Letter to a young Scrum Master

  • François Bruneau

As I am frequently coaching individuals who start in the Scrum Master role, I realized there was one aspect that was rarely written about: how to begin.

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Yes, it's a terrifying role

So that's it, you have passed the certification for Scrum Master and it is time for you to join the team and play the role. You are terrified, and I understand why. After all, you're lucky we've spared some budget for this role and you'd better make the team perform better right away so your position is maintained. All eyes on you. If you don't make it, we give it all back to the almighty Project Manager. In the spotlight of all these expectations, here is an invitation to take a step back and relativize.

It's not about you, it's about the team

Most importantly, it is not about you, and will never be. It is about the team. So do not carry its destiny upon your shoulders. All you will ever do is serve them and hold a mirror to them. That's it. You have to walk with them, not ahead of them. Your angle is the one of curiosity: "Oh, have you noticed that? What do you think about it?". Naive is powerful, because it blows away all preconceptions. You can, over and over, invite your team to look at the status quo with a fresh angle, which may inspire them to take action, or try new things (and follow up on them). If you've managed that, your job is done.

Start from where the team is

It is also a bad idea to go in with an upfront plan of how you want to "change how things are run". Chances are there are many assumptions in your head, which may be completely off. Instead of bulldozing your way into the team, blasting and criticizing whatever is present, I urge you to think that whatever is in place has been put in place by professionals. The way the team functions today is how it has best overcome problems so far, so respect that. I'll quote the Kanban principle: "Start from where you are". And from then, lead the team to experiment, little by little. It may come a long way.

Don't wait to be ready

The polar opposite of this attitude is also very tempting. It is to remain paralyzed. "I don't feel ready". Who does? While it is certainly a good thing to attend a course and obtain a certification, there are enough books, articles and conferences on Scrum and Agile to fill several lifetimes. For the benefit of your team, don't wait until you've read them all. Practice is going to be your teacher. The best there is. Just like the team, you are going to do the best you can, day after day, and for sure it's not going to be perfect...

Look for criticism

... So there will be criticism. That is great news. If nobody says anything, that means everybody thinks you're beyond the point of recovery and it's not even worth it anymore to give feedback. Constructive criticism is your ally in doing a better job for your team. I even advise you to actively seek feedback. There are retrospective activities tailored just for that, such as "Build Your Own Scrum Master". Make it a game for the team. That way, you show that though you take the role seriously, you certainly do not take yourself seriously.

About today

So, what about today? Day One? Well, two postures I've previously written about are always available: The Servant and The Mechanic. As a servant, there's probably a hand you can lend to the team right now. Ask around, and remember, a chore is not a chore. It's a chance to lead by example. If you pull your finger out for your teammates, you'll not only shine but you'll also inspire them to do it more as well. As a process mechanic, have a look at the team's Scrum. How is the next sprint coming along? Is the backlog prioritized? If you have chosen User Stories to express needs, are there enough of them in a ready state? What does "Ready" mean for your team? Those are great conversation starters. Dive in. And if anything's off, investigate, don't blame.

Get accompanied on the journey

Sure, all of this is still a handful. But you don't have to go it alone. There is a tremendous global community of practice and many local ones too. Don't be afraid to check out scrum.org forums, browse meetup.com for groups near you – or far away from you, as remote work has made the world even flatter than before. If there are several Scrum Masters in your organization, hook up with them, set up weekly coffees to exchange your war stories. And if you feel like getting accompaniment on your journey, don't hesitate to reach out. Whether it is me or one of my colleagues from the Liip coaching team, it would be with pleasure to walk along with you.


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