The scrum master helps the team find the right road.

The scrum master helps the team find the right road.

In the movie Independence Day, the US President played by Bill Pullman, calls on his fellow pilots to help plow the field so that the character played by Randy Quaid can attack the alien craft. Pullman was facilitating Quaid though both a call to action and active participation. The scrum master’s job in most cases is to facilitate plowing the field for the team. This creates an environment for a team to grow and deliver value, while keeping outside influences from sapping the team’s energy. Here is the scrum master’s job description:

  • Responsible for ensuring that the Scrum practices and rules are followed.
    Ensure that the team is disciplined about the Agile practices and techniques that they have chosen to support team effectiveness.
  • Teaches the team by coaching and leading.
    The scrum master teaches the team how to use Agile practices and to deal with issues, rather than jumping in and supplanting the team’s actions.
  • Helps the team understand and use self-organization and cross functionality.
    The scrum master fosters an environment that helps the team become a team, rather than a collection of individuals. The scrum master helps to create this environment by asking questions, sharing problem solving techniques and mediating interpersonal differences.
  • Removes impediments.
    The scrum master facilitates the resolution of bottlenecks that are blocking the team’s progress.  When impediments are outside of the team’s ability to control (for example waiting on a deliverable from another team or vendor), the scrum master acts will pursue the problem so that others on the team can continue to be focused on delivering functional software.
  • Ensures that the team keeps itself functional and productive.
    The scrum master needs to observe how the team is working together and to facilitate action when the team is not performing optimally. The scrum master generally makes sure the team knows where they are during a sprint or iteration using tools like the burn down, burn up charts and card walls so that the team can take action.
  • Enables close cooperation across all roles and functions.
    Teams share work, provide support to each other and swarm to tasks or stories when needed.  In order to provide that level of support, it is import for all roles on a team to cooperate. This means that there can’t be a “us vs. them” relationship between any of the roles on the team. Team sharing and learning sessions are some the the techniques that scrum masters can use to teams learn each others roles and functions.
  • Shields the team from external interference.
    At times outsiders will pull at team. External interference is a specialized form of an impediment that tends to drain time or focus from the team. The scrum master will deflect or absorb as many requests that will take the team’s focus away for meeting their commitments and delivering value.

The scrum master needs to create an environment for the team to prosper. The list above outlines the responsibilities that the scrum master must tackle to be effective. As you can see, a scrum master is more than an administrator or planner. The scrum masters facilitates the whole Agile team in attaining their the ultimate measure of value by focusing on the people on the team’s needs and how they are using the process.

Don't just outlaw problems, facilitate a solution.

Don’t just outlaw problems, facilitate a solution.

The difference between facilitating and enabling is at the core of the Agile concept of self-organizing and self-managing teams. An effective scrum master should be a facilitator in a well functioning Agile team. However, when there is a breakdown in a self-organizing and self-managing team, sometimes scrum masters become enablers. This makes scrum masters more like project managers. A facilitator helps to unstick something that has stopped or creates an environment where progress can be made by the team.  An enabler provides the team with permission for making a decision.  For example, I recently watched as a team asked their scrum master if they were allowed to hold an interim show and tell/demonstration to prompt the product owner for feedback. The team saw the scrum master as an enabler rather than a facilitator.

Providing permission to the team to make decisions shifts the risk and from the team to the scrum master.  In the past we had a term for the decision maker role on a team: a project manager. The enabler is someone who sees a logjam and then provides the team with a solution and then ensures that the solution is taken.

On the other hand, a facilitator helps the team to make a decision.  A facilitator uses techniques such as asking questions and then helping the team to listen to the answers. Asking questions helps the team to frame or reframe the issue so that they can develop their own solution. By finding their own solution teams increase their ownership of the solution; it is no longer the project manager’s responsibility to make decisions for the team. For example, when a facilitator observes that a team is having issues working together, he/she will make sure everyone gets their issues on the table during a retrospective. During the retrospective, the facilitator will use a technique that will create an environment that will help the team get to the root cause.  The facilitator will continue to ask probing questions until the team identifies the issues.

In the same scenario, an enabler is apt to present the team with his or her definition of the issue (and potentially with a solution). While providing the problem and solution might seem like a more efficient use of time, it will not provide the team with a learning moment.  In the long run the team will become dependent on the enabler to identify and solve their problems. Having everyone on team learn to identify and solve teams problems leads to less time waiting for someone else to solve problems.

Here’s a quick framework to use in order to decide if you are a facilitator or an enabler:

  • Facilitators ask questions. Enablers provide answers.
  • Facilitators listen to understand. Enablers listen to act.
  • Facilitators help things to happen. Enablers make things happen.
  • Facilitators make strong teams. Enablers make strong individuals.

The primary role of a scrum master is that of a facilitator. Making decisions for the team creates a dependency that defeats the whole idea of a self-organizing and self-managing team.  A facilitator makes the team stronger by helping them to learn to make decisions and find their own voice.