As a scrum master, when should you not act as a facilitator?

As a scrum master, when should you not act as a facilitator?

Welcome to part 26 in our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

Very often, when scrum masters are inexperienced and new to the environment, they believe that their role is to facilitate every event, meeting, etc. and perceive themselves as leading through facilitation.

When should you not facilitate?

When you look at the scrum guide, it will speak about facilitation as something that scrum masters may be called to do, but it isn’t necessary to facilitate everything. So, one of the most important things for a scrum master to do is assess when it is appropriate to facilitate and when it is appropriate for others to lead.

Because, at times, it isn’t appropriate for a scrum master to facilitate, and the team are better served having a developer or product owner lead the discussion.

The appropriate time for a scrum master to facilitate is when they, as a member of the team, have content to contribute to the team that is valuable. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t.

Differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate.

Very often, a scrum master will facilitate a sprint retrospective.

As a scrum master, you are a member of the scrum team. A valuable member. And so, you should be joining the conversation about improvements that can be made or identifying areas for improvement for the team to explore.

This is a moment where you understand that you have value to contribute and gain by being a member of the scrum team.

As soon as you identify the need for your contribution, you should understand that this is not a great time for you to facilitate.

A facilitator is neutral and serves to facilitate an event rather than actively contribute to it. They facilitate rather than lead. They are outside of the content and serve to provide a structure for the meeting, and keep people focused on the most valuable, important elements of the meeting.

So, if you find yourself in a sprint retrospective and you have something to contribute, recommend that somebody else facilitates the sprint retrospective. If you identify that you have nothing of value to contribute, then it’s a great indicator that you should be the facilitator.

This is true for all scrum events.

The downside of facilitation when you’re in the content.

If you are inside the content of a meeting or event, you often find that you are caught up in the content and lose track of the facilitation.

Your emotions are heightened and you are deeply invested in the content of that meeting, and so you can’t do a great job of facilitating the event in a way that serves the team.

We want to be a part of the conversation. We want to solve the problem that is in front of us. And we want to make a significant contribution to the team.

As the facilitator, you are going to lead the team in the direction of what you are most passionate about and potentially derail the meeting rather than guide it toward its most valuable outcome.

You may find that if you are doing this consistently, the team become frustrated by their inability to tackle all of the important issues, and resentment festers toward you as the person who is unable to facilitate a meeting or event effectively.

As a scrum master, you will quickly lose the trust of your team and lose any influence that you may have earned in the past. It’s going to make your job as a scrum master infinitely more difficult and it could even lead to your dismissal from the team environment.

So, choose wisely.

Call in support.

If you’re invested in the content, call on another scrum master or agile coach to help facilitate the meeting, or look for a neutral member of the team to facilitate that specific event instead.

That is the professional, responsible thing to do.

You’re recognizing that you are compromised in that role, given that you are invested in the content, and are calling on others to support that instance and allow the team to achieve the most valuable outcome.

It also frees you to contribute to the meeting and potentially add significant value through that contribution, without having to worry about whether you are being a great scrum master or not. In that scenario, you are contributing as a member of the team rather than a scrum master and your input and contribution may be deeply respected and valued by the team.

It’s simply a matter of recognizing that you can’t do the job of being an effective team member as well as being an effective facilitator and making a great choice that benefits the team.

Understand whether a facilitator is necessary.

Another time that facilitation is inappropriate is when you recognize that you, as the scrum master, are simply not necessary. When you identify that the team are doing a great job of communicating well, getting things done, and working through valuable conversations without the need for a facilitator.

I enjoy being a facilitator. I enjoy facilitating valuable meetings, but it’s not always necessary.

At times, it may even prove beneficial for members of the team to improve their self-management and grow autonomy by taking responsibility for conducting valuable meetings without the assistance of a scrum master or facilitator.

Backlog refinement would be a great example of this.

This is where the person with the problem or opportunity, such as a customer or product owner, gets to sit down with the people who can actively solve their problem or provide the solution, such as the developers.

In this scenario, there isn’t a need for facilitation.

The customers are aware of what is important and have a great working relationship with the developers, so they are free to tackle their agenda in order of priority. They can get a lot done in a short space of time because the meeting flows naturally from most important to least important.

Sure, you may want to facilitate the first few backlog refinement meetings if the team are new and don’t have a great working relationship with the customer or product owner yet, but your goal would be to help the team do a great job of these meetings and extract yourself at some point.

A daily scrum is another great example of where the developers are better suited to lead the meeting and don’t require facilitation from a scrum master.

We want the developers to become better at leading these meetings and allowing them the time and space to do that is valuable. You may facilitate it at the very start of the process, but your goal will be to instill confidence in the developers that they can lead these meetings without you.

Conclusion: Facilitation

So, there are lots of times that a scrum master may think that they need to be facilitating meetings, but when you consider the broader objective of creating an environment where teams can excel and grow their autonomy, it makes sense for you to be more selective about where you do and don’t get involved in meetings and events.

It also makes sense to think about your contribution.

  • Is it necessary to facilitate?
  • Is facilitation the most valuable contribution you could make to the team?
  • Is this a great opportunity for someone else to grow their capabilities and confidence?

And so forth.

There are a lot of great opportunities for you to contribute as a scrum master, it doesn’t have to be exclusively in the realm of facilitation.

About John McFadyen

If you are interested in becoming an agile coach and value mentored, coach-driven skills development in your journey to mastery, visit our Growing Scrum Masters website.

For more information on John McFadyen, connect with John on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnmcfadyen/.

If you like the idea of becoming a scrum master and want to achieve internationally recognised and certified accreditation as a scrum master, visit our Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course page.

If you are already a scrum master and want to upskill to a more advanced level of knowledge and agile coaching capability, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM) course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to validate and certify your professional skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master (CSP-SM) course page.

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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