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Growing Great Scrum Masters

Agile Coaching has a big problem with the way it currently operates. A problem that sees vast swathes of practitioners and consultancies consistently failing their clients. A problem that leads to Agile transformations that are utterly unsustainable and doomed to fail. A problem that I have been trying to address for a few years now.

When I began working as a Scrum Master over ten years ago now, I was struck but how hard the role was, how many new skills I needed to learn and how there were no structured programmes to help me on my journey. I didn’t even know the kinds of things I needed to know. What I was yearning for back then was a guide who could introduce me to some things that may be useful to know, and point me in the right direction to grow my knowledge and skills in each of those areas. Finding my feet as a Scrum Master was a long and tough journey. The same is true today for the many people new to the role aiming to develop themselves into great ScrumMasters. All too often they find themselves in what my friend and colleague Jason Tanner refers to as a ‘choose your own adventure’ towards mastery. I would like to change that.

The Version One State of Agile report recently found that 39% of companies cite: ‘Not enough personnel with the necessary agile experience’ as a barrier to further Agile adoption. From what I have observed in over ten years of working on Agile transformations, very few are seeking to address this issue. In my experience, most so-called Agile Coaches are indeed Agile consultants. They perform a role and solve problems for their clients. Some do this very well. They are often very bright and knowledgeable people and add real value for the duration of their stay. The problem is that at some point, they move on; taking with them their ability to perform the role and solve those problems. The client is left right back where they began.

To compound the problem, many, if not most, organisations embarking on Agile transformations do not invest anywhere near enough time, money or effort in growing their internal capability. I have never been part of, or even heard about, a successful transformation that did not invest heavily in developing their people. Yet many still seem stubbornly unwilling to do so.

Leaders, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Team members all need to learn myriad new skills and techniques. Techniques that are often worlds away from their current ways of working. Without this, the change lasts only as long, as the appetite to continue paying consultants. Furthermore, asking people to work in a completely new way, and not supporting them to acquire the requisite skills to do so is unfair and leads to high levels of anxiety amongst those affected. People should not be put in that position.

One cannot help but think of the well-known Chinese proverb: ‘Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime’. My interest, my passion, my obligation as an ICF Professional Certified Coach, is to leave people able to catch their own fish and move on as quickly as possible. Nancy Kline, in her wonderful book A Time to Think, puts it this way: ‘The most valuable thing we can offer each other is the framework in which to think for ourselves’ I could not agree more. In this post, I focus on growing great Scrum Masters.

Our Approach

Over the years, I have helped develop countless Scrum Master of varying levels of experience. In those years, I have come to believe that the following three conditions are necessary in order to grow great Scrum Masters:

  • leadership who understand the importance of up-skilling people and are willing to invest in it
  • coaches with experience and a track record in growing a Scrum Master capability
  • a systematic programme of training and on-the-job coaching to cover the appropriate Scrum Master competencies

When it comes to growing an organisation’s Scrum Master capability, I tend to use a combination of teaching, mentoring and coaching, majoring on mentoring. Given the broad scope of the Scrum Master role, I have observed the best results when splitting the role out into the high-level competency areas. Whilst asking 10 coaching would probably yield around 12 different answers, after much experimenting, I have found the following split to be effective. It turns out that our model is not dissimilar to the Agile Coaching Institute’s Agile Coaching Competency Framework. Our approach, however, allows people to grow in whichever area they choose and provides a path for them to do so at their own pace:

Lean, Agile & Scrum – I hope it goes without saying that Scrum Masters should have a deep understanding of the values, principle, frameworks and practices of Agile. They should be students of why these things emerged, why they are effective and how people can apply them. Lean, Kanban, Scrum, XP and the accompanying practise and patterns should be second nature. As people progress through the levels, they should begin to investigate more bodies of work including Systems Thinking, Complexity Theory and Queueing Theory to complement broaden their knowledge base.

Facilitation – Something Scrum Masters must quickly get good at is facilitating meetings. These could include the Scrum Events, story mapping and product road-mapping workshops, Product Backlog Refinement and countless others. The ability to remain neutral and to facilitate group discussions and decision making is key. As is the enviable skill of designing and delivering engaging and effective Sprint Retrospectives.

Team Dynamics – A Scrum Master must always have their eye on the dynamics of the Development and Scrum Team. They must understand how to facilitate the creation of a Team working agreement, a shared goal and mutual accountability for achieving it. They must understand how to build trust and navigate healthy conflict. They must help to build an environment of psychological safety, social capital and collaboration. Helping individuals work effectively as a Team has, time and again, proved far more effective than merely hiring the best individuals.

Business & Product – A key responsibility of a Scrum Master is to coach the Product Owner in the various techniques that good Product Owners must employ. That means being a student of product management. This includes coaching the creation of a compelling product vision, strategy and roadmap. In addition to this, it means helping the Product Owner with techniques around Product Backlog management like discovery, splitting user stories, ordering, behaviour driven development (BDD) and specification by example (SbE).

Technical – There is some debate over this one. Some believe this is not necessary. I believe that there is value in understanding the practices that are necessary to shorten feedback loops and to help Teams to move towards emergent architecture, XP engineering practices and ultimately being ‘Done’ at the end of each Sprint.

Organisational Change – The most ignored aspect of the role. As well as coaching the Development Team and the Product Owner, Scrum Masters are expected to coach the organisation. In my years as a Scrum Master, I found that this soon becomes the most important part of the role. Once the Team has picked off the easy wins at a local level, the constraints tend to move to the organisation. Maybe the HR policies are incentivising individualism over teamwork. Maybe Infrastructure will not let you easily deploy to the test environment. Maybe governance policies are slowing you down unnecessarily. As a Scrum Master, you must be willing to tackle these impediments. That means educating people way beyond your area in how they could aid the Teams’ agility and being an agent of change. There are many organisational change patterns, tools, techniques, and frameworks to help with this aspect of the role. Good Scrum Masters are familiar with them.

Coaching, Mentoring & Teaching – Some may be tempted to split these out. I have found that the line between them is so blurred, that it becomes rather tricky. Ultimately, these are all about helping people to grow and develop new knowledge and skills. From the more directive side of teaching to the less directive side of coaching. The skills are related so I keep them together. Either way, they are all things a Scrum Master should be able to do to varying degrees in the spirit of helping people and Teams continuously improve.

And to think that people still wonder whether the Scrum Master role is a full time one. As you can see, there are multiple bodies of work here, any number of which could be a career in its own right. One can never hope to be an expert in every area, but it pays to have a base level across the board and to specialise in a few.

Our comprehensive system of self-assessment in each of the above areas helps people to identify their strength areas and where there is most scope for development. This then drives a constructive coaching and mentoring conversation centred on where they are now, where they would like to be, and how they can work to achieve that growth. The accountability sits firmly in their hands. We are there to run targeted workshops, to listen, question, to plant seeds, and to guide them through the process of developing themselves. We can point them to books, articles and videos which have inspired me over the years. What we cannot do, is choose their path.

Summary

Organisations that do not invest in growing their internal Scrum Master capability generally see one of two outcomes. They either become overly reliant on (expensive) external Agile Coaches who do the job for them or their transformations fail because no one has the skills to drive the change. All too often it is the former followed by the latter.

For a transformation to be truly sustainable, organisations need to become self-sufficient. Scrum Masters are the natural agents of change in an Agile transformation. Only those who invest in growing that capability will stand a chance of success. As the old business joke puts it:

CFO says to CEO: ‘What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave?’

CEO responds: ‘What happens if we don’t and they stay?’

If you are interested in Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM) training, please see our course listing page. If you require support growing your internal Scrum Master capability through our innovative Scrum Master Academy programme, led by our highly-experienced coaches, please contact us for details.