What are the key skills of a scrum master?

What are the key skills of a scrum master?

Welcome to part 51 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

It depends on who you ask.

I ask this question of delegates on my Advanced Certified Scrum Master course to identify how well people understand the role of a scrum master, and what skills and traits are most valuable in helping a scrum team achieve their objectives.

  • Some people believe a scrum master should be a technical expert.
  • Some people believe that a scrum master is an administrative assistant for the team.
  • Some people believe that a scrum master is there solely to remove impediments.

Sure, these things are helpful and in some cases, valuable, but a scrum master encompasses and embodies so much more than removing impediments or having technical conversations with developers on the scrum team.

As a developer myself, I know that having strong technical skills as a scrum master can be a double-edged sword because whilst it is great to have a strong understanding of the problem, your job is not to get involved in the content, your job is to help the team figure it out in a way that increases their autonomy, problem-solving capabilities, and ability to work effectively as a team.

Simply telling them the answer or what to do is not going to help the team grow and improve.

So, you may have a great opportunity to facilitate or coach the team, but because you are so close to the technical problem and deeply involved in the conversation, you fail to leverage the opportunity and get sucked into solving the problem instead.

That isn’t your role. That isn’t what a great scrum master does.

Coaching Skills for Scrum Masters

So, the number one skillset required of a scrum master is coaching.

The ability to partner with individuals, the team, customers, product stakeholders, leaders in the organization, and people outside of the team who’s work and influence can help the team achieve their goals and objectives.

You want to develop your active listening skills so that you are cognisant of what people are saying, but also what it is that they mean by the words that they say. Active listening will also include non-verbal communication.

  • What is their body language telling you?
  • What are the real issues they are trying to address?
  • What do they react to with enthusiasm and what elements cause concern or doubt?

And so forth.

Actively helping people explore the topics they wish, in the manner that is most productive and helpful to them. Partnering with them and supporting them in developing their thinking or lines of reasoning.

Coaching is a great skill for scrum masters to develop and master.

Facilitation skills for scrum masters

Next up is the trusty facilitation skills.

One of the fundamental responsibilities of a scrum master is to facilitate conversations and events.

They are active in sprint planning, sprint retrospectives, and where necessary, sprint reviews.

They help ensure that everybody is focused on the most valuable elements of the conversation or event, and that people do the work that will deliver the most valuable outcomes.

If they recognize that a particular conversation is going in a valuable direction, they facilitate that, and when they recognize that things are becoming counterproductive, they steer the team back into more productive waters.

In many ways, they hold and keep individuals accountable to the goals and objectives they have stated are important and valuable. They will facilitate conversations that help the team address the most compelling problems or explore the most valuable solutions.

It’s a hard, thankless element of the job but facilitation is incredibly valuable.

So, a scrum master needs to develop the skills to run a great meeting. To get the most out of an event like the sprint retrospective. To steer people toward the things that will help them improve, and away from the things that are likely to end up in quicksand.

  • Be prepared for meetings and events.
  • Craft strong agendas for meetings.
  • Have back-up exercises or plans of action should option A be unproductive or unhelpful.
  • Effectively holding individuals to agreed timeboxes.

And so forth.

These are essential skills for a scrum master.

A deep understanding of Agile and Scrum.

This isn’t about being able to regurgitate the scrum guide or to promote agile dogma.

It is about having a deep understanding behind the purpose of scrum, each of the events, the artefacts, and so forth. It’s knowing why these elements were included in agile, and the purpose they serve in helping the team achieve their goals.

It’s having knowledge about the history of agile.

How agile came to be, what each of the evolutions are that helped product development teams progress. Knowing case studies that help you understand how to guide the team out of quicksand or persevere through cases of adversity.

The scrum guide is less than 20 pages long, but there are reams and reams of books, blogs, articles, and videos produced about scrum. Actively learn from experts in the field and begin to incorporate those practices into your own practice as a scrum master.

You want to be able to speak confidently and knowledgably about different tools and techniques that dwell outside the sphere of common knowledge. You want to be able to adapt and respond based on the team’s specific needs, and the unique scrum application within their context.

Becoming the go-to-person for anyone that wants to discuss behaviour-driven product development and other topics relevant to agile, scrum, and product development teams.

A rock-solid, credible professional that can actively guide people through the nebulous concept and philosophy known as agile.

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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