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The 28 Characteristics of a Great Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules. 
The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

The role of a Scrum Master is one of many stances and diversity. A great Scrum Master is aware of them and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. Everything with the purpose of helping people understand and apply the Scrum framework better.

The Scrum Master acts as a:

  • Servant Leader whose focus is on the needs of the team members and those they serve (the customer), with the goal of achieving results in line with the organization’s values, principles, and business objectives[1];
  • Facilitator by setting the stage and providing clear boundaries in which the team can collaborate;
  • Coach coaching the individual with a focus on mindset and behaviour, the team in continuous improvement and the organization in truly collaborating with the Scrum team;
  • Conflict navigator to address unproductive attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors;
  • Manager responsible for managing impediments, eliminate waste, managing the process, managing the team’s health, managing the boundaries of self-organization, and managing the culture;
  • Mentor that transfers agile knowledge and experience to the team;
  • Teacher to ensure Scrum is understood and enacted.

A Great Scrum Master…

  • Involves the team with setting up to process. A great Scrum Master ensures the entire team supports the implemented Scrum process. The daily Scrum for example is planned at a time that suits all team members. A common complain about Scrum is the amount of ‘meetings’, involving the team with the planning of the events will prevent at least some resistance.
  • Understands team development. A great Scrum Master is aware of the different phases a team will go through when working as a team. He understands Tuckman’s[2] different stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The importance of a stable team composition is therefore also clear.
  • Understands principles are more important than practices. Without a solid, supported understanding of the agile principles, every implemented practice is basically useless. It’s an empty shell. An in-depth understanding of the agile principles by everyone involved will increase the chances of successful usage of practices drastically.
  • Recognizes and acts on team conflict. A great Scrum Master has read the book ‘The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team’ by Patrick Lencioni. He therefore recognizes team conflict in an early stage, can apply different activities to resolve it, and even better, he knows how to prevent conflict.
  • Dares to be disruptive. A great Scrum Master understands some changes will only occur by being disruptive. He knows when it’s necessary and is capable to be disruptive enough to enforce a change, but without causing irreparable damage.
  • Is aware of the smell of the place. A great Scrum Master can have an impact on the culture of the organization so that the Scrum teams can really flourish. He therefore knows the movie ‘The Smell of the Place[3]’ by Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal and can also apply the related workshop.
  • Is both dispensable and wanted. A great Scrum Master has supported the growth of teams in such a manner they don’t need him anymore on daily basis. But due his proven contribution he will get asked for advice frequently. His role has changed from a daily coach and teacher to a periodical mentor and advisor.
  • Let his team fail (occasionally). A great Scrum Master knows when to prevent the team from failing but also understands when he shouldn’t prevent it. The lessons learned after a mistake might be more valuable than some good advice beforehand.
  • Encourages ownership. A great Scrum Master encourages and coaches the team to take ownership of their process, task wall and environment.
  • Has read… A great Scrum Master has read all the stuff produced by e.g. Geoff Watts, Lyssa Adkins, Tobias Mayer, Henrik Kniberg, Growing Agile and Gunther Verheyen. Basically he knows whom to follow in his area of study.
  • Has studied… A great Scrum Master has studied the Trello board[4] that Growing Agile has published. The Shu-Ha-Ri levels offer a very useful structure to a knowledge base for every Scrum Master.
  • Is RE-TRAINED. A great Scrum Master recognizes himself in the acronym made up by Geoff Watts[5], RE-TRAINED:
    • Resourceful, is creative in removing impediments
    • Enabling, is passionate about helping others
    • Tactful, is diplomacy personified
    • Respected, has a reputation for integrity
    • Alternative, is prepared to promote a counter-culture
    • Inspiring, generates enthusiasm and energy in others
    • Nurturing, enjoys helping teams and individuals develop and grow
    • Empathic, is sensitive to those around them
    • Disruptive, breaks the status quo, help create a new way of working
  • Has faith in self-organization. A great Scrum Master understands the power of a self-organizing team. “Bring it to the team” is his daily motto. Attributes of self-organizing teams are that employees reduce their dependency on management and increase ownership of the work. Some examples are: they make their own decisions about their work, estimate their own work, have a strong willingness to cooperate and team members feel they are coming together to achieve a common purpose through release goals, sprint goals and team goals.
  • Values rhythm. A great Scrum Master understands the value of a steady sprint rhythm and does everything to create and maintain it. The sprint rhythm should become the team’s heartbeat, which doesn’t cost any energy. Everyone knows the date, time and purpose of every Scrum event. They know what is expected and how to prepare. Therefore a complete focus on the content is possible.
  • Knows the power of silence. A great Scrum Master knows how to truly listen and is comfortable with silence. Not talking, but listening. He is aware of the three levels of listening and knows how to use them. He listens carefully to what is said, but also to what isn’t said.
  • Observes. A great Scrum Master observes his team with their daily activities. He doesn’t have an active role within every session. The daily Scrum for example is done by the team itself. He observes the session and hereby has a more clear view to what is being discussed (and what isn’t) and what everyone’s role is during the standup.
  • Share experiences. Great Scrum Masters share experiences with peers. This might be within the organization, but also seminars and conferences are a great way to share experiences and gather knowledge. Of course writing down your lessons learned is also highly appreciated. And yes, for the attentive readers, this is exactly the same as for the Product Owner and the Development Team.
  • Has a backpack full of different retrospective formats. A great Scrum Master can apply lots of different retrospective format. This ensures the retrospective will be a fun and useful event for the team. He knows what format is most suitable given the team’s situation. Even better: he supports the team by hosting their own retrospective. To improve involvement this is an absolute winner!
  • Can coach professionally. A great Scrum Master understands the power of professional coaching and has mastered this area of study. Books like Coaching Agile Teams and Co-Active Coaching don’t have any secrets for him. He knows how to guide without prescribing. He can close the gap between thinking about doing and actually doing. And he can help the team members understand themselves better so they can find news ways to make the most of their potential. And yes, these last sentences are actually an aggregation of several coaching definitions, but it’s sound quite cool!
  • Has influence at organizational level. A great Scrum Master knows how to motivate and influence at tactic and strategic level. Some of the most difficult impediments a team will face occur at these levels; therefore it’s important a Scrum Master knows how to act at the different levels within an organization.
  • Prevent impediments. A great Scrum Master not only resolves impediments, he prevents them. Due his experiences he is able to ‘read’ situations and hereby act on them proactively.
  • Isn’t noticed. A great Scrum Master isn’t always actively present. He doesn’t disturb the team unnecessary and supports the team in getting into the desired ‘flow’. But when the team needs him, he’s always directly available.
  • Forms a great duo with the Product Owner. A great Scrum Master has an outstanding partnership with the Product Owner. Although their interest are different, the Product Owner ‘pushes’ the team, the Scrum Master protects the team. A solid partnership is extremely valuable for the Development Team. Together they can build the foundation for astonishing results.
  • Allows leadership to thrive. A great Scrum Master allows leadership within the team to thrive and sees this as a success of their coaching style. They believe in the motto “leadership isn’t just a title, it’s an attitude”. And it’s an attitude everyone in the team can apply.
  • Is familiar with gamification. A great Scrum Master is able to use the concepts of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ contribution.
  • Understands there’s more than just Scrum. A great Scrum Master is also competent with XP, Kanban and Lean. He knows the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and risks of every method/framework/principle and how & when to use them. He tries to understand what a team wants to achieve and helps them become more effective in an agile context.
  • Leads by example. A great Scrum Master is someone that team members want to follow. He does this by inspiring them to unleash their inner potential and showing them the desired behavior. At difficult times, he shows them how to act on it; he doesn’t panic, stays calm and helps the team find the solution. Therefore a great Scrum Master should have some resemblance of Gandalf. The beard might be a good starting point :)
  • Is a born facilitator. A great Scrum Master has facilitation as his second nature. All the Scrum events are a joy to attend, and every other meeting is well prepared, useful and fun, and has a clear outcome and purpose.

If you know any other characteristics of a great Scrum Master, feel free to share them!

[1] http://www.infoq.com/articles/leadership-challenge
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckman%27s_stages_of_group_development
[3] http://www.barryovereem.com/the-smell-of-the-place/
[4] https://trello.com/b/2Hx5dNlB/scrummaster-s-skeleton
[5] Scrum Mastery by Geoff Watts

Barry is an Agile Coach at Prowareness and Professional Scrum Trainer at Scrum.org. He is also an active member of the Agile community and shares his insights and knowledge by speaking at conferences and writing blog posts. Since 2000 he fulfilled several roles within the ICT, these vary from application consultant, project manager and team lead. Since 2010 his primary focus is applying the Agile mindset and the Scrum framework. Barry is specialised in the role of the Scrum Master and servant-leadership. Due his own practical experience as a Scrum Master, Barry gained a lot of experience with starting new teams, coaching teams through the different stages of team development and applying different types of leadership. Sharing these experiences and hereby contributing to other persons growth is his true passion!