Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional Background

Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional Background

Owner of Primos Populi. As a manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.

As an Agile practitioner, I had the opportunity to share my experiences with many Scrum Masters that had a very wide range of professional backgrounds. The interesting thing about this profession is that it isn’t taught in school. Maybe computer science or management classes mention it quickly, and no training is mandatory to get the Scrum Master certification. If one decides to go for it, it generally takes 2 days, and the focus is mainly on the Scrum framework.

However, being a Scrum Master also means, as I like to explain, being “a specialist of human beings in a technological environment”. The SM training teaches very little about the diverse ways we can achieve self-organization within a team, the ways to empower our coworkers, and making sure they take ownership of their work.

Here’s a rough estimate: 90% of the time, people that are now Scrum Master or Agile Coaches were previously either developers, project managers or team managers. Some of them chose this path, others were assigned to this role following a change in the business. It is not rare, for instance, for a developer to become Scrum Master because he knows the Scrum processes better than his colleagues. It is also common, for a project manager to become Scrum Master “by default”, after the adoption of Agility in the company.

Sometimes, though, one’s past will dictate how one tackles the present and future, and I think this is especially the case for Agile practitioners. Our past experiences have a high potential of influencing our approach as Scrum Masters, and most of us will encounter certain challenges and will be tempted to use old reflexes while coaching our teams. Since 50% of the problem is solved by acknowledging it, I thought it would be a good idea to write about this subject.

I came up with a list of what I think are the “good qualities of a Scrum Master”. I am not claiming I am right about everything, but the idea is to see what challenges a SM will face based on his/her professional background. To cover most cases, I will focus on those that have backgrounds in software development, team management as well as project management, using a simple list of pros and cons.

Being a Scrum Master with a software developer background

Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional BackgroundIt’s a very common case, and sometimes a developer will even be a part-time Scrum Master. I will refrain from discussing this practice too much, as I haven’t tried it myself, but in my experience, a dedicated Scrum Master can have more than enough work to focus on his/her role. Everything depends on the expectations held by the company and the team.

A former developer will be good at:

  • Understanding the technological dimensions of the product, as it will be useful every day;
  • Finding the balance between quality and efficiency;
  • Applying concepts such as a simple design, refactoring which he/she should already know;
  • Facilitating any processes related to Quality Assurance;
  • Applying and defending practices such as pair programming and peer code reviews;

A former developer might have difficulty to:

  • Manage interpersonal relationships and conflicts if he/she isn’t used to it;
  • Ensure self-organization within the team if, for instance, he/she used to be a team lead with the responsibility of deciding “who does what”;
  • Keep in mind that principles are more important than practices;
  • Be an agent of change, or dare disrupt established order;
  • Know when to let the team fail when necessary;
  • Use his/her power of influence;
  • Follow up the state of the sprint and make projections;
  • Create burn-up charts as well as roadmaps;
  • Facilitate relationship with the client;

Being a Scrum Master with a project manager background

Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional BackgroundA typical case, following change management in a company, that went from “waterfall” to agility. For some, a project manager can fulfill both Scrum Master or Product Owner roles, as if it was a simple Tetris block that fits perfectly in the equation. I have seen numerous cases where this worked perfectly well, and some others that were more problematic.

A former project manager will be good at:

  • Following up the state of the sprint and make projections;
  • Creating burn-up charts and roadmaps;
  • Facilitating relationship with the client;
  • Coaching the team to focus on a common objective;

A former project manager might have difficulty to:

  • Manage interpersonal relationships and conflicts if he/she’s not used to it;
  • Ensure self-organization within the team, and refrain from deciding who does what;
  • Keep in mind that principles are more important than practices;
  • Be an agent of change, or dare disrupt established order;
  • Know when to let the team fail when necessary;
  • Balance quality and efficiency;
  • Be at the service of the team, and not the opposite;
  • Master concepts such as simple design, refactoring, quality assurance, pair programming, peer code reviews;
  • Let the team estimate the work;

Being a Scrum Master with a team manager background

Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional Background

This is a little less common, and everything depends on which kind of manager we are speaking of. Let’s take for granted that it’s proper people-oriented management. Someone with this kind of experience will probably have no trouble understanding the concept of being a servant leader.

A former team manager will be good at:

  • Managing interpersonal relationships and conflicts;
  • Ensuring self-organization within the team;
  • Keeping in mind that principles are more important than practices;
  • Being an agent of change, and daring to disrupt established order;
  • Letting the team fail when necessary;
  • Using his power of influence;
  • Coaching the team to focus on a common objective;

A former team manager might have difficulty to:

  • Understand the technological dimension of the product;
  • Find the balance between quality and efficiency
  • Apply concepts such as simple-design and refactoring
  • Facilitate processes necessary for quality assurance
  • Apply and defend practices such as pair-programming and peer code review

In the end, no matter the direction a Scrum Master’s career takes, he or she will have to master elements that are outside of their expertise or experience. What we need to keep in mind is that without Agility, there is no Scrum, and no software. The Scrum Master must keep his/her focus on the fact that teams are composed of human beings, it’s the team that must be developed in priority.

I will conclude with a quote that I saw in my LinkedIn feed while I was writing this article and that magnificently summarizes the biggest challenge of every agile practitioner:

If you find yourself concentrating on the technology rather than the sociology, you’re like the vaudeville character who loses his keys on a dark street and looks for them on the adjacent street because, as he explains, «The light is better there.»Tim Lister and Tom DeMarco, Peopleware

Thanks to my colleague Éric Laramée for the quote!

The article Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional Background was originally published on LinkedIn by Olivier Fortier on April 20th, 2017.
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Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional Background
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Challenges a Scrum Master Might Face Based On His/Her Professional Background
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Need to know “good qualities of a Scrum Master” based on his/her professional background. Being a scrum master you face many challenges and you need to learn qualities of a scrum master.
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Primos Populi
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