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Scrum Master

A Scrum Master is a facilitator for an Agile development team. They are responsible for managing the exchange of information between team members. Scrum is a project management framework that enables a team to communicate and self-organize to make changes quickly, in accordance with Agile principles.

Although the scrum analogy was first applied to manufacturing in a paper by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, the approach is often used in Agile software development and other types of project management. The term comes from the sport rugby, where opposing teams huddle together during a scrum to restart the game. In product development, team members huddle together each morning for a stand-up meeting where they review progress and essentially restart the project.

What does a Scrum Master do?

A Scrum Master leads a scrum. Scrums are daily meetings conducted by Agile, self-organizing teams that allow the team to convene, share progress and plan for the work ahead. Some teams have a fixed Scrum Master, while others alternate the role with various team members occupying the position on different days. No one approach is right, and teams can choose to appoint the Scrum Master role as best fits their needs.

During the daily meetings, the Scrum Master asks the team members three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments in your way?

The Scrum Master then uses the answers to those questions to inform tactical changes to the team's process, if necessary.

Roles, responsibilities and skills of a Scrum Master

Although the title of Scrum Master sounds powerful, this position is not the project leader and is not held accountable for project outcomes; this responsibility is given to the team as a whole. The official Scrum Guide refers to the Scrum Master as a servant leader because their purpose serves the team through the scrum process, creating a framework in which every team member can do their best work to meet a common goal.

An ideal Agile team would have the team -- not one individual -- manage its process. However, the Scrum Master position evolved to take responsibility while keeping the process as team-oriented as possible.

The Scrum Master is a highly dynamic role, and is responsible for:

  1. Helping the team to reach consensus for what can be achieved during a specific period of time -- referred to as a sprint.
  2. Helping the team to reach consensus during the daily scrum.
  3. Helping the team stay focused and follow the agreed-upon rules for daily scrums.
  4. Removing obstacles that are impeding the team's progress.
  5. Protecting the team from outside distractions.
  6. Ensuring product backlog items are clearly defined and managed efficiently.

The Scrum Master's main role is that of a facilitator. They ensure that best practices are followed and that the team's projects progress. A scrum that follows best practices should encourage transparency, inspection and adaptation.

Common skills required of a Scrum Master include:

  • The ability to facilitate communication between team members and to promote a sense of community.
  • The ability to help team members adapt to new situations through coaching and training.
  • The ability to communicate the team's progress and needs to external teams.
  • The soft skills and empathy to handle changing interpersonal dynamics, behavioral patterns and conflict resolution.

In addition to the Scrum Master, other scrum roles include the project manager and product owner, which are different but equally significant responsibilities on the team. These roles will work together with the Scrum Master to achieve a well-defined common goal.

Who needs a Scrum Master?

Teams that follow an Agile methodology and aim for a team-centric process with a bottom-up management style benefit from the Scrum Master role. In development, teams of this kind often exist at the beginning of the technology value stream. This is because the nature of development work often requires a high degree of flexibility and collaboration. Objectives may change from day to day, and timelines may contract or expand depending on external requirements. The Scrum Master implements enough structure to keep the team's development effort focused while ensuring the team remains adaptable, as changes to the plan are inevitable and even welcome.

Some teams may find that a Scrum Master is not necessary if every team member understands scrum methodology and can manage their workflow in harmony with other team members. The ideal scrum has no "master" and gives each team member an equal role in managing workflow. However, many teams find that having a designated Scrum Master is helpful to streamline the process. Scrum Masters are also sometimes hired as consultants.

Benefits of employing a Scrum Master

Some benefits of employing a Scrum Master are:

  • Scrums will have a designated leader specialized for the job.
  • Teams will adopt agile methodologies and a culture of failure to increase their overall adaptability. A culture of failure views failures as opportunities instead of setbacks.
  • An increased ability of the entire organization to adopt Agile methodologies and to transition from traditional waterfall methodologies.
  • The Scrum Master's team will have a servant leader dedicated to meeting individual needs and promoting the happiness of the team.

Some organizations choose to hire Scrum Masters as consultants instead of designating an in-house employee. The added benefit of hiring an external Scrum Master is that they do not have preexisting biases about the organization and can bring fresh ideas.

Scrum Master vs. product owner

Scrum Masters and product owners are alike in that they both are responsible for managing and optimizing the product backlog. They both predict the necessary work to deliver a successful product.

However, they differ in their approach to this goal. The product owner approaches work with a top-down approach to delivering a successful product by planning far ahead and developing a course of action for the team to follow. The focus is on the bigger strategy.

The Scrum Master, by contrast, is less concerned with a long-term strategy and is more concerned with noticing immediate issues and reacting to them as they crop up. The focus is on employing tactics to fine-tune the team's process as time goes on.

Scrum Master vs. project manager

Scrum Masters and project managers have the same objective -- to help their teams get work done efficiently. The difference is in their approach to this goal.

Project managers inhabit a more traditional management role. They focus on progress reports, milestones and strict project timelines, for example. They are goal-oriented and focus on controlling the team from the top-down to achieve the goal.

Scrum Masters, by contrast, are process-oriented. Instead of setting a collection of goals and restrictions for a team to ensure it stays on track, the Scrum Master focuses on streamlining and optimizing the processes that help teams meet their goals. They take a bottom-up approach to management and view themselves as team member instead of a team manager.

Certifications for Scrum Masters

The Scrum Alliance offers a 16-hour certification course that allows individuals to become Certified ScrumMasters (CSMs). The certification process includes explanations of the scrum framework as well as the various team roles, events and artifacts incorporated into Agile development.

Many other Scrum Master certifications exist. A few examples include:

  • The Scrum Master certification through Scrum Inc.
  • The Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I) certification through Scrum.org.
  • The Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM) through the Scrum Alliance.
  • The Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) from the Project Management Institute.
  • SAFe Scrum Master (SSM) from Scaled Agile.
This was last updated in September 2020

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