(Originally written by Thomas Botton and Benoît Pointet for the Scrum Alliance and posted at www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2013/july/soft-skills-for-scrummasters).
Playing the ScrumMaster role by the book is not enough. Successful ScrumMasters have developed many skills throughout their experience, often soft ones. We present hereunder a handful of such soft skills that we have identified as important during our own experiences as ScrumMasters and Scrum team members at Liip:
* Banana smiler
* Emotions director
* Rule breaker
* Humble leader
* Success maker
Motivator: Ensure the flow
The ScrumMaster should always be a motivator of the team. Wikipedia provides a nice example for us: “Hunger is a motivation that elicits a desire to eat.” Just as “hunger” is eliciting the desire of “eating,” the ScrumMaster should elicit the team's desire to improve, to move on toward higher performance.
There is, however, no single way to motivate people. It is up to each ScrumMaster to identify how to turn the personal interests and values of the team members into new motivations. Example: Make it the rule for one sprint that each extra story point delivered and accepted in comparison with the previous sprint will earn the team a beer! Such a playful goal can help the team concretize both performance and appreciation for its efforts.
It will be hard to bring a team toward any objective if you are a bad motivator.
Positive attitude: Simply smile to infuse energy
Some people are born with a smile on their face. They have a natural advantage when acting as ScrumMasters. Indeed, a ScrumMaster should come every morning with a banana smile on his face to make the day start with a great team atmosphere.
You've probably been through it: The ScrumMaster jumps here and there, delivering messages/critiques in a negative way even as early as the daily stand-up. Consequently, the team mood gets bad from the morning onward. Keep a positive attitude all day long, even during boring meetings, even when facing harsh realities. This mind-set enables the team spirit to be in continuous improvement mode.
The ScrumMasters we appreciated working with were able to diffuse positive energy throughout the day, and turn failed sprints into opportunities. And all that just with a smile.
Listener: Channel emotions
Emotions fly around in a Scrum team. There might even be more emotions than in Waterfall teams, because Scrum team members are more invested and engaged more closely in the project and product. A smart ScrumMaster will let emotions happen and lead them toward the team's benefit.
Don't shut emotions down; learn to channel them. A positive emotion is the opportunity to reinforce the mood of the team, so let it fly around! And handle every negative emotion as the signal of a deeper problem: Listen, empathize, and get to understand the root cause.
An experienced ScrumMaster will know how to appreciate positive emotions and hunt for the impediment hiding behind the negative mood.
Rule breaker: Kill the routine
If there is one person in a team who should take time to think of new ways of working, of new meeting formats, and so on, it is the ScrumMaster. Software developers are often too much in their code; product owners are negotiating all day long with stakeholders. It is definitely a breath of fresh air when the ScrumMaster sets up the next retrospective at the coffee shop down the street. Everyone is surprised and excited by trying something new!
This is true for every kind of process and rule: Breaking them — even momentarily — can impact them positively, as it takes the team out of its comfort zone in order to keep a lively flow, away from the twilight zone. By positively breaking the rules, you make it clear to the team that changes are part of the game, and you enhance your team's mind-set. Exceptions are also very good reminders of the rules in place and their deep reasons. Don't hesitate to question rules to remind everyone of their profound “why.”
Humble leader: Propose instead of impose
If you wanted to be ScrumMaster because of the “Master” in it, step out. ScrumMastering is about empowerment, not imposing submission. Of all the ScrumMasters we've worked with, some of the poorest for the team were those who showed lack of humility.
Being humble is one of the most important soft skills of a ScrumMaster. There's no reason for a ScrumMaster to shout his truth around, nor to force people to follow his way, just because he holds this special title. The humble ScrumMaster listens more than he talks, exemplifies Scrum methods and leadership to team members, recognizes the value of each team member, and steps back as soon and often as he can, to ensure that the team self-organizes. In doing so, he gains and keeps the respect of the whole team.
Success maker: Celebrate
When a Scrum team succeeds in ten sprints and fails one, everyone will remember the failed one. Our business culture considers success the normal outcome and labels anything not so clearly successful as “failed.” This has long-term effects on a Scrum team: It misleads the team into focusing on lack of success, the exceptional thing that should not happen, and makes the team act out of fear rather than hope. The team operates in run-for-your-life mode rather than in race-for-victory mode. That's all cultural: When success is normal, why should you even celebrate it?
A good ScrumMaster should recognize the impact of concrete success on the team dynamics, and the importance of having small and regular successes throughout the sprint. If needed, lower the bar momentarily. Make sure praise for good (yet not great) work happens within the team. Having gained a bit of a positive momentum, you'll know it's time to raise the bar again, and celebrate each new success even more.
There certainly are many more soft skills that a ScrumMaster can benefit from. We hope that readers will walk away with at least one pertinent insight on what ScrumMastering means, beside what the books say. We'd be delighted to hear what other soft skills you consider to be core assets of a ScrumMaster.