The perks of being a Scrum Master - Developing soft skills and preventing anti patterns

Many people want to become a Scrum Master. This trend has been scaling up for the last 10 to 12 years, at least, and can be related to the volume of related searches in search engines. More companies want to hire a Scrum Master as well. The role was ranked amongst Linkedin's Most Promising Jobs of 2019 with a 67% year on year growth of job openings.

Expert Lance Dacy from Mountain Goat Software relates this circumstance to the fact that now, most businesses operate with tighter resources than ever to meet customer expectations. Industries such as banking or insurance with heavy dependency on limited customer service hours are now aiming to enable 24/7 services, for example. They need to deliver value fast to keep profitable.

Due to that, we wanted to learn more about how can someone actually become a practical Scrum Master. That's why we talked with some pros that are part of the Encora community, who openly shared their perspectives on topics such as:

  • Certified vs. empirical training
  • Good practices for starters
  • When to go beyond Scrum
  • Behaviors to avoid

So let's dig into it.

Topics to check

  1. Building a Scrum Master profile
  2. Connecting with the team
  3. Dealing with underperformance
  4. Avoiding anti agile patterns

Building a Scrum Master profile

Becoming a Scrum Master might be more intuitive for people whose path has developed in software or IT organizations. But for many, the way may not be as clear. That's why many queries on search engines are related to certifications and required experience to become a professional.

Damián Cabrera started his career as a developer, and now he's a Scrum Master at SoftwareDevTools. He considers his technical background an essential element for his professional development and highly values the experience acquired by working for some years in the software industry.

"I think that the skills development required to work as a Scrum Master in a high-performance environment is mainly practical learning. In the end, you work with a team, and each team may have different members who need you to get used to them and the other way around. So you train according to the team in which you are standing."

However, he doesn't minimize the value that certifications can bring to your profile, as acquiring them is proof that you have learned the ideal way of implementing an agile framework, including stuff that otherwise, you might not notice.

That resonates with the thoughts shared by Karen García (Karen G.), Success Coach at Encora Mexico, "You have to give merit to the different career paths that can lead you to step-in the Scrum Master role. As long as you have the skills required, including lots of organization and understanding of the industry."

With studies in computer science and broad experience working for agile teams, Karen G. sums up the top priorities a Scrum Master should be aware of:

  • Understand what the product or program entails in a general way
  • Realize what is needed to carry on its development
  • Have a clear vision of the objectives that it must accomplish

Karen Dakhlaoui (Karen D.), current Scrum Master at Imagine Learning, thinks that certifications "strengthen the theoretical part, the best practices of the framework and to (learn how to) be able to adapt them without departing too much from agile." Getting certified can also grant a "perspective of the current state of the market."

Karen D. has a Product Owner background, including a related certification. She then started learning about the perks of being a Scrum Master while working with one, so she has both practical and academical experience.

Taking into account these tips to build the foundation for your Scrum Master profile. If you'd like to dive deeper to understand the vast number of options there exist for getting certified, you can check this assessment by TurboScrum.

Connecting with the team

The cornerstone for establishing relationships with others is communication. And it just happens to be a significant component of the Scrum Master role: "This person must foster communication inside the team. That will help everyone to know each other and work better towards common goals."

That's a keynote by José Padilla, Scrum Master at 360 pronto and former Product Owner. He also highlights the importance of nurturing a positive relationship with other stakeholders and clients. Having casual conversations with them about their family and their life outside the workplace is a good starter.

Establishing communication, however, is just a channel and requires carefully listening to be effective. In Karen G. words: "A good practice is to always listen. Listen to people's ideas and support their implementation. Let them know that their perspective is important."

In that sense, Karen D. suggests having individual conversations with each team member, especially when beginning to work with a new team. This can lead to them feeling more comfortable to share what they really think should change or improve.

You can go further and get involved "not as the Scrum Master, but as another peer… If the team sees that you listen, raise questions, and propose ideas, it will be easier to connect with them." That's the approach employed by Damián, who firmly believes that going the extra mile in terms of team building is vital for a Scrum Master to be trusted and not seen only as a project manager who only asks: "How're we doing?".

Dealing with underperformance

A Scrum Master must make sure that work keeps flowing. But sometimes, there are bumps along the road that slow things down. Instead of blaming any person that may be underperforming, part of the job is to be empathetic and understand their circumstances.

"Many times we get so bottled-up in our role that we consider the task of a peer to be very simple, but there are a lot of things behind, especially in this type of works where the usage of technologies often brings many dependencies. It is critical not only to see the task but everything that it entails…." Follow Karen D.'s advice and document yourself before drawing any conclusions.

"First thing I do is reach out to that person individually, (again) not as a Scrum Master, and show everything that he has done right... He could have not done all wrong." Damian's method relates to Karen G.'s in the sense that both follow-up personally on the situation, even if it goes a little further than what Scrum encompasses. Sometimes is imperative to remind an otherwise good collaborator how relevant his contributions are as a shoulder-to-shoulder partner.

All of them consider Retrospective sessions as a cornerstone to get effective feedback, as it gathers the collective view of the team over a specific set of issues. The resulting action items are concrete ways to solve them. Damián adds that: “Sometimes, the problem might be the Scrum Master or other peers not paying attention to a risen red flag.”

The best way to run Retrospectives that are both engaging and easily accessible by your team is with Agile Retros, the add-on for Jira and Confluence, that will soon be reaching Monday and Trello as well. It lets you run custom sessions with your preferred technique in five easy steps. Give it a try.

Avoiding anti agile patterns

Both for Karen D. and José Padilla, estimating tends to be misunderstood by several teams. Karen D. considers that the main issue is related to groups that use time as a measurement to estimate, completely detouring the primary purpose. For her, estimations serve the team to acknowledge interdependencies and foresee blockers to have a more accurate idea of all the activities to develop during the sprint.

On the other side, Padilla explains how to prevent the business units from considering estimates to be committed due dates. That renders it critical to keep your estimating sessions only for the team. Then, after all the discussion has happened and everyone has a more or less accurate vision of the tasks they will perform, the product area can commit with business and C-level.

Another dangerous anti pattern is role overlapping. Even while getting as involved as Damián suggests, "it doesn't mean you start coding or testing." There's a reason every role has different responsibilities, and Karen G. concludes that "(A Scrum Master) must focus on the activities that corresponds to his role and support the team… To be the best at your role, focus, and master all your skills."

Check the video with the insights shared by Damián, Karen Dakhlaoui, and Karen Garcia:

In conclusion, getting certified or being an empirical Scrum Master should never limit you. It's desirable, however, to have some education and certifications will definitely enhance your profile for the job market. But never forget that the top priority as a Scrum Master is honing your soft skills and using them to bring your organization together to deliver value for your customers.

Many thanks for their participation to:

  • Karen García - Success Coach @ Encora Mexico
  • Karen Dakhlaoui - Scrum Master @ Imagine Learning
  • Damián Cabrera - Scrum Master @ SoftwareDevTools
  • José Padilla - Scrum Master @ 360 pronto

This is part one of a mini-series focused on The perks of being a Scrum Master, intended to guide you towards performing a successful career shift. Keep tuned to learn about other perks, such as the Scrum Master salary and its competitiveness in the job market.


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