What is a Scrum master and what do they do?

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Summary

A Scrum master leads the Scrum team and keeps them focused on Scrum principles. Scrum masters also serve product owners and their organizations by sharing Scrum and Agile practices with others beyond the team. In this guide, we’ll outline what a Scrum master is and what they do.

Gaining in-depth understanding of the Scrum methodology will help you improve team workflow. The Scrum methodology is a way of developing and delivering products and is often used in software development. The main pillars of Scrum are transparency, adaptation, and inspection. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss what a Scrum master is and what their responsibilities are to the team and to the company they work for. If you’re a Scrum master or are looking to bring one on, you can use this guide as a resource to better serve your team. 

What does a Scrum master do?

A Scrum master is the leader of the Scrum team. They’re in charge of establishing the Scrum methodology and keeping team members focused on Scrum principles and practices. Scrum masters are often people-oriented and enjoy helping team members grow and improve.  

As a Scrum master, you’ll have various responsibilities as you lead your development team through product creation, sales, research, marketing, and development. Unlike a traditional project manager whose goal is to keep the team and project on track, your goal also includes keeping the team aligned with the Scrum model. 

Scrum master responsibilities

1. Facilitates sprint planning meetings

Sprint planning meetings involve the Scrum master, the product manager, and the team of developers. In these meetings, you’ll decide which items from the product backlog to prioritize for the next sprint. These meetings are collaborative—developers are encouraged to speak up.

During a typical sprint planning meeting agenda, the Scrum team:

  • Comes prepared with data and estimates to support your next sprint project.

  • Confirms estimates for items on the sprint product backlog.

  • Agrees on the product backlog items for the next sprint.

  • Assesses the team’s capacity for the next sprint.

  • Ends the meeting with a Q&A session.

These meetings emphasize collaboration, giving developers a chance to address what tasks they think deserve the most attention. 

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2. Holds daily stand ups

Daily Scrum stand ups are an essential part of the Scrum framework and will be your responsibility as Scrum master. You’ll facilitate these meetings and use them to assess progress toward the sprint goal. 

The main questions asked in daily stand ups include:

  • What did you do yesterday?

  • What will you do today?

  • Is anything blocking your progress?

Try our free sprint meeting template to streamline these daily stand ups and make them easier to facilitate. 

3. Removes roadblocks

Problem-solving is a key quality of any good Scrum master. As the leader of your Agile team, you’ll want to move the project along as quickly as possible and make it easier for your team members to get their work done. If you notice an external blocker or an internal roadblock that needs resolution, your job is to solve the issue or find someone who can. 

A potential roadblock, for example, may include a lack of understanding between Agile teams and stakeholders. The Scrum master can solve this issue by inviting stakeholders to a few planning sessions so they’re more aware of how to be Agile. 

Read: Turn your team into skilled problem solvers with these problem-solving strategies

4. Assists with product backlog

Scrum masters are leaders and team members. When there’s time to spare, you can roll up your sleeves and help your developer team work through the product backlog. 

The product backlog may involve features, tasks, bug fixes, technical debt, or knowledge acquisition. Because you have ample knowledge of Scrum and product development, you can jump in to help your fellow team members. 

5. Conducts retrospectives

Retrospectives are sprint review meetings held after each sprint to evaluate what went well and what didn’t. These meetings give Scrum team members a chance to identify areas for improvement during future sprints. 

Some questions to ask during the a retrospective include:

  • How did you do this sprint?

  • Where and when did it go wrong in this sprint?

  • Which tools or techniques proved to be useful?

  • If you could change one thing, what would it be?

You can use our free Agile retrospective template to streamline this process. 

Scrum master roles

As Scrum master, you may have many roles. You’ll relay information from upper management, meet the needs of external stakeholders, and monitor your Scrum team’s progress.

Scrum master roles

Below are just a few of the many hats Scrum masters wear: 

  • Act as an Agile coach: As Scrum master, your primary job is to serve your team by being an Agile coach. In Agile, team members work in focused blocks of time to complete tasks. During these sprints, developers build, refine, and improve products as needed. As the Scrum master, you must remain flexible and open to ideas when coaching your team through this iterative process

  • Collaborate with the product owner: Scrum masters serve the product owner by finding ways to manage the product backlog. The product backlog can be complex and ever changing, so you should help the team understand how to sift through product backlog items during the sprint planning process. 

  • Share knowledge with the organization: You’ll serve the organization as Scrum master by leading and training others on the Scrum methodology. Your expertise may be seen as a valuable resource, so you can offer to hold Scrum training sessions for other departments that plan to implement Scrum. When you help both internal team members and external stakeholders understand the complex Scrum guide, you can remove barriers between already established Scrum teams and other employees.

Read: What is Scrum? What it is and why it works so well

Common pitfalls of the Scrum master

The Scrum master must work hard to focus their attention on various areas of the organization, and that’s not always easy to accomplish. Below are some common mistakes Scrum masters make when implementing Scrum framework in a leadership role.

  • Playing Scrum police instead of coach: As Scrum master, there’s an emphasis on keeping your team aligned with the Scrum methodology. However, a common mistake Scrum masters make is focusing too much on enforcing the methodology and not enough on coaching their team. A Scrum master must find balance between being a good leader and keeping their team in line with the Scrum practices. 

  • Acting as team assistant: If you assist your team with the product backlog and take on other tasks unrelated to the Scrum process, you may not be focusing enough on the leadership side of the Scrum master role. While a Scrum master should assist team members, the Scrum master’s main goals are to improve workflows, coach Scrum team members, and facilitate sprints. 

  • Focusing only on the team and not on the wider organization: The Scrum team is your priority as a Scrum master, but if you’re only focusing on your team members’ needs, then something is missing. Make sure you’re collaborating with your team, the product owner, and the wider company. As a Scrum master, you have the power to spread your knowledge of Scrum outward. With your help, your entire organization can become Agile. 

  • Managing instead of facilitating: Although Scrum masters are in leadership roles, they are facilitators, not project managers. When holding daily stand ups and other Scrum meetings, encourage team members to discuss topics openly.  

These challenges are best avoided when a Scrum master understands their role and how it relates to other roles in the organization. Sometimes, the Scrum master roles can get confused with product manager or project manager, but there are distinct differences in these roles. 

Scrum master vs. product manager

The Scrum master and product manager fill unique roles on the Scrum team. Below are a few key differences between the two roles. 

  • As a product manager, your involvement with the team should be similar to the product owner in that your focus is on product creation and customer needs. As a product manager, you’ll focus on the “why” and the “what” of the product. They may offer input or change the order of the product backlog based on priorities. 

  • As a Scrum master, you’ll focus on guiding and improving the team with Scrum methodologies. The Scrum master focuses on the “how,” helping the product manager understand the product backlog. They coach the team on Scrum to keep the backlog running smoothly.  

Both the Scrum master and the product manager serve the team in unique ways, but it’s important to know how the two roles relate and overlap. 

Scrum master vs. project manager

The project manager is the non-technical counterpart to the Scrum master. While both roles are problem solvers, the project manager is less involved in the team’s work, while the scrum master may actively participate in Scrum events and coach the team to success. 

  • As a project manager, you oversee the success of a project. You manage the project timeline, define project scope, and assign tasks to the appropriate team members. Then, you check in on progress, identify roadblocks, and adjust timelines as needed.

  • As a Scrum master, you’ll coach the Scrum team as an Agile team member and a facilitator. Scrum masters lead a smaller Scrum team, but they also help identify and remove roadblocks similar to what a project manager does.  

The primary difference between project management and being a Scrum master is that a project manager focuses on the project itself, while the Scrum master focuses on the team (and their success). 

Do you need a Scrum master?

Your team can determine whether you need a Scrum master by assessing the problems they face. 

  • Does your dev team struggle to prioritize items in the product backlog? Development teams struggling to work through and prioritize items in their product backlog would benefit from a Scrum master who has in-depth knowledge of Scrum principles. 

  • Does your team thrive under a coach instead of structured leadership? Some team members don’t do well under highly-disciplined leaders. With a Scrum master, the leadership style feels more like coaching and less like micromanagement.

  • Does your team need someone to facilitate check-in meetings? If you’re in need of someone to guide the Scrum team, identify problems, and facilitate regular meetings, you may need a Scrum master.

A Scrum master will improve workflow and team member involvement while keeping Scrum values top of mind. 

Read: Understanding the iterative process, with examples

Facilitate team success with a Scrum master

Scrum masters help facilitate team success and encourage other members of the organization to adopt an Agile mindset as well. 

Running a Scrum team is easier when you have the right tools to assist you. With Agile management software, you can plan sprints, track product launches, and collaborate with your team.

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