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A Scrum Master is a REACTive Change Agent

Bhanu Chander Golconda, 7 minute read

Every leader has a different management style. Some leaders react to a situation after it happens in order to reach desired outcome. Some leaders anticipate a situation and plan their actions to reach the desired outcome.

As scrum masters, we can’t always proactively anticipate what can go wrong. From my experience with past projects, we are busy solving the issues of the present, rather than what may happen in the future. Although we inspect and adapt proactively to solve future issues, we still come across many surprising situations that demand a more effective reactive leader.

Let’s take a look at the five REACT roles a scrum master can play to be a REACTive change agent: Reminder, Empathiser, Assessor, Coach, Tactful Leader.

The Scrum Master is a Reminder

You may be thinking, “Do we need a person just to remind people?” Surely this is not the scrum master’s sole responsibility, but a scrum master acting as a reminder is true much of the time. The scrum master can see the big picture and act to motivate the team.

Some instances where a scrum master can act as a reminder are when there are deviations to:

  • Agile core values and principles.
  • Working agreements.
  • Retrospective items.
  • Definition of Done (DoD) and Definition of Ready (DoR).
  • Team deadlines.
  • Information radiator.
  • “Work-in-progress” limits.

The goal and intention here is not to remind the team of a deviation, but to remind the team of the negative outcome that can unfold if they do not follow what was learned and agreed upon.

The Scrum Master is an Empathizer

Empathy is an important quality for any modern leader. A scrum master can nurture happy teams if they can sense how the team is feeling physically and mentally.

As an empathizer, the scrum master can help their team in a variety of ways:

  1. Team members are stretching beyond business hours: Ask them what you can do to achieve work life balance.
  2. Team members lack a skill and are struggling in silence: Arrange knowledge sessions or external help. Make skill readiness a definition of ready.
  3. Team members look tired: Ask them if they need a coffee break before proceeding with the meeting.
  4. Team seems fed up and frustrated with the ongoing conflicts or challenges: Facilitate open discussions to understand the issue better and bring high morale at an individual or team level.
  5. Team members are constantly avoiding the office and calling out sick: Try to find out why and understand their challenges.

By empathizing with the team, you are building mutual trust and also show that you care – not just about timely releases and revenues but also about people who are the foundation of the company.

The Scrum Master is an Assessor

Time after time, we get a sense of what is going wrong and what can be improved, yet we don’t often take a step forward in bringing the issues on to the table for discussion. Assessing and acting upon what can be improved is a prime task toward becoming a continuously improving team. Below are some metrics scrum masters can assess and utilize during retrospectives for continuous improvement:

  1. Post sprint bugs or bug leakage.
  2. In-sprint bugs.
  3. Unplanned leaves in sprint.
  4. Cycle time of bugs.
  5. Cycle time of stories.
  6. Team morale assessment metrics.
  7. Agile maturity assessment metrics.
  8. Team say/do metrics.

By providing data of these metrics, a scrum master can help the team to baseline their discussion on the correct topics and encourage data driven culture for collaboration and continuous improvement.

The scrum master is a coach

In most companies, the role of a coach is seen as an external role, when compared to a scrum master. While an external coach can add value for a holistic view of agile/scrum, it is important to note that a scrum master can act as a coach, since they work with the team day in and day out. The scrum master can focus on the team’s day to day trends based on:

  1. Benefits of WIP (work in progress) limits, TDD (test driven development), automation, reducing technical debt.
  2. Improving feedback loop efficiency.
  3. Conflict navigation.
  4. Surfacing ongoing agile anti-patterns.
  5. The goal and intention here is not to overload the team with information, but to provide just enough detail to resonate with the team’s current maturity level.

A Scrum Master is a Tactful Leader

Every scrum master will face uncomfortable situations where they must give difficult but honest feedback. This may hurt feelings, credibility, and morale of others. It’s important to be tactful in such situations and make sure the message is formulated in a way that helps build relationships and aids continuous improvement. This may be the case when:

  1. A team member has behavioral issues.
  2. A manager is resorting to command and control.
  3. A product owner is not doing the necessary groundwork for the product backlog.
  4. Tasks are assigned instead of asking for volunteers.
  5. The manager/PO are not happy with team estimates.
  6. The team is not willing to challenge themselves.
  7. The team has low commitment and focus.

In all of the above situations the scrum master needs to be tactful in giving honest, courageous, and constructive feedback to bring in more agile maturity.

Until the team matures by sufficiently internalizing the scrum core values and principles, the scrum master needs to take up the above REACTive roles and simultaneously coach a team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that proactive leaders are not effective – and reactive leadership style may not always be your best fit. It is, however, an effort to bring additional clarity on the scrum master role as not just a facilitator but an agile evangelist.

About the Author

Bhanu is a people-loving, high performance team nurturer, who started his career in the IT industry in 2006 as C/C++ Developer and has been a Scrum Master since 2013. He is a great admirer of Agile values and is a committed servant Leader. His team members often hear him stating, “Our problems can be solved by re-visiting the Agile Manifesto, principles and values". Teams trust his expertize and thoroughly enjoy his facilitation vis-à-vis scrum coaching.

“Intention driven communication” and “Value driven delivery” are his prime mantras as an effective Scrum Master.

Bhanu is a graduate in Electronics and Communications Engineering, a Certified Scrum Master via the Scrum Alliance, and certified in Management of Software Development from IIM, Calcutta.

An avid reader of philosophy, mythology, and technology, Bhanu also loves to watch movies and spend time with family, and friends. Bhanu is a dedicated Scrum Master who focuses his skills on continuous learning and innovation in order to empower engaged and productive teams.

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