Scrum Master skills conversion from other roles

The roles of Product Owner (PO) and especially of Scrum Master (SM) can be quite difficult to define when you are first approaching Agile and assigning this position or searching someone for the role.

Notably many companies just tend to copy&paste the descriptions for classic PMs or even re-assigning people with these roles to the new Scrum titles.

Nothing is written in stone and of course every company can tailor its processes but if you are going to use Scrum as a framework to be agile, you need to be aware of the differences and nuances.

Especially converting Project Managers (PjM) to Scrum Masters is filled with problems. They are all different roles, are not even superficially similar and they all require different skills but notably different mindsets; as such any “automatic conversion” will not always work.

Moreover, SM is a role not a job title. A team member of a cross-functional team can have multiple roles, being sometime a developer, some time an architect and a tester and also acting as a SM. Not easy for a classically trained PjM to immerse in such a team.

Agile shift all responsibility from a project manager to a team, in such case many organisations ponder how best they can make their project managers useful enough.

Converting PjM to PO might be easier than PjM to SM, there is more overlap between the former two than between the latter two.
PjM can become PO if they have domain knowledge.

But if an organisation is Agile and still need a PjM with title “Agile PjM” then it is a big question mark on their Agile correct adoption and mindset.

The same reasoning applies to a Business Analyst (BA) or Product Manager (PdM) though that’s an easier transition.
Let’s first have a look at the Scrum Master transition and in the next post at the Product Owner transition.

The Scrum Master

There are clear responsibilities for each person within the team, but the Scrum Master?

On an Agile team there is no traditional command and control model.
Unlike a traditional project manager role, the scrum master has no direct authority; does not assign tasks (the team pulls them) and is not tracking the tasks to detect divergences (the team is self organising, if someone tracks progress against a product release then is the Product Owner).

But the SM has many other responsibilities.

The Scrum team is self-organising but the Scrum Master is responsible for the process and enforcing adherence to Scrum’s theory, practice, and rules.

This is why I generally say that the Scrum Master is a process referee.

In football, the referee doesn’t manage the teams; the referee enforces the rules of the game.
It’s the same with Scrum, although Scrum Masters are usually asked to coach and evangelise too, rather than simply blowing the whistle or calling fouls.

Ken Schwaber said once, in a coaching session at Google, that the best people for Scrum Master are the Quality Assurance guys that are normally responsible for the process.

Not assigning directly the tasks is probably the hardest practice to understand and perform for classic project managers but is the most common mistake that companies new to Agile do.

A self-organising team is a cardinal practice for agile and scrum. Where Scrum Masters add value is to coach team members first to achieve this self organisation and then – for example – to direct their effort towards completeness of fewer stories rather than near completeness of more stories (it should be the SM who makes sure that a good Definition of Done exists and that is followed by the team).

A SM shielding the team from any interference acritically is another common mistake, as well as a SM blocking stories because of not enough details in them.
The SM manages the Scrum process and helps the team but shall also encourage communication with business, operations, all other departments and not block them. Being an Agile team does not mean to work in a vacuum.
Similarly the SM needs to help the team digging in too vague stories during sprint planning and stories grooming phases, not just blocking.
It is all about allowing effective communication, this is why collaboration and facilitation are critical skills for SMs.

Is Scrum Master a “management” position?

We said that the Scrum Master is not in charge of the people on the team but is responsible for adherence to the Scrum framework, i.e. the Scrum Master manages the Scrum process, does not manage the team.
This is just a restatement about the role of aservant-leaderwithin Scrum.

For example, a classic task of the scrum master is to note impediments and help the team to solve them.

But the question arises: if the Scrum Master role itself does not involve formal authority, if it is not a management position, will still have the influence to remove impediments?

Ask any process owner whether they are more successful in removing blockages through influence or direct/delegated authority and you will almost always be told that the latter is more effective. Scrum is really no different.

A Scrum Master who is perceived by the organisation as being invested with delegated authority to “succeed in dealing with” a project’s impediments is going to be more successful in clearing those impediments than someone who is perceived as holding a purely advisory role.

In order to effectively clear impediments, a Scrum Master must have sufficient influence or authority within the organisation to effect change, obtain resources, or otherwise affect the source of the impediment.

Finally, another common mistake is that the Scrum Master is generally considered by many organisations as in charge of the Scrum process and therefore – by extension – the project.
This is certainly arguable, but it is most definitely common. Nothing is more useful than having a scapegoat during troubled times. If you feel the need of having a single “point of blame” in your projects, consider hiring a professional scapegoat, such as the infamous Benjamin Malaussène in Daniel Pennac’s book Au bonheur des ogres

A summary of essential skills for SM:

  • Effective Communication.
    SM needs to be able to communicate in many different forms and with many different people, internally and externally the team.
    SM shall improve transparency and radiate information.
  • Mentoring.
    SM shall guide and coach the team and organisation to understand and follow the Agile/Scrum practices.
    SM shall help the team assess their ‘Agile/Scrum Maturity’ and promote higher levels, such as coaching the team to become self-organised.
    SM shall guide and help the team to remove impediments by finding the right personnel to remove the impediment (not necessarily must the SM remove them!)
  • Facilitation.
    Good skills and knowledge of facilitation and servant leadership, leading by example.
    SM gets the work done without coercion, assigning or dictating the work, instead SM shall facilitate discussion, decision making and conflict resolution.
  • Agile/Scrum Know-how.
    SM shall have the knowledge and experience with various well-documented Agile patterns and techniques, for filling in the gaps left in the approach  – for example numerous Burn-down technologies, various Retrospective formats, User Stories, Agile Games but also continuous improvement, empowerment, transparency, etc.).


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