The role of the Scrum Master in empowering the team

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The role of the Scrum Master in empowering the team

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by Christine Thompson

Self-directed, cross-functional teams

Here’s one of the things that I love about Scrum. Scrum is a simple system which allows people to be intelligent within it. It assumes that team members do the best they can within the constraints of the system they work within. If something goes wrong, it is generally assumed that it is the process that is at fault and not the people. The Carrot & Stick approach doesn’t motivate people in skilled work.  Instead, autonomy, mastery and purpose do.

Scrum teams should be self-managed, self-organized and cross-functional. Team members take their direction from the work to be done and not from the Scrum Master or stakeholders. To empower the team, they need authority, resources and information. Scrum itself values team success over individual performance.

Each scrum team should be made up of team members with cross-functional, “T-shaped” skills. Whilst people may have an area of speciality, they also have a set of broader skills which overlap with those of their team-mates. If a skill-set is over-stretched, then other people need to step in and fill it. If a skill-set is missing, then we need to train people up.

Finally, reforming teams frequently is wasteful as it takes a long time to establish a performant team.

Powerless teams

So what are the characteristics of a powerless team? They may be heavily directed by the Scrum Master and/or influenced by people outside of the team. They’re not making their own decisions, they’re being told what to do. Perhaps they get no value from the daily stand-up: they address the Scrum Master and use it as a status update. Individuals either don’t participate or they argue about everything. People work in isolation and just “do their own thing”. Communication happens indirectly, via comments in tools instead of face-to-face.

Empowered teams

So what does an empowered team look like? The team share an understanding of their tasks and what it takes to complete them and they find their own answers without having to revert to other authorities. Individuals offer to help each other out whenever and wherever they can. The team values its interactions and conversations; all the meetings they hold are considered of value. Everyone shows respect to everyone else, everyone in the team is valued equally and the whole team works towards completing their goals together.

Role of the Scrum Master

So what’s the role of the Scrum Master in empowering the team? The Scrum Master is not the same as a Team Leader or Tech Lead. They are a “Servant leader” – they facilitate but do not manage the team. They may question and challenge things but they have no authority because the team manages themselves. It’s important that the Scrum Master sets the tone of the team in their own behaviours and they also provide the social grease on the distributed team, encouraging teams to use the thickest form of communication available at any time.

For example, the Scrum Master disempowers the team when they:

  • Assign or ear-mark tasks for individuals - team members should decide what they will progress next themselves, based on the information they are given in the scrum meetings and from their understanding of the sprint backlog

  • Influence the sizing of tasks - unless they are performing a dual role as an engineer on the team, the Scrum Master does not take part in, or steer the outcome from, the sizing discussions

  • Make design / implementation decisions for the team - again, unless they are also an engineer on the team, the team members themselves should be making decisions about how a task will be implemented

  • Interfere with the flow of the sprint - if the the team has all the information it needs about the priorities and tasks in the sprint, then there is no need for the Scrum Master to influence people on what tasks they should be working on and when

  • Chase progress instead of chasing blockers - the Scrum Master is there to facilitate and not to manage the team. Asking for progress updates does not engender trust between themself and the team. Such information should be available from the task board and the Scrum Master should only be chasing impediments.

Instead, some examples of what the Scrum Master might do to empower the team:

  • Reduce / eliminate “command and control' practices so that teams can run their own sessions openly and honestly; ensure that dysfunctional meeting participants are controlled

  • Ensure that barriers between team members are removed

  • Work with the team to remove impediments effectively

  • Protect the team from stressful outside influences and unnecessary interruptions

  • Prove a level of true commitment to the team - teams will not feel truly empowered until they see that the Scrum Master is serious about the role

Final thought

The ultimate goal of the Scrum Master is to coach and support the team to the point at which is becomes truly self-organising, autonomous and empowered. In the words of Nanny McPhee: “There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.”