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What is a Scrum Master?

Article provided by PayFast

As part of our April dev-focused series, in our second guest blog, Johan Zeelie, one of PayFast’s dedicated Scrum Masters, explains what it is that he does for a living and why it’s such an important position to have in any development team or department. 

“What is a Scrum Master?” This is a question I’m often asked to explain around a braai. I mean, it’s a bit of a strange title to have. Here are a couple of my least favourite answers: “The manager of the process, but not the people”, “a type of manager in the software industry”, “it’s, like, a project manager, but agile”, “the Jira guy”, and, of course, all the rugby jokes that you can imagine. Not the easiest job to quickly explain around the braai. Or is it?

I tried to come up with an “around the braai” answer to this question, like an elevator pitch, but swap the suits for people with one eye on the game, sipping beer, and commenting on the braai master’s meat-turning abilities.

I’m going to start with a brief description of Scrum, take a look at the roles of a Scrum Master, and then try to formulate my own, short definition of a `Scrum Master.

What is Scrum?

Scrum has been around since the early 1990s, guiding teams through the journey of delivering value, incrementally, in an environment where the work is complex and there are a lot of unknowns. The framework’s name comes from rugby, where a formation of players works closely together to achieve a common goal – emphasizing teamwork. According to Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, Scrum “is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems”. 

Scrum is founded on Empiricism and lean thinking. Empiricism is the philosophical theory that knowledge comes from our experiences, or what is known. Lean thinking is concerned with reducing waste and focussing on the essentials. Three pillars uphold the Empirical process, namely transparency, inspection, and adaptation. All of the Scrum events are opportunities to inspect and adapt. That’s the theory. Done 

What does a Scrum Master do?

I began thinking of the roles of a Scrum Master and started noting down, arguably, the most important things that a Scrum Master does. I shortened the list a couple of times, and here’s what I settled for: 

  • Facilitating the Scrum events, ensuring that everyone involved understands the value of each event, and keeping them within their respective time-boxes 
  • Removing impediments or blockers, and also coaching teams to remove impediments themselves 
  • Ensuring that the team creates value through iterative, incremental development
  • Helping teams get better at estimating work effort 
  • Ensuring team effectiveness by continuously refining the way that work flows into, and through the team 
  • Helping Product with long term planning, forecasts, and assigning the right people (not resources) to the job at hand
  • Ensuring that priorities are clear to teams  
  • Creating transparency by visualizing work and dependencies 
  • Tracking metrics that are useful for the team (not KPIs), to identify trends and look for ways to improve our way of working
  • Ensuring collaboration between stakeholders and Scrum teams
  • Coaching teams to be self-organizing and autonomous 
  • Nurturing an emotionally safe space where honesty and feedback is valued 
  • Continuously improving by inspecting and adapting our processes, people interactions, practices and tools
  • Helping the organization understand the Scrum framework and an empirical approach to solving complex problems
  • Keeping an eye on work in progress – favour finishing before starting

What’s the most important role of a Scrum Master?

After making the list, I asked myself: what’s the most important role of a Scrum Master? Is it to coach teams to adhere to the framework? Sure, but what if they are a mature Agile team? Then I facilitate the events and keep an eye on the metrics. Nope, mature teams can do all of that. In fact, mature Agile teams need little help with most of the responsibilities on my list. How do teams get to that level of maturity? By continuously improving. This is the most important role of the Scrum Master. Helping teams and the organization to continuously improve by regularly inspecting and adapting.

So, here’s my short answer: Scrum is a lightweight framework for solving complex problems. Scrum Masters ensure that the framework is followed. This framework consists of clearly defined roles, events and artefacts. The Scrum Master guides and coaches Scrum teams to adhere to the framework, while allowing them to continuously improve their practices.

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