Scrum Master is a Title, Servant Leadership is a Mindset

If a person believes that carrots and sticks lead to productivity, no 2-day class and a certificate on the wall can change that. But those who seek to empower people and teams can become great scrum masters and servant leaders.

Unknown | Team | Flickr

Unknown | Team | Flickr

In the comments section of my post “Help! The Scrum Master is the Impediment”, Darko asked that I cover servant leadership. Darko seems to also have experience with a scrum master who does not behave well and asked some great questions about the role:

  1. What is a servant leader?
  2. How does a scrum master serve their team as opposed to directing it?
  3. Where in practice does the scrum master meet their servant role – can you give concrete examples?

What is a servant leader?

The term servant leader came about in an essay by Robert Greenleaf title “The Servant as Leader”. In his essay, Greenleaf described a servant leader as “one who makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.

He offered these question as a litmus test to servant leadership:  “Do those served grow as persons? Do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

How does a scrum master serve their team as opposed to directing it?

The change in mindset necessary to become a servant leader is incredibly hard for a scrum master who comes from command and control background. There are a few changes in thinking that can help with this transition:

  • Favor self-organization:  Don’t make decisions for the team or assign their work, ask them how they will tackle the next sprint goal. And trust them to follow through.
  • Enable self-management:   Scrum teams self-manage their work and their practices. Rather than dictate how the team will deliver value back to their business partners, work to remove the organizational barriers to their success.
  • Let teams fail:  This is more difficult than it seems. Allowing a team to “fail” and learn important lesson that will pay off down the road is difficult. But sometimes it is necessary for the growth of the scrum team. When this does happen…
  • Provide cover for your team:  Your company/organization/business will not initially understand how your scrum team works. Coach up through the management chain so that “failure” and other experiments by the scrum team are encouraged, not punished.

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” gives insights in to what motivates people and is the best argument against command and control that I’ve ever read. This is the book that project managers making the transition to scrum master should read – and then apply the lessons to their scrum teams.

Where in practice does the scrum master meet their servant role – can you give concrete examples?

A servant leadership minded scrum master should be a servant to their team every day. By challenging the team with a probing question during a sprint retrospective or by recommending a  fist of five check to get everyone involved in a discussion, scrum masters are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to apply their servant role.

I remember a particular situation as a scrum master where I had to work with a design manager who was against scrum and agile. He insisted on design reviews prior to any code being written and would mandate technical solutions that the scrum team did not agree with.

I was obligated by my role to try to coach this person in order to make sure that the scrum team was empowered to manage their work – within the bounds of accepted corporate standards. The discussions were tense and difficult. But the team came first. Eventually, we were able to work out modified design rules for scrum teams and we went on to have many successful sprints.

Situations like that are risky. I was dealing with a member of the management team and had to walk a very fine line in order to help the scrum team and keep my job. Ken Schwaber’s warning was constantly on my mind: A dead scrum master is a useless scrum master.

But things did – and tend to – work out.

Geoff Watts wrote and amazing book on scrum masters as servant leaders called “Scrum Mastery: From Good to Great Servant Leadership”. He goes in to a lot more detail about the habits and behaviors of great scrum masters. It is an excellent resource for any scrum master looking to improve.

Thanks to Darko for asking the questions about servant leadership. I hope that I’ve shed some light on this important topic. If you have a question or would like to see an agile topic covered please send me a message or leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Question: What do you think it takes to become a great scrum master and servant leader? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

HELP!!! The Scrum Master IS the Impediment!

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.

Brandon Glasley | Facepalm | Flicker.com

Brandon Glasley | Facepalm | Flicker.com

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 AI WANTIN 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.