How to Become an Effective ScrumMaster (and What to Expect Your First Month)

A collection of thoughts I've compiled during my brief stint as ScrumMaster at Putnam Investments.

There’s a common analogy for someone who’s spearheaded into a project or role with no prior experience. They’re known as someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down. For me, I had the opportunity to experience this first-hand in my new role at Putnam Investments. Although I had never been a ScrumMaster before, knowing enough about Agile/Scrum and having led several teams in the past has provided me enough of a solid foundation to transition smoothly into my role.

If you’re reading this, one of two situations might have recently transpired.

One: Your company has joined the wave of new companies that have switched from a Waterfall methodology over to an Agile one. With the world changing so quickly, more and more companies in rapid-growth industries have shifted over to Agile to remain competitive and keep up with the accelerating rate of change. Switching to Agile helps teams develop software quicker and at lower costs, while allowing teams to remain flexible and responsive to both internal and external changes.

Among all of the different Agile methodologies, Scrum is by far the most popular. (source: State of Agile)

Among all of the different Agile methodologies, Scrum is by far the most popular. (source: State of Agile)

Two: You’ve been thrown into your first role as a ScrumMaster. If you’re in the second boat, congratulations! Becoming a ScrumMaster is a rewarding experience and lets you take on additional responsibilities and roles. It challenges you in several different areas, helping you grow as both an employee and as a leader within your organization. If you’re completely new to the company, you’ll have to learn about the company itself, in addition to navigating through office politics to understand the underlying dynamic between different working groups and individuals. The hardest part? Putting what you learned about Agile and Scrum into practice.

Learning About Scrum

ScrumMasters can come from a variety of backgrounds. There’s an ongoing conversation about whether ScrumMasters should come from technical backgrounds, whether they should have experience working with the team they’ll be on or the product that’s being built, or even if they’ve gotten certified. Regardless of their credentials and background, being an effective ScrumMaster starts with knowing the ins and outs of Agile and Scrum.

Although the responsibilities of a ScrumMaster might vary from company to company, and even between different teams within the same company, the step to being an effective ScrumMaster involves mastering the key players, processes, artifacts, and understanding and adopting an agile mindset.

For me, learning Agile was easy because I was fortunate enough to take a class in college. It was the first time my school offered a class on agile development, and I chose to take it because I knew the company I was going to work at full-time after graduation followed an Agile/Scrum approach.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to take a class, there are a lot of resources available online to help guide you through the process of learning and understanding Scrum.

The official Scrum Guide, written by Scrum co-creators Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber:

This is another free resource from Scrum Training Series that includes informational videos laid out sequentially that covers everything from a high level overview of Scrum all the way to the meetings associated with Scrum.

This is a great website for anyone trying to prepare for the ScrumMaster certification. It provides a free training program and a variety of assessments that you can take to gauge your progress before taking the actual certification exams.

Lastly, if you want more real world experience, there is a plethora of Meetup groups across the world with members looking to discuss and connect with others on how the Scrum process can be used to manage and control development work.

Getting Certified

There are two main certifications that you can take to gain a deeper understanding of the Scrum process or bolster your resume when applying to ScrumMaster job positions. Becoming certified helps serve as proof of competence and shows employers that you have sufficient knowledge of Scrum and Agile.

The first certification is offered by Scrum Alliance. There are three main levels of certifications you can obtain through their organization. In order to get certified as a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM), you have to take a two-day course that costs anywhere between $800 and $1600. Afterwards, you take an exam where you have to correctly answer 24 out of 35 questions in order to pass. To earn the Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM) certification, you must first obtain the CSM certification, be validated by one of dozens of CSP Educators worldwide, as well as had at least one year of work experience as a ScrumMaster in the past five years. The third stage is the Certified Scrum Profession (CSP-SM), which requires the first two stages and an intensive hybrid course to be completed, as well as two years of work experience as a ScrumMaster in the past five years.

Scrum Alliance's three levels of certification

Three levels of certifications through Scrum Alliance (scrumalliance.org)

The second certification is offered by Scrum.org. Instead of offering a CSM, Scrum.org offers the Professional Scrum Master (PSM) certification. There are three levels of certification, which get progressively harder. However, the Scrum.org certifications do not require examinees to take a course, but are typically more rigorous and have a higher passing score requirement (85% vs 68%) than those from Scrum Alliance. As of May 2018, each examination from levels I to II to III costs $150, $250, and $500 respectively.

Scrum.org's three levels of certifications

The three levels of certifications from Scrum.org (scrum.org)

Applying Agile

Whether you’re a part-time or full-time ScrumMaster, you’ll realize that you don’t assume the role of a boss. Instead, you become a servant leader, someone who helps the product owners, team members, and stakeholders accomplish their goals. You’ll also become a coach and mentor to others on your team. In addition, you’ll help team members remove roadblocks and also serve as someone who helps the organization transform the way they think.

The many hats a ScrumMaster has to wear

The many different hats a ScrumMaster wears, illustrated in the form of South Park (photo credits to CRM Audio)

When you join a new team, you might encounter a ramp-up period, where team members are more forgiving and are aware that you still have to learn the underlying dynamic of the team as well as any existing traditions. Don’t expect things to go smoothly. Don’t expect people to accept you straight up, especially if you have no working knowledge of the team that you are working with or the product and technologies that are being used. Don’t expect to join the team looking to instantly produce incredible results. If you have unrealistic expectations of your role as a ScrumMaster, you might be perceived negatively by your team, and as a result, you will have to navigate uphill against some initial resentment and awkwardness.

As a new ScrumMaster, the first few meetings I led were really awkward. Learning about Agile and Scrum in a classroom setting is vastly dissimilar than applying it in an actual setting. At the beginning, I didn’t know what to say, how to start or end meetings, or even prompt others to voice their opinions. Everything was really chaotic because in addition to learning about the company culture and team dynamic, I had to lead and guide a team full of people I had never worked with before. Over time, I learned to adapt and adjust to how the team was structured. I was fortunate enough that my team became independent and experienced enough that my duties were eventually focused solely on removing impediments and organizing and leading meetings.

Tuckman's Model of Team Formation

The end goal of a Scrum team is to reach Tuckman’s performing stage, where the team executes a defined process consistently and performs at a high level. (image credits to 3Back)

Additionally, rather than thinking of Agile as a defined set of standards and rules that a team must strictly adhere by, ScrumMasters should learn to adapt to whatever situations they are thrown into. One of the primary values from the Agile Manifesto encourages teams to respond to change instead of following a plan. This flexibility should extend to the way ScrumMasters support their teams. Although the responsibilities and duties of a ScrumMaster’s role might appear rigid within the confines of what product owners and upper-level managers expect in terms of deliverables, ScrumMasters possess the ability to dictate how to resolve conflicts within a team, what types of behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged, or even how much involvement or to what level of granularity the ScrumMaster should focus on when providing feedback to team members.

Continuous Improvement and Next Steps

The underlying mindset of Agile is the idea that a team is always growing, continuously learning and improving. This concept of continuous improvement is evident in some of the core metrics that Agile tracks, such as burndown and velocity charts. It’s also seen in one of the key ceremonies of Scrum, the sprint retrospective, where team members speak candidly about their organizational concerns and teamwork, and how they can improve moving forward.

The four steps of the continuous improvement cycle

Continuous improvements involves understanding and identifying flaws in the current process to implement changes that can improve existing workflows. (diagram credits to LeanKit)

For a ScrumMaster, this mindset should also apply. Once a team starts feeling secure and self-sufficient in their patterns and routines, the ScrumMaster’s role is to make sure the team members don’t get complacent. There’s always more to learn, more efficient ways to get tasks done, and more areas of improvement.

If your company is new to Scrum and you’ve been hired as a ScrumMaster, this is a great opportunity for you to help lead the transition over to a new way of thinking. By training and learning about Scrum in advance, you have the ability to shape how others view the transition, and influence their perspectives on something completely foreign.