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Great Scrum Masters Are Grown, Not Born

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Key Takeaways

  • Great Scrum Masters are grown, not born. Even people who have the “native wiring” to be a great Scrum Master require skills development.
  • The skills needed to be a great Scrum Master are not traditionally taught in schools, so we have to catch up as adults.
  • Scrum Masters are Agile Coaches who operate within the scope of influence of one or a few teams and need all the same skills as program-level Agile Coaches.
  • An industry definition of how to develop Agile Coaching capability exists. We need not re-invent it.
  • The industry definition can be used to guide one’s own self-directed learning journey on the solo side, and can be used to guide an entire Agile Coaching capability development program on the organizational side.

Why great Scrum Masters are grown

I'm sure that some great Scrum Masters are born! They simply have the "native wiring" that makes it easy for them to be a great Scrum Master. For the rest of us, becoming a great Scrum Master is a process of mindset shift as well as skill development, both of which take time and conscious practice.

In Coaching Agile Teams I listed 10 common characteristics of the agile coach apprentices I worked with that seemed to predict their success. The ones that "made it" shared these characteristics, which I call their native wiring.

In the years since that book has been published, I have met many Scrum Masters who underestimate themselves and their greatness. One such person came to me and said, "I don't operate with all the 10 native wiring characteristics all the time. I guess I'm not a very good Scrum Master." To which I answered, "Neither do I!" I told her that when I started with Agile, I probably only believed 5 of the 10, much less operated with them. And, even now, years later, I don't always remember to operate with all 10 all the time.

Another person came to me and said, "I've only been a Scrum Master for five years and I still don't think I am good enough to call myself an Agile Coach." I had seen this gentleman in action in the classroom and felt that he was selling himself way short. He's not alone. So many Scrum Masters I've met are incredibly hard on themselves.

On the flip side of the coin, others I encounter don't recognize that the act of being a great Scrum Master is the same as constantly becoming a better Scrum Master. These folks don't develop their skills, and then are disappointed when their efforts do not have the hoped-for effect. On either side of the coin, being too hard on one's self or not hard enough can lead us to think that maybe some people just "have it" and others don't. In my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Everyone needs to develop the skills of great Scrum Mastering. No one was taught how to help a team navigate conflict in high school, for example. So, we are all catching up on must-have skills like this, even those lucky enough to have the native wiring. For this reason, I say that great Scrum Masters are grown.

Let's start calling Scrum Masters Agile Coaches

Here's my assertion: Scrum Masters are Agile Coaches because they do what Agile Coaches at the program level do; they just do it within the scope of one or a few teams. They need all the skills and self-leadership that Agile Coaches at the program level need to be really effective for the teams they serve.  

I am part of the working group ICAgile commissioned to refresh the Learning Path for Agile Coaching which was released earlier this year. When we got together, one of the main things we wanted to adjust in the community at large was this notion that a Scrum Master is somehow a less powerful role than Agile Coach or that it's even an administrative role that does not require a lot of skill. These were damaging applications of the roles that we saw across the industry. It resulted in stunted Scrum Masters who were not allowed to develop the skills needed to really help teams not only deliver, but deliver while improving team capabilities.

The people on the ground need a full complement of skills because on the ground, with teams, day in and day out, is where the action is. Since teams are the source of value creation they need fully-skilled and developed Agile Coaches at the team level (also called Scrum Masters).

If an Agile Coach at the team level is fully occupying their role, then the kinds of activities they will do are aimed at better team functioning and the delivery of products through:

  • ...faster and more creative team conversations by paying attention to the process of creating and implementing ideas; making conversations easier, flow better and take less time.
  • ...harnessing inherent diversity of team members and facilitate the team to navigate the diversity of ideas, and the conflict it causes, to yield better solutions than occur when the team avoids conflict.
  • ...yielding better decisions by asking the open questions that find gaps, challenge greater thought and ensure palpable buy-in.
  • ...garnering real commitment by getting out of the content themselves and giving teams the choice, resulting in them owning their decisions and moving into swift action.
  • ...improving team accountability amongst themselves and for the product they build.
  • ...removing impediments inside the team through greater team facilitation, and reducing the effects of impediments outside the team by addressing the symptoms or people on a one-off manner.
  • ...taking a stand within the team as the Agile process guardian.
  • ...assessing health by clearly seeing the systems at play; within a team, among a set of teams, and with the organization both locally and enterprise-wide.
  • ...choosing interventions wisely based on a holistic assessment and towards what will provide the biggest impact, rather than what’s easy or familiar.
  • ...holding pivotal conversations at all levels in the organization to tell the hard truth and evoke systems to change, all without being reviled.
  • ...providing impact feedback that helps people move fully into their roles, especially the key roles needed by your Agile process framework such as ScrumMaster, Product Owner, Manager, and Release Train Engineer.
  • ...designing intentional relationships that allow the high-end of their skills to be used and call others into co-responsibility for making organizational changes happen.
  • …systemically removing impediments in their immediately-surrounding organization.
  • ...pairing with others in the organization to cover the full spectrum of technical, business and transformation needs as these needs change over time.

I wrote these specific descriptors in the white paper Developing an Internal Agile Coaching Capability to help organizations because I felt it was time for a more complete view of what one should expect from a fully skilled Agile Coach operating as a Scrum Master. Look over the list again. Nothing in that list indicates "less than" a program-level Agile Coach or a mostly administrative role. In fact, for most organizations, it indicates the need for significant skills-building and self-development activities to develop a fully functional Agile Coaching capability.

If this list conveys the outcomes of fully skilled Agile Coaches, how does one build the competency to achieve them?

The “must-have” skills of Scrum masters and agile coaches

The best source I know for defining competency in Agile Coaching is the Learning Roadmap for the Agile Coaching Track. This work, commissioned by ICAgile, is the most complete list of what an Agile Coach needs to know, do and be at various levels of development. This translates to 65 separate learning objectives in mentoring, teaching, facilitating and professional coaching, as well being able to apply a wide variety of models to coach teams through their stages of development, including working with performance and conflict.

To be a great Scrum Master, one must develop themselves in all these learning objectives and all the areas of this learning roadmap. But not all at the same time! Truly developing your skills and yourself is a process that takes years, not days.

It’s possible to use the Learning Roadmap as a guide for your own solo-directed development program. Although the Learning Objectives are written for folks developing training courses, it is possible to “read between the lines” to identify your gaps, see where you need to develop next, and then find resources to develop that specific area on your own.

Alternately, there are many training courses and programs for developing Agile Coaching skills, and more are being created all the time. Because the Learning Roadmap is a vendor-neutral expression of solid Agile Coaching, I believe training courses accredited by ICAgile are the best bet because they deliver the learning objectives expressed in the Learning Roadmap.

Of course, as co-founder of Agile Coaching Institute, I will point people to our curriculum for developing Agile Coaching skill which starts with in-person courses that introduce people to the skills, mindsets, and inner work and then continues with an after-class competence building program, currently the only one of its kind in the industry.

Grown, not born

No matter how far behind you feel, or how much you wonder if you “have what it takes” to be a great Scrum Master, know that you are doing just fine as long as you keep becoming a better Scrum Master. It requires diligence and practice to develop the skills and mindsets of great Scrum Mastering/Agile Coaching, you need not make it harder by forging your own trail!  

Many have gone before you and have paved some of the road to make it easier. Using the resources available in this article, you can chart your own course of development, or apply the resources at the organizational level to create an overall Agile Coaching capability in your company.

About the Author

Lyssa Adkins is a coach, facilitator, teacher and inspirer. Her current focus is improving the performance of top leadership teams and Boards of Directors through insightful facilitation and organization systems coaching. In 2010, she co-founded the Agile Coaching Institute and currently serves as President Emerita, as well as co-leads ACI's competence-based coaching curriculum. She is the author of Coaching Agile Teams.

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