What is a Scrum Master and Should You Get One?

In 1954, Ford could get away with telling customers they would fix flaws with that year’s truck by 1955.

Imagine Facebook or Twitter telling users to wait 12 months for a fix.

Of course they wouldn’t. Because today, companies have to improve their products continuously. They live and die by their ability to inspect their processes and offerings and adapt them to technological and behavioral change.

Enter: scrum.

Like many inventions we can no longer do without, scrum and the role of scrum master were born out of necessity: Companies simply cannot afford to let their processes stagnate.

But does that mean every company needs a scrum master? If so, how would you go about hiring one? Let’s go through the factors to consider for your own company, starting with some basic definitions.

The Difference Between Scrum, the Team, and the Scrum Master

A scrum master monitors and facilitates the specific process framework for developing products known as scrum. Scrum, a system of inspect and adapt cycles, is founded on small, self-regulating teams that accomplish definite tasks in sprints: time-boxed dev cycles of less than one month.

Scrum is useful for companies that need to address challenges as they appear. Which is increasingly imperative in a world where success depends on how well and how quickly you can meet end-user needs.

The goal posts never stop moving.

Not only that, but teams need to be able to respond to novel product challenges without a lot of outside help. This isn’t a burn on the company—it’s just that scrum teams are composed of individuals with highly specialized skills and knowledge. Hiring help might be both impossible in the short-term and untenable in the long-term.

Though teams have to look to themselves for direction, a scrum master (be they internal or independent) can help by orienting the team and serving as mediator between team members.

So what does a scrum team look like?

The Scrum Team

A scrum team is made up of a development team, a product owner, and scrum master.

The development team takes care of the incremental work needed to complete a sprint. Their work is judged as a team, regardless of the skills and knowledge they contribute to the sprint.

The product owner controls the backlog. This means that they’re responsible for assigning tasks to the development team. They address the concerns of stakeholders and end-users, and must prioritize backlog tasks in an order that maximizes product value.

The scrum master works with the product owner and development to facilitate the process by which backlog items become incremental improvements to the product. This mediator role comes with many responsibilities, but in a general sense, their focus is to make sure that scrum principles and theory are put in place to ensure continuous improvement.

Note: A scrum master is not a project manager. They don’t have management responsibilities in the traditional sense. A scrum master is responsible for promoting self-organization and cross-functioning within the team as opposed to delegating tasks top-down.

On the Role of Scrum Masters

To define the responsibilities of a scrum master, I’ll breakdown the role into the services they provide the scrum team and company as a whole:

  • Sprint events: This includes sprint planning, stand-ups, daily scrum, retrospectives, and the sprint itself. In an agile setting, the team generates the content for these events, but the scrum master organizes them, and helps the team navigate the challenging introspection needed to plan and adopt consensus-driven changes.
  • Follow-through: It’s largely the scrum master’s job to ensure that sprint goals are understood and met. While team members own execution of their own areas of responsibility, the scrum master enables them by keeping objectives and action points in focus and monitoring their progress.
  • Mediation: Scrum masters coordinate with the product owner to make sure the backlog is prioritized to maximize the realistic success of the team. At the same time, they work with the team  to improve self-regulation and cross-functionality, further increasing the progress they make each sprint.
  • Productivity: The scrum team does only the work assigned by the product owner. The scrum master is responsible for fielding any extraneous distractions that could impede the work.
  • Reporting: During the sprint and sprint events, the scrum master cultivates the data needed to inform innovation, from sources like postmortem analyses and burndown charts.
  • Team problems: The ideal scrum master also uses the above insights to help the team troubleshoot and plan for any misalignment within the team.
  • Individual problems: Other issues might need solving 1-to-1. Interactions with individuals are also vital for onboarding new members and building the rapport scrum masters need to lead favorably.
  • Company alignment: Though scrum masters protect their team from distractions, they themselves should be attuned to the changing goals of the wider company. Stakeholder collaboration might be necessary to maintain a healthy relationship between the team and company.

These are the hallmarks of a scrum master position—not an exhaustive list. Each task is rooted in creating a working environment that increases productivity and steers the scrum team in the smartest possible direction each sprint.

Why should companies have scrum masters?

Scrum masters generate serious return on investment. In a nutshell, here’s why:

  1. Development is already expensive. Obviously, development that isn’t productive as it could be—just because it lacks direction—is not the best use of your budget.
  2. Users have options. They don’t want products that can’t adapt to their changing needs. So you don’t want delays in delivering them.

No matter how talented or hardworking your dev team, they will from time to time hit dead ends or lulls. Such is the way of agile. And down in the trenches, solutions aren’t always obvious. Integrate a third party like a scrum master, and issues can be identified and dealt with quicker and earlier.

What are the ideal qualities of a scrum master?

It depends on the context they’re working in, but here are three non-negotiables:

  1. Knowledge and experience in agile: Scrum is lightweight and values simplicity, but that doesn’t make it easy to implement. A scrum master needs to understand the basic agile framework to use it properly. Training and scrum master certification is ideal, even for those with experience.
  2. Organizational skills: Development depends on the scrum master to orchestrate the routine meetings that structure the sprint. After all, the problems they deal with are amorphous—and often siloed. The scrum master brings method to the madness by planning timelines and defining tasks based on collective knowledge of the sprint. Without strong skills in organization, they’d have their work cut out coordinating all those moving parts.
  3. Interpersonal skills: Facilitating the agile process requires human touch along with technical understanding. Because the scrum master is not a “command and control” manager, they have to help the team help themselves. This may involve teasing out and addressing personal issues within the group, or negotiating with a product owner who doesn’t realize they’ve overloaded the backlog.

The role of scrum master has been described as a “servant-leader” to express its dual nature. The right scrum master doesn’t move pieces on a board—they lead by setting goals and supporting their team in reaching them.

Mistakes to Avoid When Filling the Scrum Master Role

By now you know there are serious benefits to hiring a good scrum master, but it begs the question: How do you find this unicorn?

As I noted earlier, the scrum master is not a project manager. One of the most common mistakes employers make is believing they can shift existing PMs to scrum leadership.
In some respects they share skillsets, but important differences prevent someone with project management experience from becoming a scrum master.

For example, managers tend to be more used to control than facilitation. They are also used to being managed from above. Both of these qualities, which make for excellent middle-tier managers, can cause problems in an agile setting. In teams that prioritize self-regulation, traditional management becomes much less effective. Similarly, a manager used to looking above the team for direction is going to have trouble promoting the self-regulation necessary for scrum teams.

Make sure that your scrum master is fluent in agile. Management experience can be a huge plus, but only if the candidate understands how to enact it within the scrum framework.

Should scrum masters be part-time or full-time?

The answer to this question depends on your company’s development cycle, but I would argue that a fully dedicated scrum master delivers a level of value that’s difficult for part-time or provisional scrum master to match.

Keep in mind that if full-time isn’t an option, you can try rotating the responsibility between team members from sprint to sprint. After a specialized expert, who better to take the reins than the people closest to the project?

Tip: Unless things are really off the rails, it’s not a good idea to rotate scrum masters within the same sprint. If that happens, use your retrospective meeting as an opportunity to iron out the problem that led to that change before it causes any more issues.

On the one hand, rotation shares the responsibility among all folks in the team, who are more than qualified to lead discussion of their own project—as long as they’re given opportunities to improve their knowledge of agile and scrum if needed. But if an existing member of the team, they take on the organizational and administrative burden of scrum master in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities.

Someone needs to monitor the scrum process, so a team member is better than none. But this model comes with a few potential pitfalls:

  • They might not have the training necessary to be an effective facilitator. Instead of helping the team inspect and adapt, they might fall back on what they know and try to solve problems wearing their developer or product owner hat.
  • During crunch time, a temporary scrum master still has to get their own work done, which means their scrum responsibilities can fall to the wayside.
  • The opposite can happen, too, where the team member’s scrum responsibilities get in the way of other work.

In smaller companies, a part-timer or team member might do. But consider that full-time scrum masters can dedicate their time to an entire team or even multiple teams. Shoot for that if you want your scrum master to be able to:

  • Improve team processes over multiple sprints.
  • Coach team members in agile principles.
  • Identify and train new potential scrum masters.
  • Maintain the team’s relationship with the company.
  • Build their own skillsets in scrum.

Working with Scrum Masters: Rules of Thumb

Now that we’ve covered how scrum masters work within the team and company, I want to wrap up with a few questions you can ask to figure out your readiness to hire:

  • Are processes delivering results that fall short of objectives?
  • Is your team at a loss for how to move forward?
  • Are they unsure how and why they succeed and fail to meet objectives?
  • Is development constantly overwhelmed?
  • Is the team entrenched in busywork that fails to factor into product improvements?
  • Are individuals not feeling valued or seeing value in their work?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s probably time to hire a scrum master. Lacking the bandwidth or insight, neither your product owner nor developer is best positioned to confront these problems objectively and continuously come up with solutions.

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira