Starting as a Scrum Master with little experience can be quite a challenge. You're expected to guide your team and ensure everyone follows Scrum practices effectively. Phrases like "build trust within your team," "enhance team performance," and "value collaboration over tools" often float around without clear directions on how to implement them.
You can never go wrong with reading and re-reading the basics until it feels like you can do it in your sleep. Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the Scrum Guide and the Agile Manifesto. However, don’t think that you or your team can immediately implement everything like the book says. It’s important to understand the theory, but implementing it in practice is different. You need to understand the team, the people, and where they currently are first.
The following is a list of sequential steps that my colleagues and I recommend for new Scrum Masters. Work your way through them to learn how to better help your team.
Nine Scrum Master tips
Tip #1: Observe and listen
Resist the urge to jump into action. Start by observing and listening. You won’t win the team's trust on the first day. Try to understand who they are and how they work together. Take the time to really listen, ask questions, and show genuine interest in each team member. Do not immediately try to change or showcase a method you have seen or read about. Also, don’t say out loud, “I am here to observe.” This will only annoy people. Who wants to be observed while working? Make your observations, but do it quietly.
Organize one-on-one meetings or team-building activities. You could set up a weekly 30-minute coffee break where work talk is off the table. Another good and easy way to spend time together talking about non-work related topics is a team lunch.
Tip #2: Streamline tools
Next, focus on the tools that your team uses, like Jira. As a Scrum Master, becoming skilled with these tools is crucial. Take the time to learn them inside out, then use that knowledge to make these tools simpler and more efficient for everyone.
When observing the team, keep an eye out for anything that feels clumsy in the way they use the tools. There is probably a way to configure them that makes the workflow smoother.
If Jira is the primary tool used, customize and configure it to suit your team's needs. A well-set-up tool can save time, reduce frustration, and keep the focus on the work rather than the process. Think about creating filters, dashboards, and shortcuts that make daily tasks easier.
Surprisingly, many teams use Jira in unorthodox ways. Do not be scared by this. Jira can be just as effective when not used in the way that Atlassian intended. However, sometimes, these unorthodox ways result in difficulties. If you notice this, discuss it with the team and point out the benefits of using the tool differently.
Tip #3: Building trust with consistency and curiosity
Gaining your team's trust doesn't happen overnight. It's built through consistent, open, and honest interactions. Show that you're truly interested in team members and their well-being. Invest time in understanding their perspectives.
Pay close attention to data like velocity, stability, robustness, cycle times, retrospective minutes, bug count, and the age of bugs. Present this data to the team in a way that helps them understand their performance and progress. Use it as a basis for discussion, not as a judgment tool.
Encourage the team to think in terms of multiple options. Instead of allowing a single path forward, ask, "What else could we do?" This opens up the conversation to alternative strategies and ideas.
Resist the impulse to provide immediate solutions to any issues that arise. Instead, ask probing questions that guide the team to discuss and address these issues themselves. Help them identify and solve problems collectively. Small, incremental steps are often more effective than giant leaps, and over time, this approach can lead to significant improvements and a stronger sense of trust within the team.
Tip #4: Deepen your Agile knowledge
While deepening your Agile knowledge is essential, it's fourth on the list for a reason. The first three tips emphasize observation, mastering tools, and building trust because these human-focused elements lay the groundwork for successful Agile practices.
Understanding the ceremonies and regular cadence of Scrum is important, but these should come after you've started to connect with your team and have facilitated a smoother workflow with the right tools.
So, take the time to read and learn from leading Agile thinkers, absorb the ideals of Scrum, and respect its ceremonies. But always keep in mind that these frameworks and guides are tools to support your team's journey, not strict rules to enforce.
The path to Agile is not straightforward. Often, you do an experiment but find out that it didn’t work as you expected. You must learn together.
One often overlooked way to use the foundational concepts of Agile is by discussing values and principles with the team. The Scrum values of courage, respect, commitment, focus, and openness and the principles of transparency, inspection, and adaptation also work with kanban teams.
Tip #5: Cultivate positive communication
Creating a positive team culture goes beyond your use of language; it involves actively monitoring and guiding the team's communication style. Lead by example, using positive language, and encourage the team to do the same. Notice if they start using cynical expressions or generalizations. Disagreements and conflicts are healthy as long as they are about an issue at hand.
Be mindful of the Losada ratio, which suggests a high ratio of positive to negative interactions for teams to flourish. Teach your team how to communicate difficult topics or issues in a positive way. When positive communication becomes the norm, you'll help to build resilience and a more supportive team environment.
Tip #6: Help the team improve
Every team has unwritten rules. Why not write them down? Written team agreements help not only new members but are also easier to build on and improve.
Every team spends considerable time in meetings. Basic meeting facilitation skills are essential for Scrum Masters—invitations, agenda, parking lot, meeting memos, action points, decisions, etc. Find what works for you.
When using Confluence, pay special attention to the way your team’s space is organized. If nobody has maintained a well-structured hierarchy of pages, the space becomes a mess, and nobody wants to use it.
When faced with a problem, discuss what kind of previous agile experiments team members have tried in similar situations.
Focus on directing attention to removing impediments effectively. Too often, a blocker is allowed to persist and disturb the team’s flow of work. Everyone is too focused on their own tickets to solve problems.
Find a way to visualize blockers so the team can’t avoid addressing them. Scrum Masters do not directly solve obstacles but cause them to be solved. It’s okay to step in and actually work to remove impediments, but don’t take the role of “chief impediment removal service.”
Pay special attention to retrospectives. There are a million ways to host a retro. Experiment and get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Good retrospectives are the heartbeat of team improvement.
Irrespective of the method you use, reserve at least 10 minutes at the end of each retro to make practical and realistic improvement actions. It might be a good idea to create tickets for agreed actions and load them to the next sprint backlog to remind the team to spend time and effort implementing them.
Tip #7: Support the product owner
Product owners often have a lot on their plate. If your product owner is also the product manager, it will be overflowing.
As a Scrum Master, one of your roles is to support them. This can take the shape of assisting with backlog refinement, helping to clarify user stories, or ensuring that prioritization is based on the most up-to-date information. Sometimes, the product owner is so busy he or she forgets to share information with the team. Ensure that the team stays informed.
When you actively support the product owner, the whole team benefits. They will notice the smoother workflow, better-defined tasks, and clearer priorities, all of which can lead to more efficient sprints and a more cohesive team. Your assistance can also free up the product owner to spend more time with customers and stakeholders, which can lead to a product that better meets user needs.
Tip #8: Connect with fellow Scrum Masters
Networking with other Scrum Masters can be a game-changer. If there isn't already a Scrum Master community in your organization or local area, take the initiative to create one. Such a community can be an invaluable resource for sharing knowledge, discussing challenges, and brainstorming solutions.
Reach out to Scrum Masters within the organization who have more experience. They often know stuff that isn't shared openly. Ask them about their experiences, insights, and the lessons they've learned along the way.
Consider finding a mentor or coach. This could be a more experienced Scrum Master or an outside Agile coach. The support and perspective of someone who's been in your shoes can be immensely helpful.
Also, look for communities beyond your organization—online forums, local meetups, and professional networks can provide diverse perspectives and support. Having a network to turn to means you don’t have to tackle a problem alone.
Tip #9: Engage with the rest of the organization
Stakeholders are key players in the success of any project, and as a Scrum Master, developing a relationship with them is crucial. Engage in open dialogue, explaining your goals for a more effective team and the positive impact this will have on the outcome of the project.
Most stakeholders are interested in making the organization work more effectively towards business goals. Senior stakeholders have been in the game long enough to intimately understand the business and how everything works. Your key inside their mind is showing that you want to understand and that you are actively working toward the same goal as them.
Good luck with your voyage towards becoming a better Scrum Master
Scrum Masters are doctors—they heal the Agile practices of the team and contribute to better performance. Your reward will be seeing the team having more fun working together, achieving greater results, and overcoming the inevitable obstacles along the way.
Your team will continue learning by asking questions, so encourage this, and you will surely see improvements.
Published: November 14, 2023