curved line

Understanding The Anti-Patterns of a Scrum Master

January 26, 2021

Before we jump in let's explore the role of the Scrum Master.

According to Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master is responsible for coaching the team members on self-organization, self-management and increasing the team’s understanding of Scrum, leading to continuous improvement. In addition to the Scrum Team, the Scrum Master serves the Product Owner and the organization.  

By helping and identifying effective techniques of product definition and Product Backlog management, the Scrum Master can serve the Product Owner, ensuring organization and the team build the right product.  

The Product Owner and the Scrum Team do not work in a vacuum, but work in the context of the organization. It is vitally important that the Scrum Master serves the organization and its stakeholders by ensuring an understanding of agile and how to work in that manner.  

Now let's explore the anti-patterns.  

Ignoring the Product Owner and organization  

Focusing just on the Scrum Team and neglecting the Product Owner and organization can limit the success of any Scrum Team. While the Scrum Team is responsible for building the product the right way, the Scrum Master needs to serve the Product Owner to ensure that the right product is being built, through articulation of a Product Vision or Roadmap.  

The Product Owner and Scrum Team operate within the context and constraints of the organization. It is crucial that the organization understands what Scrum means and how the organization may need to change its culture and behaviors to support its adoption.

“Scrum Parent” over Scrum Master

In order to grow the team to self-organization and self-management, teams need to learn from their failures and challenge themselves to a new way of working. The responsibility of a Scrum Master is to coach the team, not to overindulge them.

Behaviors of overindulgence include booking meetings for team members and updating the Scrum Board for teams, taking away from their opportunity to learn and for potential failures. Remember that you are not an Administrative Assistant.  

Facilitate conversations, don’t drive them  

One of the roles of a Scrum Master is a facilitator. A facilitator, as per the Cambridge dictionary is defined as “to help people deal with a process or reach an agreement or solution without getting directly involved.” In other words, you own the process and structure of how the conversation happens, not the content of a conversation.  

An easy way to monitor this, is to consider what percentage of the time you are talking compared to others, in meetings or ceremonies.  

Avoiding difficulty conversations

Hard conversations are those that we like to avoid having, but as a Scrum Master these are necessary. Conflicts will occur, and our natural reaction may be to avoid these, which can often lead to a buildup of frustrations with undesired consequences. A Scrum Master’s responsibility is to facilitate these difficult conversations. Teams can disagree in a productive way which will enhance the team's performance without any detriments. Don’t let undesired behaviors of team members go without conversation. It's hard, but worth it.

Not enforcing working agreements

Working agreements serve a purpose of enabling a team to work as a cohesive unit, through a shared understanding of how they will work together. Naturally, there are times when the agreements waiver. As a Scrum Master, it is our responsibility to remind the team of their commitment and promise to each other of our working rules. Over time, as the team learns, new working ways evolve which need to be re-enforced by revisions to the working agreement. Working agreements are not intended to be filed and never changed like an old tax return.  

Dictating how things should be done

A key role for a Scrum Master is to coach the team and not to dictate. Assigning work to team members clearly contradicts the Scrum Guide and that of a self-managing team. Dictatorship will not only impede the team's ability to self-manage and self-organize but often increases the resistance to Scrum adoption. Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team, through the art of persuasion, not authority.

Not recognizing team dysfunctions

The eyes and ears are the most powerful instruments that a Scrum Master has at his/her disposal. Not only should a Scrum Master observe behaviors of body language, tone and actions, but they should also be gauging what is not said (the elephant in the room). The unsaid words and feelings can result in major dysfunctions. Dysfunctions that may impede a self-managing and self-organizing team.

Failing to challenge the status-quo

Repetition can not only be monotonous, but also disengaging. Think about your daily Scrum. Answering these three questions daily for consecutive months can be tedious and tiresome: What am I doing today, what did I do yesterday, what impediments do I have?

To create spontaneity and increase engagement, how about mixing it up? How did you rock the world yesterday? What impediments do we foresee? What will we accomplish today?

Similarly, a Retrospective conducted in the same routine, leaves very little to the imagination and inspires little creativity. When creating new routines, the brain notices it as novelty and creates a physiological response to the recognized stimulus, making things more exciting and memorable.

Make sure ceremonies happen effectively  

Scrum has many ceremonies that exist for a specific purpose, but we often hear teams complaining about having too many meetings in Scrum. This in an indication that the teams are not seeing value from those rituals. It’s the Scrum Master’s responsibility to make sure that they identify, in collaboration with the team, what needs to change in order to see the value.  

Rituals can often be dominated by the extrovert, or experts in the group. A natural instinct is to rely on experts, but the failure to recognize or encourage full participation limits the team’s ability to self-organize.  

Your motivation for becoming a Scrum Master

The role of a Scrum Master is more difficult that it seems. As mentioned, you are not only coaching the Product Owner and Scrum Team, but also the organization to work in an Agile way, which may involve changing the culture and behaviors of its members.

Being a Scrum Master involves a number of different skillsets: coaching, mentoring, teaching, facilitating, all by using persuasion over authority. The motivation for someone in the role should be the desire to grow an organization and its people, not that the role is in demand and pays well. Like anything in life, if the intended values don’t align, then the results are not as intended.

Interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in your organization?