What’s a Scrum Master’s Role in Project Management?

If you have a job in software development – or maybe even if you don’t — you’ve probably heard the word scrum used to describe the way teams get things done. Scrum is a project management methodology used in many industries, but primarily in software development. The scrum master is the facilitator of the scrum methodology. The scrum method values teams making their own decisions on the best ways to achieve their goals and breaking projects down into small deliverables.

You might have also heard about agile software development. Scrum and agile overlap but are not the same. Scrum is one of the most popular agile frameworks, or processes to do work according to agile principles.

So, what are agile principles? The Agile Manifesto was born in February 2001 at a meeting of software developers looking for a better way to manage their work without getting mired in complex processes and missing deadlines. The Agile Manifesto states that its creators value:

individuals and interactions over processes and tools

working software over comprehensive documentation

customer collaboration over contract negotiation

responding to change over following a plan

Each phrase has two parts. Scrum principles emphasize the left side of each phrase (individuals and interactions) over the right (processes and tools). They’re both important, but the left half is more important. With its focus on creating finished projects that customers want to use, agile project management methodology has become very popular, particularly in tech industries.

The Scrum Guide recommends that teams be no larger than 10 members, with no sub-teams. Team members are responsible for creating their own path to the goal, and for getting the work done by its deadline. Large projects are divided into smaller parts, each with its own deadline to ensure the work gets done on time.

The core measurement for scrum teams is the sprint. Sprints are segments of time in which the team concentrates on specific tasks, no longer than a month. Anything longer may cause the sprint’s scope to creep. Team members concentrate on getting a sprint finished, then take a look at what’s next.

Individual team members learn by experience. At the end of each work segment, the team looks back to evaluate its performance. Along the way the team meets regularly to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to, and everything gets done on time.

The Scrum Team

Every scrum team member contributes to the completion of the project. Although all members may be developers, there are two people who act as team leads for each sprint: the product owner and the scrum master. The product owner makes sure the scrum team incorporates stakeholder feedback and manages the product backlog, the list of tasks to be accomplished in this work period.

“Product owner” sounds like a more traditional management role, but what is a scrum master? The scrum master focuses on making sure that teams follow specific processes as they work. Scrum master responsibilities include ensuring everyone understands the scrum process and that the team is pushing toward the sprint goal. The scrum master is not responsible for the team reaching the goal — that job is for the team — but the scrum master may feel a lot of pressure to ensure that the team makes the goal.

Everyone on the scrum team plans the sprint, and once the sprint goal has been set, the team can’t make any changes that will cause them to miss their deadline. If the development team uncovers complications during the process, the team may have to adjust its product backlog and the scope of the sprint to keep the deadline in sight.

Teams have short daily meetings called daily scrums to check their progress and plan what needs to get done that day. The product owner and scrum master don’t need to attend the daily scrum unless they are also working as developers during the sprint. As the sprint nears its completion the team meets for an overall review, and after the sprint is over, team members hold a retrospective meeting to evaluate their performance and think about ways they can improve for the next sprint.

We’ve oversimplified the process to give you an idea of what kind of environment the scrum master works in. They have a lot to do to make sure everything goes as planned.

The Many Hats of the Scrum Master

It would be easy to think of a scrum master as a fancy project manager, but there’s more to it than project planning. The scrum method requires them to manage several responsibilities for the team. Professional scrum trainer Barry Overeem wrote a white paper called “The 8 Stances of a Scrum Master,” in which he outlines the position’s different roles:

servant leader – serving the team so it has what it needs to get the job done

coach – focusing the team on a successful sprint and helping others outside the team understand how the method works

facilitator – helping every team member understand their roles and the roles of others, to keep everyone working well together

teacher – teaching everyone on the team how to use the scrum method effectively

mentor – sharing the scrum master’s own experience using agile methodology with the team

manager – enforcing boundaries between parties, managing the health of the team, sticking to the scrum process

impediment remover – eliminating problems for the developers to keep everything running smoothly

change agent – ensuring the larger organization is a positive working environment friendly to scrum processes

The scrum master is not the boss of the team — his/her role is to manage the process, not the people. In theory, the teams are “self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how,” according to the Scrum Guide. However, the scrum master may need to coach scrum team members on self-management and cross-functionality (skills needed to do the sprint). The scrum master also helps to remove any obstacles that may hinder team success.

At the same time the scrum master serves the product owner by making sure the project stays on track and everyone understands the scrum goals, and by organizing the scrum events.

Becoming a Professional Scrum Master

The Scrum Alliance offers training for scrum-masters-to-be and for a certified scrum master to maintain and build upon their technical skills. You don’t have to take the Scrum Alliance’s courses to prepare — other professionals offer scrum training, too — but you’ll have to demonstrate your knowledge before you can be certified by the Scrum Alliance. Once you have been certified, you’re required to continue your scrum education and update your certification periodically.

There are three levels of scrum master certification of increasing mastery, each of which requires you to demonstrate how much you know and your ability to apply the scrum method in more advanced situations. There are five core scrum competencies you’ll be expected to achieve:

understanding and applying the scrum framework

developing people and teams

managing projects with agility

developing and delivering products professionally

evolving the agile organization

Although scrum was created to support software projects, many have found benefits to using it in other environments, even non-technical situations. Depending on the context, scrum team members may adjust rules to fit their needs. Organizations use scrum and agile methods in many industries, including physical product manufacturing, training, research and education.

There are other ways to do agile project management beside scrum, including lean, kanban and waterfall. Experts differ on which method is best, but each has its own advantages. Then there are combinations of frameworks such as scrumban (parts of both scrum and kanban). Different strokes for different folks!

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