The role of a Scrum Master on an Agile team is very different from the one played by a traditional Project Manager who follows the top-down hierarchical Waterfall method of working. The Scrum Master is not a leader in the traditional sense, and is more of a facilitator who is at the same level as the others on the team.
The Scrum Master’s role is an undeniably challenging one, and even the most experienced Scrum Masters find it hard to cope with the pressure at times! What are the challenges faced by a Scrum Master, and how can they be overcome? We share inputs from our top Scrum Masters, so that you can learn from their experience.
When a Scrum Master encounters resistance from outside of the development team, what should the Scrum Master do? Read on to find out.
The Scrum Master is responsible for maintaining the time-boxing of activities, such as the Daily Stand-up. Time-boxing is used to define the upper limit of duration for activities and events, and teams that are not limited to this duration are unable to manage their daily workload. Participants who lack focus can derail the meeting, and if the Scrum Master does not rein in the required focus there will be inordinate delays.
Maintain clarity on the agenda of each meeting, explain the importance of strict time-boxing, and if anyone tries to go off-topic, explain that their issues can be dealt with separately as the team’s time is valuable.
Let’s get this straight. The Scrum Master is not a leader or boss of the team. He or she is a contributing member, who enables and empowers work and removes obstacles that hinder smooth progress.
The Scrum Master must get down and dirty, and work with the team and for them, rather than above them. As someone who knows the Agile approach well, you are expected to smoothen the journey for the team and ensure that processes and principles are followed.
Agile is a mindset that is needed to be followed across the company, not by a few people. And when senior management do not really get on board, this can pose problems for the entire team.
What can be done to circumvent this? Instead of talking to the senior management about why they should adopt Agile, find out their problems, and solve them using an Agile approach. Pretty soon, they will fall in step and become Agile advocates themselves.
There are many people who feel that meetings are a waste of time, especially if they are not contributing to the meeting themselves. However, for Agile values of transparency and inspection to work the way they should, regular meetings are necessary to get the whole team on board. Core Agile meetings are short and add immense value, as the team can collaborate, move past hurdles and prepare themselves for the tasks ahead.
Scrum Masters should ensure that all meetings are on track, offer value to each participant, and improve quality and productivity of the team.
This happens more often than you would think. Senior team members who have always followed the Waterfall approach may know the principles of Agile, but find it difficult to actually follow them. This is one of the top reasons why an Agile transformation often fails, and companies that are trying to go Agile frequently find that they have to grapple with conflicts, misunderstanding, ego issues and lack of belief in the process.
To get everyone on board with Agile, a good Scrum Master will patiently advocate the benefits that have been realised, and share data on successful Agile product deliveries. By demonstrating clearly the value that is to be derived, team members can be brought over to the winning side.
Agile concepts are easy to grasp but difficult to follow. Unless your team members know the basic Agile principles, as well as the underlying reasons for following them, they will not be invested enough in the system to follow them closely. They should have a fundamental understanding of Agile terminology and processes in order to be on the same page.
If the team is not well versed in Agile, as a coach and mentor you will have to train them and get them up to speed with what Scrum is all about.
While agile teams might be having the skills and capabilities to follow Agile to the letter, others who are watching—such as stakeholders, suppliers and so on— might not have a good grasp over what being Agile entails.
To get them aligned to your new ways of working, it is important that they should understand how the iterative approach works, and be tuned in to giving feedback at regular intervals. You could invite them to a few planning sessions, so that they are also aware of what is expected of them.
While it is actually the Product Owner’s responsibility to manage the scope and direction of the work, it is only with the Scrum Master’s support that the PO can achieve this. When new work is randomly thrown at the team, or they are asked to move in a different direction, they could get very confused.
The Scrum Master should work with the Product Owner to collect feedback on a daily basis, which will help to clear the chaos and give clarity to the team members.
The Scrum Master and Product Owner are supposed to be two sides of a coin who work together for the common benefit of all. Very often, though, they have personalities that clash, and there is a breakdown of communication that affects the progress of work.
Even if there are small conflicts, the Scrum Master and Product Owner must work together to resolve them before they escalate into a full blown misunderstanding. A supportive relationship with plenty of give and take is necessary for the health of the team as a whole.
Quite often the Scrum Master finds that he or she has to book meetings, schedule events and follow up on ceremonies. These are roles routinely performed by Admin, and while the Scrum Master could be the best person to take on this responsibility, it should not detract from their regular work.
The primary function of the Scrum Master role is team facilitation, and other extra tasks should not take away from this. Try to delegate Admin tasks, and become an excellent communicator to ensure that all tasks are overseen by you.
Distributed teams pose a whole new set of challenges for a Scrum Master. In these days of remote work and teams that are distributed across geographies, there could be delays due to working across different time zones, regional issues or network problems.
Scrum Masters face challenges in working across such distributed teams, but can overcome this through the use of technologies and collaborative tools.
Many employees who have worked in the Waterfall mode are scared to open up to transparent ways of working. Senior management are used to holding powerful roles, and this is often a detriment to Agile methods, where there is no top-down hierarchy.
The Scrum Master should identify areas where transparency for senior management is required and necessary. The leaders who have visibility into these areas can make informed decisions that will help the team performance as well as organizational growth.
The Scrum team must function as one, and work toward achieving team goals rather than creating individual value. When there are team members who try to create individual success and do not gel together cohesively with the team, this could cause problems in progress. This problem is compounded when the company culture rewards individuals over teams.
HR must be made to understand that on an Agile team, it is the overall performance that matters, and individual appraisals must factor in this approach.
When there is lack of clarity between the managers as to what is the most important priority, the Scrum Master is often conflicted as to what are the expectations from the team. For instance, one manager may want measurable growth, another may want cohesive teamwork, while a third may look for problem solving.
Communication is key to getting clarity on expectations. Talk to your direct manager and prioritise what you are expected to achieve in this role.
Whenever a problem arises, it is the Scrum Master’s responsibility to get it fixed as quickly as possible. However, there may be instances where the amount and severity of obstacles make it difficult to find speedy resolutions.
By building up a culture of shared responsibility within the team, you can cultivate a relationship of mutual trust and understanding. With the support of the entire team, you will find it easier to crush obstacles that would otherwise hinder work progress.
A team that works without a dedicated room for meetings is not likely to collaborate well. Team spaces are often not prioritized as the teams break up and reorganise for different projects, but when they don’t have the space they need the work is likely to suffer.
For Agile to work the way it should, each team should have a dedicated space to get together for events and meetings, and to interact with each other through the day and as needed.
Agile meetings are an important part of the framework, and need to be conducted the way in which they are laid out in the rule books. If meetings are skipped, or postponed due to emergent work, then the advantages of transparency, inspection and adaptation will be lost.
The Scrum Master should be firm about holding the meetings on time, and ensuring that they maintain focus and do not overshoot the pre-set duration.
Product Owners are often too busy to attend meetings regularly. This causes confusion and the need for frequent rework, making the team lose their faith in the Agile process itself.
When the Scrum Master has a close relationship with the Product Owner, work can progress at a smooth pace. The PO will be made aware that skipping meetings or being a Product Owner in absentia is not an option.
In companies that employ part-time Scrum Masters, or require one Scrum Master to work on several teams at the same time, the Agile team loses the dedicated support and accessibility to the Scrum Master. In such cases, the Scrum Master is unable to motivate and maximise the full potential of the team.
If you are a part-time Scrum Master who is stretched and needs more time to work with the Scrum team, ask for full time employment. Or, instead of working on multiple teams, shift most of your time to serving one team, and have a temporary Scrum Master on the other team who can take over your tasks when you have no time.
There are always constraints to smooth progress of the project, and at times the Scrum Master may find it difficult to take on so much of stress at the same time! The constraints could be in the form of people’s mindsets, emergent conflicts that arise, lack of clarity on requirements, or even lack of the right tools and technologies.
To move past these constraints, the Scrum Master should find a sponsor or someone on the management team who can help. Make a list of the constraints and find solutions to work around them.
Scrum Masters play a pivotal role on a Scrum team that is challenging and complex. They need the perfect mix of soft skills, knowledge and capabilities in order to overcome all the obstacles and achieve the goals set. The ability to overcome all these challenges comes with experience, and the right training and certifications go a long way toward inculcating the required capabilities.
As a Scrum Master, have you faced any other challenges that were not listed here? Do let us know in the comments below!