently, it is also quite challenging to measure. How you make the value you bring as a servant leader transparent to your organization is up to you. I do suggest you try to get some ‘hard stuff’ to help make the ‘soft stuff’ visible. 

Back to MacGyver and his antics. I learned from him that you need to be ready for anything, that you should have the right tools to be able to solve the problems that arise around you efficiently, effectively and with passion. Within the context of Scrum and organizations, I still hold the same lessons dear. I did, however, realize that a Scrum Master is not a jack of all trades with a magic problem-solving knife in his back pocket but a master of Scrum.