Six pitfalls for the Agile Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is the process facilitator; the number one responsible for the process. In this important role you help the team to learn, to perform better and to celebrate their success. You make sure that there is a clear overview at all times, and you intervene when necessary. You guide the ceremonies and facilitate an open and safe environment. However, there are some pitfalls that we often see Scrum Masters as well as Scrum Masters-in-training fall into. For your benefit, we share those here. Additionally, we also give some tips.
9 March 2017
Minke Buizer
Organize Agile

At the end of this article you find some reflecting questions. Want to get started to become a (better) Scrum Master or Product Owner? Have a look at our training and workshop overview or contact us for coaching-on-the-job.

1. Getting too involved

A Scrum Master finding the project too interesting has the tendency to join in, to make suggestions, to start focusing more on the project than on the process. This makes you less objective, especially when you think your suggestions are the best.
Tip: as a co-worker there might be a chance to share your ideas with one of the team members on a different moment. Or, for the next time, you can pick a Scrum project that is less interesting to you. Before each and every Scrum session consciously remind yourself to not have an opinion about the content. Ask a Scrum coach to join you during one of the session and ask for feedback (positive and negative) and use these to focus on developing your skills.

2. The urge to fully understand the content

A Scrum Master who wants to fully understand the project’s content will ask clarifying questions that are only useful to him/her. These questions will take the speed and focus off the sprint sessions, this is a waste of everyone’s time. A Scrum Master does not need to fully understand the content of the project. Understanding parts of the content only is enough, giving you the ability to ask good questions, separate content from the process, summarize, start ceremonies and make the agenda for the review. We go as far as stating  that it is better to not fully understand the content in order to stay objective in the process.

Tip: Assure yourself that once the process has made progress you are going to understand more about the content, enough to make better summaries and ask better questions. If it helps you in your role, ask for clarification after the session. Trust your team members and Product Owner to have the capability to divide the work load, define the backlog items including correct definitions of done, then you can focus on guiding the process at best. Moreover, in the intake that you have with the Product Owner at the start of the project you define a clear assignment; this is also the right moment to position the content correctly for you as Scrum Master.

3. Taking over the role of Product Owner

A Scrum Master taking over the role of Product Owner, will, for example, arrange that team members get dedicated time for the project. Or the Scrum Master states in a session what he/she thinks is the most important work load for the upcoming sprint. These are the Product Owner’s responsibilities, not the Scrum Master!
Tip: Make sure you know what both roles entail. It can also be helpful to talk to the Product Owner and set a clear set of rules about the respective roles and responsibilities. You could also ask a Scrum coach to join you for a session and give you feedback afterwards. And, who knows, maybe you are also a good Product Owner, a role you might take on for the next project.

4. Feeling responsible for the result

A Scrum Master who feels responsible for the result will consciously or unconsciously steer which backlog items will be handled in the next sprint, influence the definition of done, express that the team is not working fast enough, etcetera.
Tip: Reflect with a Scrum coach on this subject. Why do you feel so involved with the result? Think of what you can do in your role as Scrum Master to help the team get the best result. Might an extra retrospective help to continue on learning together? Can you help the team, for example, to spend less time on making plannings, but to define more intermediate and ‘minimal viable products’? Can you suggest to the Product Owner which stakeholders he/she should invite next time to get better targeted feedback to the team?

5. Being too nice

A Scrum Master who wants be liked is less likely to interrupt or steer the team on the process. For example, not interrupting content discussions in the stand-up, and not addressing the Product Owner that he/she is not inviting stakeholders.
Tip: You can be nice in your own time. Experience shows us that the team is mostly not or barely affected by a ‘strict’ (clear) Scrum Master than the Scrum Master him/herself is. The team benefits from effective ceremonies, ultimately the team members want to start off the sprint in the right direction, as soon as possible. Here it might also help to ask for feedback or get coaching on the job. And add, for a change, the subject ‘Scrum Master’ to the agenda of the retrospective.

6. Getting lured into ‘a little bit of scrumming’

Of course ‘a little bit of Scrumming’ does not exist. Before you realize it, your schedule will be filled with all sorts of projects of which you are the Scrum Master, but you also have other responsibilities and tasks. And then there also is the encounter with a Product Owner who underestimates your role as Scrum Master.
Tip: make clear agreements with your supervisor about the amount of time you can spend. Take care of yourself. Highlight the benefits of Scrum; if you can show progress, then receiving more time for a project will be easier. A good intake with your Product Owner is crucial. What does the project entail? What is the lead time and the sprint frequency? And how much time do you need as a Scrum Master?
Now I ask you the question: which of the above described situations do you recognize? What could you possibly do to recognize, avoid or terminate those pitfalls?

To wrap up: learning is a must as well as experimenting, and making mistakes is human. Enjoy!

Minke Buizer

Vernieuwer, strateeg, pragmatisch
Ik adviseer en begeleid organisaties in de transitie naar duurzame en regeneratieve organisaties. Hierbij focus ik mij op de gedragsverandering en verandering organisatiestructuur die hiervoor nodig is. Dit vraagt specifiek van toezichthouders en ondernemingsraden om een andere taakinvulling.