What is a scrum master? Many of us have heard the same definitions…process facilitator, teacher, coach, servant leader. While these are all important aspects of the scrum master job, these attributes fall short of describing what the role really means.
In a nutshell, the scrum master role is focused on cultivating engaged, productive, high performing teams. They influence without authority, lead processes over projects, and guide based on a set of values versus a set of numbers. The scrum master role is not easy, but it is one we need now more than ever.
Why is the scrum master role so important for agile teams today? Today's employee is disengaged. According to a July 2021 Gallup poll, 48% of America's working population is actively job searching or watching for opportunities. Businesses are experiencing a staggering number of resignations and record-high numbers of unfilled positions. Seventy-four percent of employees report being "actively disengaged" from their jobs, while only thirty percent report being engaged.
These record-breaking numbers are forcing companies to consciously evaluate the factors that drive employee engagement. In a Tiny Pulse survey, employees indicated that the number one thing that they love about their jobs is their coworkers. Unfortunately, today's employees are more disconnected from their coworkers than ever before. In a Pew Research study, 60% of workers felt more disconnected from their colleagues since they started working remotely.
While employees feel disconnected, they don't want to return to the office. In the same study, 61% of respondents indicated that they had chosen to continue to work from home. They appreciated the flexibility and wanted to maintain the work-life balance they were used to over the pandemic. This decision leaves companies with a challenging problem to solve. How do you cultivate a remote culture where employees feel connected to their teams?
As companies adapt their employee engagement strategies to fit a remote and hybrid workforce, leaders at all levels need to reevaluate their team building strategies. Scrum masters have a unique opportunity to cultivate engaged and high performing teams, but team building is an art that requires intentional practice.
In order for a scrum master to be most effective in their role, there are several key soft skills they need to develop.
Before the scrum master can practice any other leadership skill, they need to lead with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand another person's thoughts and feelings in a situation from their point of view, rather than your own. Empathy is a complex but important quality that leaders need to cultivate. Empathy is about connecting with someone in their experience without judging them, feeling sorry for them, or trying to fix the issue.
Empathy is a tool of compassion, and it requires a specific mindset. To quote Brene Brown, "Compassion is fueled by understanding and accepting that we are all made of strength and struggle--no one is immune to pain or suffering. Compassion is not a practice of 'better than' or 'I can fix you'--it's a practice based in the beauty and pain of shared humanity."
Scrum masters need to lead with empathy, and let that mindset shape their interactions with the team. In order for a scrum master to influence without authority, the team needs to have a high level of trust in them. Scrum masters can foster trust and psychological safety by investing time into learning about their team. If the scrum master takes the time to learn about each team member, their professional contributions and about them as a person, they can establish the kind of understanding and trust that is necessary to guide them.
As with any leadership role, strong communication skills are one of the main characteristics that separate the good from the great. Scrum masters must develop strong communication between themselves, their leaders, the team, and the team's stakeholders. Each of these audiences have different investments in the team, and the scrum master needs to have the ability to identify their communication needs.
Communication goes beyond just talking. Communication also requires great listening, and the desire to listen to understand rather than to reply. As a servant leader for their teams, scrum masters need to be able to understand their team's impediments, risks, dependencies so they can work to resolve them.
One of the key responsibilities of a scrum master is to coach their teams. While the majority of their coaching may be process-related, scrum masters need to also coach their teams to adopt an agile mindset. Scrum masters keep their teams focused on their north star--delivering a high quality, working increment of value to their customers while using agile practices and mindset as their guide.
In the coaching role, scrum masters need to practice being fully present-- having an awareness of their environment, practicing self-management and consciously preparing for coaching. Great coaches need to be excellent listeners—capable of listening to what is being said, what is not being said, and picking up on nonverbal communication. Scrum masters need to ask powerful questions that stimulate creativity and new insights in their audience. They also need to openly receive and provide constructive feedback.
A major component of a scrum master's job is facilitation. As a facilitator, the scrum master must organize and lead agile meetings effectively. However, facilitation is about so much more than the efficient management of a meeting. Effective facilitators need to keep the members engaged and focused throughout the duration of a meeting.
As a facilitator, the scrum master is focused on creating a collaborative space for groups to achieve their outcomes while maintaining neutrality. Scrum masters need to have basic facilitation skills, which include establishing effective meetings with a clear purpose and outcomes, and time boxing the agenda appropriately. They also need to create a collaborative space that fosters trust, welcomes different points of view, and encourages full participation.
The scrum master role is nuanced, complex, but also very rewarding. Scrum masters have the opportunity to connect with teams and individuals every day in a way that is highly impactful. They lead teams through influence that is earned by fostering trust, empathy and effective communication. Employee engagement isn't solved by sweeping, company-wide decisions but by leaders that understand and care about their teams. When scrum masters lead with these qualities, they can play a big role in cultivating connection in a disconnected world.
Cultivating the soft skills to influence and inspire a team isn’t easy. As scrum masters seek to grow their skill sets, they need the ability to assess themselves and receive feedback. The scrum master Talent Development radar provides an individual survey for scrum masters to gain insight into their skills across five key dimensions.