The Non-Social ScrumMaster

The Non-Social ScrumMaster

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I think everyone has the sense that the ScrumMaster role is all about:

The team, the team, and the team

and that they spend all of their time working in groups, with…the team. Most of their effort is facilitating meetings, resolving impediments, and generally serving the well being of their team(s).

And all of that is true.

But I think there is a much more subtle persona to great ScrumMaster’s and it doesn’t directly involve the team or group. It’s actually one of the hidden aspects of Scrum Mastery and I want to explore it in this article.

What are you talking about you might be thinking?

I’m referring to the one-on-one nature of the role, where the ScrumMaster spends time, not in group meetings or team collaboration, but behind-the-scenes in 1:1 sorts of discussions. I contend that these can be equally if not more beneficial to the care and feeding of their teams.

I’ll try to provide some situations that might illustrate this important (non-social) interaction part of the role.

I’ve often said that the ScrumMaster and Product Owner hold part-time leadership roles within their respective Scrum teams. Certainly not in the traditional sense of leadership, but they can provide guidance, vision, and situational leadership. Given that, I expect them to meet frequently – talking about THEIR team. I usually recommend a weekly tempo where they get together, preferably off-site, and chat. The discussions might surround things like:

  • Tomorrow is the team retrospective and the team has been struggling with sprint planning and delivering on their promises. How are we going to “guide” the team into facing the problems and coming up with impactful improvements?
  • The team has gotten blind-sided with priority shifts and sprint work scope creep from various leaders over the past 3-4 sprints. Clearly it’s an impediment, but the ScrumMaster doesn’t seem to be able to “defend” the team against it. You both sit down over coffee to strategize how you can partner to better defend YOUR team. 
  • You (ScrumMaster) feel that one team member is really overwhelming the entire team. They dominate backlog refinement and estimates. They dominate design. And they even dominate who takes on what work. They’re really undermining the very nature of a self-directed team. You both brainstorm as to who should sit down with the individual and the strategy for coaching against this behavior.

I hope those examples give you a sense for the dynamics of this powerful partnership.

Let’s say for example that you’re the ScrumMaster for a team with an overbearing senior developer on it. They have wonderful experience in your technical and business domain, which is the good news. The bad news is that they never cease to emphasize the amount of experience and opinion they have. And this surfaces in every Scrum meeting.

It’s particularly disruptive because folks are really disengaging from the team. As the ScrumMaster, you decide to take this individual out for coffee and have a conversation surrounding their behavior and the impact on the team. Your “posture” is one of a concerned coach and the conversation is well received.

But that’s a more constructive feedback example. You could easily have similar conversations around individuals and their positive impact and efforts within the scope of the team. Often it’s these sorts of background, 1:1 conversations that strongly compliment the team-based interactions and feedback.

I often hear from Functional Managers I’m coaching that they feel “disconnected” from their team members after moving to Scrum – complaining that they no longer know what’s going on. One change I recommend for them is to attend as many of their team members’ Scrum ceremonies as possible. I usually emphasize daily stand-ups, sprint planning/refinement, and of course the sprint review.

But only so much can be gleaned by observing your team members during Scrums’ ceremonies. I encourage leaders (and their ScrumMasters) to schedule regular meetings to discuss the teams, their challenges & successes, and where the Functional Manager might help the ScrumMaster.

For example, in my earlier example, what if that team member really didn’t acknowledge their disruptive influence on the team? What would be the “next step” for the ScrumMaster? Perhaps they could continue to have these conversations, but if no forward progress was made, where do they go?

I would suggest they engage the Functional Manager for that individual to help them in their coaching. In fact, the manager should be actively coaching all of their team members. In this case, the ScrumMaster becomes an additional set of eyes for the manager to see how their coaching efforts are being received.

One of the patterns I see in more high-performing agile organizations is that the ScrumMasters (if they’re operating in Scrum) and/or the agile coaches get together as a learning and support group. I often hear the term ScrumMaster Focus Group used to identify these groups.

This is not a group for the general population, but is focused more towards “the Coaches”. It gives them a place to vent, to help one another, to share and to learn. Often the group talks about specific situations and shares situational approaches for dealing with them. In essence, this is a “coach the coaches” session and it often helps the ScrumMasters in their day-to-day performance.

One of the most important anti-social activities I believe you can take on is journaling. If you’ve been a long time reader of my articles and posts, you’ve realized that I like to tell stories. But to tell stories you have to be able to recall events in some detail, and with a memory like mine, that’s often difficult. To compensate, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing things down in a journal and then reflecting on them later.

Since I get up quite early in the morning, I pick early mornings as my time to reflect and journal. I jot down meaningful events, conversations, observations, writing ideas, and virtually anything that I think might help me later.

Not only does the journaling help me in writing and storytelling, but it helps me with my teams. It helps me to remember events for retrospectives and when I should be thanking someone for their efforts. It helps me to see improvement efforts on the parts of my teams. And it helps me to remember seemingly insignificant events, for later, when the significance emerges.

And it’s not simply about my environment. It’s about how I engage my environment too. So my successes, mistakes, and failures go in there too. To be honest, it’s one of the most important, non-social things you can do for yourself.

To be honest, the title of this article is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I don’t want ScrumMasters to become anti-social. I just want them to take some time outside of team activity to develop other skills and aspects of their roles.

Not only is it important for them and their teams, but it sets the expectation that the role isn’t only team focused. It’s a much more nuanced role than that. And I believe the very best ScrumMasters fundamentally understand that distinction.

Stay agile my friends,


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