At the heart of the scrum master role is servant leadership. We are driven by serving our teams as teachers, mentors, and coaches. It’s our job to help the team remove impediments, not to become one.
As a newly minted Professional Scrum Master (PSM I), I returned to my team excited and ready to get underway. Unfortunately, I brought back a purist view of scrum and had not fully grasped the concept of servant leadership. In other words, I failed miserably.
The problem started in the daily scrum’s. I took a heavy handed approach and ran the meeting how *I* saw fit. I asked the questions of each scrum team member and asked follow-ups where I felt *I* needed more information.
During a sprint planning meeting, I pressed the team to use the AS A – I WANT – IN ORDER TO format for user stories. The team came up with their own format that they felt more comfortable with. And still I pressed on.
Why I felt the authority to do so is beyond me. User story formats are not prescribed by scrum. A development team member approached me and very respectfully disagreed with me in many of these areas. Tension grew between us.
After a particularly stressful daily scrum, he stormed out and I was left with a team of amazed developers staring back at me…disappointed. And they were fully justified.
I tracked down the developer that stormed out and after a tense, but respectful meeting I finally started to see the errors of my ways.
Scrum – A Pocket Guide tell us that “The scrum master has no interest in scope, budget, delivery, or tasks but coaches and facilitates the complete ecosystem in scrum to manage them.”
I was still being a project manager. That was no longer my role.
I apologized to the team and they showed me a lot of grace by giving me another chance. We went on to deliver some amazing sprints and managed to bring some real value to bear for the business. But why did the conflict happen?
I struggled with giving up the command and control mentality.
Scrum masters who transition from a traditional project manager role must initially cope with the fact that they are not in control of the team. Scrum masters have no direct authority. We are a servant to our team. Our role calls us to help the team get better at playing the game of scrum.
As coaches, we must be careful to not turn adopting scrum in to people being coerced to follow new practices. People can typically handle change given enough support, but they are universally defensive in the face of coercion.
The developer – who rightly challenged the way I was behaving – embodied the scrum values of respect, commitment, focus, openness, and courage. He had the courage to speak up, the commitment to the team to want to do things better, the openness to air a grievance, the respect to keep things civil, and the desire to focus the team on valuable work.
If you find yourself on a team where the scrum master has become an impediment you have a number of choices:
- Do Nothing: Allowing the behavior of an errant scrum master to continue undermines the scrum adoption and disrespects the entire scrum team. This option isn’t really an option.
- Address the Issue Privately: The advantage of this approach is that you give the scrum master the opportunity to realize their mistake without an audience. I appreciated this approach when I had lost my way. If it’s difficult for you to address the issue 1:1 then the next venue is the sprint retrospective meeting.
- Address the Issue During the Sprint Retrospective: If the 1:1 approach did not work, the team can bring up the behavior of the scrum master as an impediment during the sprint retrospective meeting. When the team discusses what did not go well or what made them mad/sad the scrum master should be brought up. Done respectfully, this conversation could lead to a positive outcome.
- Self-Organize/Self-Manage: The scrum team is a self-organizing/self-managing entity. If the scrum master is not getting the message after multiple attempts, the scrum team does have the right to select a new scrum master. It would be an unfortunate turn of events, but in some cases this drastic step is necessary.
I’m thankful for the developer who challenged me to be a better scrum master. He made me confront my fear of giving up control and helped me become the servant leader that I needed to become for the scrum team to be successful.
Question: Have you ever been on a scrum team where the scrum master was an impediment to the team? How did you handle it personally? How did you handle it as a team? You can leave a comment by clicking here.