This is the first in a series where Headforwards Scrum Masters reveal insights into their role. A lot has been written about agile methodology and the role of Scrum Master. Being a Scrum Master requires a wide range of interpersonal and facilitator skills. While there are a set of principles that Scrum Masters typically adhere to, everybody has their own take on the practice. We asked three of our own to talk about their focal points when practising the art of Scrum. Mike Fosker talks about his take on the role.
Stay focused on the big picture and the value being delivered
Don’t get caught up in the mechanics of the process (as in the Scrum Guide) and making sure that everything is done by the book. There is of course nothing wrong with the mechanics but it is too easy to get buried in them. The most important thing is to keep focused on the one overriding question – is this going to generate the value that the product owner originally had in mind? What the product owner wants is a solution to a problem. It is vital to keep thinking about that single question – will this solve the problem? Is it going to work? Aim to get the feedback you need that confirms this will indeed deliver the value anticipated. The end value is all that really matters. Keep focused on the big picture.
Create an environment where the team feel psychologically safe
It is important that the team feel they can hold up an honest mirror to themselves, warts and all. If a mistake has been made, it should be acknowledged and learnt from. But this should be done in a way that no individual is blamed or made to feel it was their fault. It is important that the team constantly looks at itself and can discuss where things may have gone wrong or could have gone better – but in a way that does not make anyone feel anxious or offended. It is human nature to bristle in a situation like this – so it is important to work on creating an environment where people can feel safe from blame and can explore any team weaknesses without anyone taking it personally. Foster an atmosphere of trust. This is what allows the team to grow and improve. Creating an environment of this kind is surprisingly hard to do and is one of the big challenges of the job.
Always call things out
As a Scrum Master, it is important to call out when things are not going as well as they should. I am quite conflict-averse by nature and it can sometimes feel easier to overlook things or go with the flow.
But it’s vital to always call it out when something is not quite right or when you find the team is drifting off course. It’s important to point out for instance: ‘Look, we said we were not going to do this – and here we are doing it again!’. There should be a constant sense of critical self-appraisal.
Communicate the ‘Why?’
The team will be more motivated and engaged if they understand why they are being asked to carry out any part of their work.
In some cases, this could be the ultimate overarching benefit that a particular project could bring to a community or an organisation. In other cases, the ‘Why?’ may be more specific. But there is absolutely always a ‘Why?’ and the Scrum Master should always make sure the team understands it.
Act as a team – but the buck stops with you
The whole team needs to support each other and think in terms of what the team achieves, rather than what any individual achieves. The team is responsible for its successes and its failures. If anyone makes a mistake, that should be seen as a team mistake rather than the fault of any one person.
But although that is true for the team, it is not true for the Scrum Master. When things are going well, it is down to the success of the team. When things are going badly, it is down to the Scrum Master. A Scrum Master needs to be able to be both part of the team and outside of it.
Don’t let retrospectives become routine
Retrospectives are a key part of the Scrum process and should be carried out regularly, with a broad focus on what has been achieved over the period, what went well, what did not go well and so on. But because they are regular, they can become something that is done by rote. With imagination and sensitivity, retrospectives can become powerful learning experiences and opportunities to create stronger team bonds. So, rather than focus only on rational questions such as ‘how did we do?’, reach deeper to an emotional level. Ask questions like ‘What gave you hope? What made you happy? What gave you a feeling of gratitude?’
Expect change and embrace it
Always be ready to have your perceptions changed. Remember the maxim, ‘Have strong opinions, weakly held.’ Let things go.
It is important not to accidentally slip into seeing the work as a series of milestones and ticking things off. Instead you must stay constantly open to the possibility of change. Do not ever have a fixed outlook. Change will happen and priorities will alter. If, say, you have been working on a project and putting your heart and soul into it, then the client’s priorities change – it can feel like a kick in the teeth and be really demotivating. But if you learn to embrace change, you will never take it personally and will take it in your stride.
Assume positive intent by all around you rather than taking change personally. Expect change to happen, rather than ever letting yourself be surprised by it.
Cultivate a growth mindset
When you have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, you recognise that your abilities and those of your team are constantly growing, improving and expanding. You will also be aware that any problems or challenges you face represent important opportunities for you to learn and to develop new skills and abilities. This is a vital trait for a Scrum Master.
So rather than being completely floored when things go wrong, you will find these obstacles a source of inspiration and an opportunity for you to show what you are made of. Instead of dwelling on the problem or beating yourself up, the overwhelming emotional response will be: ‘Great! Time for us to create some clever new solutions.’
This growth mindset is one of the most important characteristics that you can help to nurture in your team. Seeing your team develop this attitude, to the point where they become really ambitious about taking on highly complex and tough projects, is one of the most rewarding aspects of the Scrum Master’s role.