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5 Lessons Learnt In My First Year As A Scrum Master

When I started as a Scrum Master, I had a hard time explaining to my mother what the job actually was. “Well it’s kinda like a project manager, but for digital teams that want to release product for the customer a lot faster and more often”.

Not an awful attempt, but certainly not accurate, and many Agile professionals would probably slap me for using the term ‘project manager’ in an effort to explain the role of a Scrum Master. In fact, there are organizations attempting to do Agile that have devised roles like ‘Scrum Project Manager’ or ‘Agile delivery manager’ which shows their lack of understanding regarding Agile methodology. However, that’s a discussion for another time.

Back to my mother – she’s incredibly bright, very quick to process new concepts and information, and has the memory of an African elephant. The fact that a year into my role as Scrum Master she would still ask me quietly over Sunday lunch to ‘remind her what I did again’ was a testament to the infancy of this way of working (and my own infancy in the profession).

However, this time I was able to explain with a little more accuracy and proficiency what we did as Agile teams, and my mother’s blank stare dissipated into her more familiar “I’m with you” face.

Often the test of understanding is the ability to teach others, and the ‘understanding’ is often bought through experience. That being said, here are 5 tough lessons I learned during my first year as a Scrum Master:

Lesson 1: You won’t feel like much of a ‘master’ at all.

The job title itself can provide you with an internal battle:

“First day, here we go – time to introduce myself to the team!”

Hang on, what’s your role again? You’ll need to know that bit.

“Scrum Master of course! I’ve completed Certified Scrum Master 1 and I’m good to go.”

Obi-wan Kenobi was a master. You’re more Luke Skywalker having just picked up your first lightsaber, waving it around like big stick

“That’s a fair point. What if the team realise I’m as new to this as they are?”

They probably will. Good luck.

Sound familiar? On my teams first day as an Agile ‘squad’ it was also my first day as a Scrum Master. I was quite literally scrambling to stay one step ahead of them and pretend I was confident in the practices being taught.

 

Like with many things, honesty will be your best policy. If you try ‘fake it till you make it’ the team will find you out very quickly. Be open where you’re still learning, and don’t be afraid to take a chance when you want to implement something new!

Your experience becomes your toolkit. As the squad grows, you’ll grow with it. Your development as a Scrum Master will be intrinsically linked with the development of the team; as they mature you will face new challenges that require new solutions, progressing you to new levels of Scrum Mastery.

Hang in there, ride it out. Given a few sprints and some awesome moments of team success, you’ll start to feel much more in touch with your title.

Lesson 2: People will resist change

Ever worked in a hot-desk environment? In theory, you have the ability to sit in almost any desk you want. In practice, everyone claims their seat and may as well get their photo frames out. We’re creatures of habit. We don’t like disruption to our environment. Your body is programmed in so many ways to keep the status quo, both physiologically and psychologically.

Do not be surprised (or take it personally) when your team takes a little while to get on board with an Agile transformation. For many, they’ve only ever known a certain way of working and you’re about to radically change that. This is where your coaching skills will come into play. It’s not about how forceful you can be, but actually how well you can guide the team through to an understanding of Agile and help them become aware of their current situation.

It’s not an overnight process and it won’t come easy, so be patient and celebrate the small wins. Give your team recognition and always help them reflect on their success just as much as their failures. Although the avoidance of pain (change) is a strong force, the pursuit of pleasure (adopting a new vision & strategy) is far more powerful in creating a winning culture.

Lesson 3: Transparency will hack people off, initially…

Transparency is your greatest tool for encouraging ownership and accountability. If all the work you do (as a team) is visible for the world to see on a Kanban-style board and you’re standing around it daily to check progress with your team-mates; it’s pretty hard to hide anything.

It’s a very revealing process that quickly brings to light any time-wasting activities and exposes those who indulge them. Initially, this will hack some people off.

“Why do I need to tell everyone what I did yesterday? Why do I need to tell you what I’m doing today?”

It’s a tough adjustment. It’ll be most frustrating for those who have gone a while without this level of transparency, or those who’ve got inefficiencies in their work habits that are now being exposed.

The absolute key here is to get alongside these colleagues rather than ‘call them out’. No-one comes to work to do a bad job, so the chances are they’re just stuck in a few bad habits (lack of prioritization, used to being dealt ‘just do it’ requests from others etc.) Don’t shy away from those challenging questions in daily scrum or retrospectives, but address the team as one unit and let them be honest with each other. If there are particular team members that need support, spend time with them in a one-to-one coaching scenario to work through their hang-ups.

Lesson 4: Whether you like it or not, you’re a leader.

I became a Scrum Master in my mid-twenties and honestly, it’s taken me a while to fully embrace the leadership element of the role. The term is actually ‘servant-leader’ and is a pretty accurate picture of your role; you’re not there to dictate, dish out work, discipline or project manage, but actually to guide the team to a place of autonomy and self-organisation so that they kick-ass at delivering value for their customers.

In the business, you may be helping to lead an Agile transformation. In the team, you’re leading them to a place of Agile proficiency. In yourself, you’re leading a new Agile mindset with key values and principles that will change the way you ‘get stuff done’ and permeate to those around you. That last bit is the hardest part, and that’s what will make you a leader.

Put the team first, learn to understand where they’re at and meet them there first before trying to bring about change. The first step should always be ‘to understand’ – this involves more listening than talking by the way. Once you do this, the team will feel like you get them, and they’ll be far more open to following your lead in any Agile practices.

Lesson 5: Your goal is to be like an ‘Agile Mary Poppins’

As a Scrum Master, your ultimate goal is to make yourself obsolete within your team. Yes, wrap your head around that for a moment.

All your working life, the goal has been to become an indispensable asset where the place would fall apart should you ever leave. Apart from being a very fearful way of thinking, this won’t cut it if you want to be a truly successful Scrum Master.

Everything you’re doing with the team is coaching them to a place of true autonomy efficient self-organisation. All the values, principles, frameworks, artefacts and practices are setting that team up to be an unstoppable ‘value production’ machine.

If you bought a car, you’d be pretty hacked if you constantly had to take it back to the dealership every day for tweaking, tuning or servicing… The best cars are built to perform drive after drive without the need for constant fixes. Otherwise, we’d agree the design is flawed.

In theory, the goal of obsolescence makes complete sense. In practice, it requires a huge mental reset for us as Scrum Masters. Be clear to your team that this is your objective, and don’t fall into the trap of making your team dependent on you. It might make you feel ‘needed’ in the short term, but ultimately, you’re doing your team a disservice. You really do need to think like an Agile Mary Poppins – there to do your job and move on once it’s done.

All of these lessons I am still learning. Yours will almost certainly be different, but we may share some experiences. The extra lesson here is to keep sharing these experiences and remain open to development. Together we could really build some super teams.

Enjoyed this blog post? It is also available in our signature comic strip style for easy reading and sharing. View and download the pdf here.

Ben Lyon

Ben brought the Agile Avengers together after realising that Scrum Masters need super resources to power their teams. Working across start-ups and corporates, Ben's developed Scrum expertise beyond his years that he now wants to make available to others.

Ben believes that the millennial workforce will increasingly desire an Agile workplace, where teams truly have autonomy and purpose in what they do. He wants to ensure the teams of tomorrow are empowered to be the best they can be.

SUPERPOWERS | Empowering people. Turning ideas into reality. Eating eggs.
KRYPTONITE | Wanting to learn everything. Limitations. Cleaning kanban cards.

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