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Scrum Master Role Redefined — What It Takes to Be a Modern Scrum Master and Propel Your Organization Forward

According to the official Scrum guide, a Scrum master is someone whose job is to promote, support, and help implement Scrum processes, values, rules, and practices within an organization. This definition is reminiscent of the ones you’d often find in college textbooks — it encompasses the essence of the role. Most people can only memorize...
August 11, 2020 • LinearB

According to the official Scrum guide, a Scrum master is someone whose job is to promote, support, and help implement Scrum processes, values, rules, and practices within an organization.

This definition is reminiscent of the ones you’d often find in college textbooks — it encompasses the essence of the role. Most people can only memorize it and recite it back, without understanding what it truly means and how it can be applied in practice. 

What further complicates things is the fact that a vast majority of organizations that implement Scrum don’t do it by the book, but rather create a unique iteration of this project management methodology to suit the needs of their project and align with the company values. 

This leaves many questions unanswered:

  • Who is fit to be a Scrum master?
  • What are their main responsibilities? 
  • How do you discern between a good and a bad Scrum master?
  • How much can a Scrum master influence the development process?
  • How to move away from the old-school definition of the role and become a modern Scrum master? 

All of these questions are much more complex than they may appear on the surface. They require looking at the situation from multiple perspectives and taking all the different variables into consideration. 

In this article, we’ll use plain English to describe who the Scrum master is and what it is that they do (or should be doing). Our goal is to help all the members of an agile organization understand the role of a Scrum master better as well as share a few ideas that will help Scrum masters do their job more effectively and deliver better results.

Who or What is a Scrum Master?

The best way to think about Scrum masters is to view them as process managers. Although somewhat simplified, this perspective captures the essence of the role — their primary task is to manage the Scrum processes. 

In other words, Scrum masters facilitate the implementation of the agile framework by acting as coaches for the rest of the team and ensure that everyone understands and acts according to the agreed-upon processes. 

One important thing to understand regarding this role is that Scrum masters aren’t involved in decision-making. Instead, they are servant-leaders, as the Scrum guide puts it, who represents a “bridge” between the executives and the team members. 

A Scrum master is, therefore, someone who tells you how the job should be done — not on the technical side, but on the process level — rather than what needs to be done. 

Good Scrum masters have experience with this project management methodology, understand and uphold the values of Scrum. They are both dedicated to teaching the values, rules, and processes to the team, as well as open-minded and flexible enough to help the team figure out new ways to improve their existing workflows further. 

How do Scrum masters do this? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look at their list of responsibilities. 

Scrum Master Role and Responsibilities

In an ideal agile scenario, the teams themselves would manage their own tools and processes. This proves to be extremely challenging, if not outright impossible, in practice, especially if the organization is relatively new to an agile framework, such as Scrum.

It’s not that teams are incapable of developing and implementing effective processes. The reality is, it takes a lot of time and effort to maintain the backlog and keep track of everything on the project. There’s also the real possibility of disagreements between the various team members on what the best approach is. 

This calls for a dedicated person, one with significant Scrum experience, to act as a sort of guide for the entire team that steers them on the right path. The need for a full-time position arises from: 

  1. The complexity of the projects 
  2. The amount of work that needs to be done regarding documentation, planning, and strategizing, call for a full-time position

This is where the need for a Scrum master comes from. 

What a scrum master does
Image source: tscer.org

Regardless of any individual’s thoughts on Scrum, or any other agile project management methodology, the fact of the matter is that someone needs to take a position of authority and take on the responsibility of implementing and refining the processes. 

It’s difficult to provide an exhaustive list of responsibilities a Scrum master needs to take on, given that each organization’s situation is unique. Instead, we can talk about the common responsibilities of Scrum masters in general, with the understanding that an individual Scrum master may perform some or all of them. A modern Scrum master may also take on additional responsibilities, according to the needs of their organization.

Generally speaking, the main responsibilities of a Scrum master include:

  1. Daily standups
  2. Sprint planning meetings
  3. Sprint reviews
  4. Retrospectives
  5. Board administration
  6. One-on-ones
  7. Reporting
  8. Removing blocks

Old-school Scrum Master vs. Modern Scrum Master

It’s easy to discern that the role of a Scrum master is a unique one. They handle technical, administrative, and strategic aspects, all the while taking responsibility for tasks commonly associated with HR and logistics. 

In modern agile organization, the old-school definition of the role simply doesn’t cut it anymore. As technology, projects, and organizations evolve, so must the role of a Scrum master. 

The traditional role of a Scrum master, as defined in the Scrum Guide, looks something like this:

Old-school definition of a Scrum master

While this is a common way to think about a Scrum master, it’s an outdated one. We firmly believe that, in order for Scrum to work and produce the desired results, we need to redefine the responsibilities of the Scrum master role. 

Here’s how we envision the role of a modern Scrum master:

Legacy Scrum master vs. modern Scrum master
Old-school Scrum master traitsModern Scrum master traits
Handles process management manually
Shields the dev team by keeping the business away from them
Does QA manually
Relies on outdated tools like Jira for progress tracking 
Constantly bugs the devs for status updates
Focuses on automation
Is data-driven
Connects the dev team to customers and the business
Streamlines daily standups and unblocks devs efficiently
Enables the dev team to reach maximum productivity

The table above is just a quick overview. Let’s take a closer look at each of the eight responsibilities listed above so you can gain a better idea of what they imply and how a modern Scrum master should approach each one. 

In the following sections, we’ll also talk about the challenges people in this role face, as well as potential solutions that can facilitate the implementation of Scrum within an organization and improve its effectiveness. 

Daily Standups 

Scrum masters are the ones in charge of the daily Scrum meetings — short meetings that take place every working day and serve the purpose of keeping everyone up-to-date with the progress of the project and helping identify any roadblocks. 

The term daily standup comes from extreme programming and is a reference to the actual act of standing up as a way of encouraging the participants to keep the meetings short. These meetings are often called daily Scrums, in reference to the project management methodology.

Daily standups are timeboxed to 15 minutes — at least in theory. It’s the Scrum master’s responsibility to keep them short, sweet, and to the point, although there’s a shared sentiment among the practitioners of Scrum that the time may need to be adjusted for larger teams. 

The biggest issue most organizations that employ Scrum run into is that these meetings tend to drag on for hours and morph into some sort of daily status reports. This completely defeats the purpose of daily standups, and rather than increasing team cohesion and boosting collaboration, leads to everyone but the execs who want their questions answered being dissatisfied. 

A good Scrum master must do everything in their power to prevent this from happening. To ensure that the daily Scrums fulfill their original purpose, we firmly believe that Scrum masters should streamline daily standups. 

What we propose is a concept we like to call Stand-Up 2.0, which bridges the gap between the developers and the rest of the organizations and allows everyone to focus on what truly matters. 

It’s time to stop letting project managers, product owners, CEOs, and other execs waste an hour of everyone’s time each day asking dumb questions that could be answered with a glance on the Scrum board. 

The best way to do this, in our opinion, isn’t by aggravating the executives or removing them from the meetings. Instead, organizations should implement project management software that would eliminate the need for status reports and provide a unified source of information presented in a way that makes sense for both the management and the developers. 

LinearB is a platform that connects the two worlds by correlating data from the PM software managers use and Git the devs rely on. In doing so, LinearB allows the execs to access the information that they care about instantly while eliminating the need for double entry (both Git and Jira, for instance) on the developers’ side. 

LinearB gives you a clear overview of what each contributor did yesterday and what they’re working on today, so you’ll know exactly what stage the project is in and when someone needs help or reprioritization. 

Snapshot of the team’s progress in linearb

Sprint Planning Meetings

Sprint planning is the activity that emphasizes the need for a Scrum master and highlights their role as a bridge between the executives and the other teams within an organization. 

On the one hand, the decision-makers are only concerned with what needs to be done and are focused on the end result. On the other hand, the developers have to figure out the how.

A Scrum master must convey the wishes of the product owner or the executive team to the devs, understand the potential technical limitations, and create a comprehensive plan for the two-week sprint. These responsibilities involve helping with the estimation — sometimes, the timeframe needs to be adjusted according to the complexity of the project — and helping with sub-task creation.

While a Scrum master is rarely someone with a background in software development, having even the basic understanding of the challenges the developers may face during the sprint is certainly a huge advantage. 

The accent isn’t on the technical side of things, such as coding, but rather on establishing processes that would help the development team overcome any hurdles, as well as ensuring that everyone has access to up-to-date information and knows what stage the project is in at all times.

Sprint Reviews

At the end of each sprint, a Scrum master should hold a detailed sprint review meeting. The goal here is to understand what went well and what posed a challenge during the development, as well as to brainstorm how the processes can be improved to boost the effectiveness of the team further. 

During the sprint review meetings, Scrum masters assess the project against the goals they previously set during the sprint planning phase. The Scrum team and the stakeholders discuss what was done in the sprint, go over any changes to the backlog during that sprint, and think about what can be done to enhance value and optimize the processes further. 

What’s important to understand here is that sprint reviews are informal meetings and that the idea behind them is not to give a status update, but to share feedback and enhance collaboration. A Scrum master should keep everyone on track and ensure that these meetings meet their original purpose. 

Retrospectives

Retrospectives are closely tied to the sprint reviews, in that the sprint reviews provide Scrum masters with the information they need to note the areas for improvement. The reason why these two responsibilities are presented as separate items is that retrospectives are a task that a Scrum master handles alone.

This doesn’t mean that the Scrum master draws their own conclusions from a sprint or proposes changes to the processes based on intuition. It simply means that, after receiving the feedback from the Scrum team, the Scrum master dedicates their time to strategically think about process improvements without having to involve the rest of the organization.

With a strong understanding of Scrum and process management, a Scrum master can utilize the information provided by the Scrum team and create action items for future sprints. This allows the Scrum team to continue working on the next sprint without much interruption, while the Scrum master deals with process optimization.

LinearB facilitates retrospectives by automatically pulling together the crucial metrics that allow modern Scrum masters to foster a data-driven discussion. The platform lets you select the desired iteration and provides a summary of completed work and carryover. 

What metrics matter for dev teams?

Learn 17 metrics your team should be measuring.

Linearb graohic
Carryover during a retrospective

From here, you can also see the Cycle Time for the selected iteration, as well as how it compares to other iterations. The Cycle Time chart provides a clear overview of the areas where you struggled during the iteration, so you can focus on improving the processes and areas that underperformed for the next iteration. 

If you want to see the bigger picture and discuss variables that are impacting the overall team performance, such as work from home, you can always switch to the Trend View.  

Cycle time iteration trend graph

This is just one of the many features of LinearB that will make your life as a modern Scrum master infinitely easier, as well as enable you to propel your organization forward by maximizing the team’s productivity. 

Board Administration

Scrum masters are also in charge of maintaining the Scrum board — a tool that helps make backlog items visible and gives everyone within an organization the much-needed access to the information regarding the project.

For most organizations, the Scrum board is simply the project management tool that they are using, such as:

  • Jira
  • Trello
  • Asana
  • Any other piece of PM software

Ideally, the Scrum board should be updated by the team, and it should provide a comprehensive view of all items that need to be completed in the current sprint. 

The main problem with the Scrum board — the way most organizations handle it — is the fact that it isn’t up-to-date more often than not. This issue stems from the fact that developers, who heavily rely on Git, often don’t update tasks in Jira. 

Managers don’t understand and can’t read Git. With two disparate sources of information and a lack of communication between them, it’s easy to understand why the execs tend to turn daily standups into status reports.

The question now is — what can Scrum masters do? Instinctively, most people would say that they should keep bugging the developers to the point where they develop the habit of updating the task in the project management tool the organization is using. 

While logical, this approach carries an inherent risk of disrupting the developers’ work and practically forcing them to waste a ton of valuable time on menial tasks. Devs often do a dozen different things in a day — updating the tasks both in Git and the PM software can “eat” an hour of their time every single day.

LinearB offers a much better alternative. Our software connects the project management software with Git branches and PRs, creating a unified source of information, ensuring that everything is accurate and up-to-date, and giving everyone an opportunity to see the progress report of every task in seconds.

Linearb example
Wish tickets on your scrum board could be linked automagically to branches and prs in git? Click here to get started.

This alleviates a lot of the pressure devs feel when they need to constantly answer dumb questions and explain technical matters to non-devs. With LinearB, they only need to update their tasks once and can highlight potential issues that are impeding their progress. 

The LinearB solution provides Scrum masters and project managers with invaluable insights, frees up the devs’ time, and makes it infinitely easier to hold meaningful Scrum meetings that focus on the problems that need to be addressed, rather than on who did what the previous day. 

One-on-ones

While some Scrum practitioners are strongly against 1-on-1s and believe that any issues should be brought up during the daily standups, we believe that these face-to-face meetings are invaluable for most organizations. 

First, there’s the issue of time. Dedicating enough time to every single person during daily standups to talk about their individual issues, work styles, thoughts on certain processes, etc. will inevitably lead to daily standups taking well over an hour. 

Second, we mustn’t overlook the fact that developers are often introverts, who don’t feel comfortable voicing their personal problems in 20-person meetings. One-on-one meetings provide them with a much better environment in which they can talk openly about any obstacles and blocks, and express disagreements with any of the processes. 

These meetings also allow the Scrum masters to explain the logic behind any process the individual may view as problematic, as well as listen to everyone’s concerns and, if necessary, adjust the processes accordingly. 

Face-to-face meetings don’t have to happen regularly, but each team member should know that they can turn to their Scrum master whenever they are facing any issue that is negatively affecting their productivity or the atmosphere in the workplace. 

A Scrum master should also be able to request these meetings with individual team members when they sense that there’s a roadblock the individual doesn’t feel comfortable talking about during the daily scrums.

Reporting

While the Scrum Guide doesn’t mention reporting as one of the Scrum master’s responsibilities, in practice, Scrum masters often take it on themselves to create the reports on behalf of the development team. 

If the nature of the project requires the Scrum master to jump in and handle some or all of the reporting, it should be understood by the entire Scrum team that this is an agreement rather than a Scrum master’s responsibility. 

LinearB provides Scrum masters with the ability to create fully configurable reports quickly and share them with anyone interested in seconds. Click here to get started now.

Removing Blocks

Apart from coaching the team, implementing and optimizing processes, and “enforcing” Scrum values, Scrum masters are also responsible for eliminating any blocks that hinder productivity.

Removing blocks
Image source: Clearlyagile.com

These blocks can be classified as:

  • External
  • Internal

External blocks can range from anything from resolving hardware issues to rearranging desks or ensuring the team has access to coffee and snacks. Scrum masters need to remove any physical roadblocks and help create a work environment in which each individual will be encouraged to optimize their performance.

Internal roadblocks are tied to processes and workflows. A Scrum master shouldn’t be expected to solve specific issues the developers run into while coding, for instance. Still, they should do everything in their power to create processes and mechanisms that help the developers deal with such issues when they run into them.  

Do a Better Job as a Scrum Master with LinearB

We’re not saying that you’re not good at what you do, and the last thing we want to do is teach you how to do your job as a Scrum master. Instead, our goal is to introduce you to a tool that will make it easier to do a better job by removing the common bottlenecks and resolving miscommunication issues that agile organizations typically run into. 

LinearB provides you with a comprehensive Scrum board and a more efficient way to hold daily Scrum meetings, enabling you to:

  1. Enhance the productivity of the entire Scrum team
  2. Shorten the development cycle 
  3. Increase the overall employee satisfaction 

Our platform provides Scrum masters with the ability to streamline their organization’s workflows more easily, improve the effectiveness of daily Scrums and sprint reviews, and achieve greater results by getting the most out of Scrum.

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