The role of SM (Scrum Master) is challenging. It takes a certain type of person to succeed. As per the Scrum Guide, the SM serves the product owner, development team and the organization. The SM is a servant leader. Nobody reports to the SM.
Without formal authority, the SM relies on their natural abilities to provide leadership. People who shine as SM’s, tend to be those with high levels of social and emotional intelligence. In short, they are great with people. They build meaningful relationships and promote trust.
In no particular order, here are five unique qualities that make up a great Scrum Master:
- Empathy – Empathy is one of the competencies that make up emotional intelligence. It is the ability to feel the emotions of others. It creates a sense of rapport which is necessary for servant leadership. Empathy gives SM’s the ability to hone in on team members who may be frustrated or having difficulties, and help them. With empathy, the SM can see and feel someone’s struggles, without having to hear it. Great SM’s use empathy every day to gauge how the team is doing.
- Courage – There are two key reasons why SM’s need courage. The first is having the courage to admit mistakes. When the SM admits to a mistake and takes accountability, it sets the right example for the team. In Scrum, the team needs to understand that it’s okay to try new things and make mistakes. This promotes trust and helps to improve team performance and innovation. The second reason SM’s need courage is to protect the team. When someone interferes with the Scrum team, the SM has to confront that person. Often this can be challenging for the SM, because it could be someone with position power who is affecting the Scrum team. An example would be a manager who requests the Scrum team to do something outside of their Sprint goals. The SM needs to have the courage to confront the manager and shield the team.
- Coaching – The SM is a coach, and coaching is an art form. In Scrum, coaching is about asking the right questions and helping people learn. It is not about telling people what to do. Great SM’s are passionate about helping people to unlock their potential through coaching. The SM coaches the team on self-organization, cross-functionality and any areas in which Scrum is not understood. For a great book on coaching, see Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore.
- Discipline – Scrum is a straightforward framework. The practice of Scrum and the Scrum events are easy to understand, but difficult to master. The SM must ensure the team stays disciplined to the Scrum events. For example, great SM’s don’t blow off Sprint retrospectives or any other Scrum event. SM’s need to ensure that team members are showing up and contributing to all the Scrum events. It all starts with the SM. Great SMs lead by example, and they show up early and prepared to all the Scrum events. They never cancel events unless there’s a good reason.
- Facilitation – The importance of facilitation is often over looked or minimized. Have you ever attended a meeting that completely went off course due to poor facilitation? Or you had to wait 15 minutes for the meeting to start because the facilitator couldn’t get the conference bridge to work? We all have. A great SM is polished in their facilitation skills. They ensure that all Scrum events and meetings take place without a hitch. They do this by being well prepared in advance. They also use their social and communication skills to keep meetings on track, and on time. Crisp facilitation is crucial for SM’s.
Some people are fit to be a Scrum Master, and some are not. When managers are looking to fill a Scrum Master role, I tell them to not try and fit a person to the role. Instead, fit the role to the person. What I mean is, try to place someone who you already know is good with people. If you know someone is terrible with people, they’re not cut out to be a Scrum Master. It doesn’t matter how many certifications someone has, the SM must have emotional and social intelligence. If you can identify someone who has the five qualities I listed in this post, rest assured they have potential to be a great Scrum Master.
About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the owner and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an Agile Delivery Consultant and IT Project/Program Manager. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.