What Makes a Good Scrum Master?

Atomic does not have a dedicated scrum master position. The closest comparison is our delivery lead role, which is a blend of project management, account management, and product management.

However, we often work with clients that do have dedicated scrum masters. Many times, the people in these roles were hired as traditional project managers, but as the Agile approach has taken over their industry, they’ve switched titles. I’ve seen some of these people succeed in their transition, and I have also seen failures. In this post, I’ll outline what I think it takes to excel at the scrum master position.

Understand the Vision

Why is it important to understand the vision of the product owner? First, it helps the scrum master initiate and frame conversations about prioritization. This allows a scrum master to go to a product owner with potential solutions instead of simply escalating the problem.

For example, if the top of the backlog has a host of features about redacting sensitive information from certain users, but the milestone that introduces those users just got swapped for a new milestone, the scrum master can take this concern to the product owner. They may suggest focusing discovery work on the new milestone in order to define the right work for the team.

The second benefit of understanding the vision is that it informs the process for writing requirements. The person who writes requirements on a given project can vary. I’ve found a very successful approach is for the scrum master to take an initial pass. After all, if they understand the vision, it shouldn’t be too difficult to define specific work.

Then, the scrum master can pass the requirements to the product owner (or another stakeholder) for review and approval. This lets the product owner focus on vision and higher-level priorities, and it keeps work flowing through the process.

Be Part of the Team

One of my favorite parts of the Agile Manifesto is the idea that “individuals and interactions (are valued) over process and tools.” Co-location is key to this practice. Being in it together helps build the team culture and relationships.

Often, I’ve witnessed situations where departments are divided by position instead of by project. In my experience, this shifts the dynamic of the scrum master from being part of the team to being someone who steers and controls the developers. The scrum master is seen as the process overlord, sent to extract velocity from the team and do the stakeholders’ bidding.

However, being part of the team creates more open lines of communication from the developers, which is important. Developers are a scrum master’s source for identifying pain points in the current process. They are also the ones doing the work, so they can escalate concerns with hidden complexity. This helps the scrum master escalate and coordinate with the product owner to make sure the work is worth the added cost.

Be Curious

Although Agile values individuals over the process, it’s still important for a team to have a process that works for them. Curiosity is key in iterating on the process. Curious people can brainstorm new ways to make the team more effective, and they aren’t satisfied when small improvements are made.

Curiosity can also lead to creativity when slicing up work or discussing priorities. I’ve often found that wacky ideas are a common thing for curious scrum masters. A curious mindset also enables someone to build relationships with team members, helping them dig in and understand the product owner’s vision.

Be Organized

Scrum masters need to be organized to capture to-dos, notes from ceremonies, new scope, or changing requirements. Because they maintain the backlog, capturing these things helps keep the backlog up-to-date and prioritized.

An organized scrum master can help set deadlines for discovery work to keep the right things moving through the process and into development. If organized, the scrum master can quickly recall decisions from previous meetings, which helps the team avoid re-hashing the same conversations.

Traditional project management is very process-driven (Gantt charts, gathering up-front requirements, etc.). Becoming a scrum master forces someone to shepherd the process while flexing it to work best for their team. If a scrum master possesses the characteristics I’ve outlined above, they can be an effective and essential asset to any team.