04/12/2019 - Scrum Masters - A benefit or luxury

Scrum – loved in some places, misunderstood in others and often questioned. So, let’s look at three key points and then address them and the benefit of Scrum in more detail.

  • What is the benefit of a having a Scrum Master?
  • Management says we shouldn’t still need a Scrum master now that we know how to do Scrum.
  • Can anyone be a scrum master?

These questions are frequently brought up by delegates on software testing courses and demonstrate their company’s understanding of Agile in addition to ever present issues regarding return on investment.

Agile and Scrum

The success of Agile is compromised if too many of the core principles are left behind.  There is flexibility – Scrum is a process framework rather than a set method, but it is weakened when aspects (events, artefacts and rules) are chipped away.  One of the roles of the Scrum Master is to ensure that core principles are upheld, and that the team can iteratively reflect and adapt their working practices to continuously deliver software of value.

Scott Ambler created a succinct definition of Agile: ‘Agile is an iterative and incremental (evolutionary) approach to software development which is performed in a highly collaborative manner by self-organising teams with ‘just enough’ ceremony that produces high quality software in a cost effective and timely manner which meets the changing needs of its stakeholders’.  So why is a Scrum Master needed?

The Self-Organising Team

A team without a Scrum Master may be pressurised into over committing in an iteration and then failing to deliver.  Historically, maybe the Team’s estimates and concerns were disregarded, and the technical debt and stress levels increased to become problematic. 

However, a Scrum Master can protect the team and facilitate them to be self-organising: ‘empowered with the responsibility of judging what they can achieve in a sprint and later learning from what they have delivered’. 

For this to value to be delivered, the team must be coached to appreciate the risks inherent in the stories and wider project, and then the Scrum Master can support the team to come to a consensus when creating the estimate.  Automated regression scripting is ongoingly addressed and valuable (to the customer) working software can be confidently and frequently delivered.

But the team can only deliver valuable software to the Product Owner if they understand the stories, and the stories are complete at the point that they are to be implemented.  The Scrum Master works closely with the team ensuring that the prioritised user stories are ready, and will mentor and coach them to ensure that they are created, understood with acceptance criteria and work in close collaboration with the Product Owner at all times.

Another benefit of self-organising teams is that they will be more motivated and able to maintain an achievable pace iteration after iteration, sustaining the progress of delivering quality, usable software to the Product Owner.  The Scrum Master can help facilitate this by protecting the team from external interruptions and by removing road blocks.  They also protect the team, (sometimes from themselves!) by enforcing the rules e.g. so that the project schedule isn’t compressed; that the required level of documentation is created; that coding doesn’t continue right up to the deadline.  ‘Just enough’ is the goal – of documentation, ceremony (e.g. iterative planning meetings) and compliance.

Could it be the Role for you?

Potentially, anyone can be a Scrum Master, but some individuals find the role of ‘servant / leader’ harder to fulfil than others.  The role lives the Scrum values of courage, openness, respect, focus and commitment and embodies the Agile Manifesto principle: ‘Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done’.  This is hard! 

Summary

Many organisations are bound down by history, traditions, structures and long remembered past failures.  A scrum Master can protect the Scrum Team to be different, to demonstrate that it can be different, to succeed in this new way of working.  The Scrum team needs to be able to take ownership, to together be accountable for the delivery, so valuable software becomes everyone’s goal and quality a shared responsibility.  This is a major shift for some organisations and a Scrum Master can help facilitate the necessary change in thinking.  But to do so, the Scrum Master needs to continually be on their guard not to revert to a more traditional Project Manager type working style.  The Scrum Master Pro Course is a rounded introduction to the Scrum Master’s role.  It’s a role that can be profitably be rotated around the team (with the understanding that one can’t do two jobs at once) or it can be held long term by an individual.  With a stable team and settled organization, the Scrum Master role will evolve over time from one of high dependency using guidance and direction through to one of facilitation.

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