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.
Scrum masters are in charge of teams that use the Scrum methodology—a framework that helps teams who build and iterate quickly, often in software development. The main pillars of Scrum are transparency, adaptation, and inspection, and the Scrum master uses these to guide the team’s work. Since Scrum leads to faster paced outputs, Scrum masters need to be organized and engaged in the workflow to ensure nothing is overlooked.
In this guide, we’ll discuss what a Scrum master is and what their responsibilities are. If you’re a Scrum master, are looking to bring one on, or interested in becoming one, you can use this guide as a resource to better understand how a professional Scrum master works.
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.
Scrum masters act as servant leaders. Instead of telling your team what to do, your job is to help the team become self-reliant through techniques like self-organizing and conflict resolution. 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 is an Agile methodology based on Agile principles to help highly-collaborative workflows where you’re focused on building. Scrum is built with values, goals, and guidelines to help your team with this rapid iteration. Which is really all a way of saying that Scrum is a type of Agile project management framework, which—like other projects—needs a team or project lead. This is the Scrum master, who follows the fundamentals of the Agile framework to ensure that projects are a success.
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.
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 and dependencies as needed. 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).
Scrum masters help keep projects organized and on track through a series of processes and steps. Here are the five Scrum master responsibilities that help the team.
Sprint planning meetings help your Scrum team decide which items from the product backlog to prioritize for the next sprint. These meetings are collaborative—they typically involve the Scrum master, product manager, and the team of developers, who are all 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.Free sprint planning template
Daily Scrum stand-up meetings are an essential part of the Scrum framework and will be your responsibility as Scrum master. As the 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?
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 impediments that are blocking the work, 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
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.
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?
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.
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 support the product owner, who is mainly responsible for managing the product backlog. The product backlog is often composed of user stories, which can be complex and ever changing. As the Scrum master, you should help the team understand how to read user stories so they can effectively 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 Scrum guide, you can remove barriers between already established Scrum teams and other employees.
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.
You can take professional Scrum master courses from places like scrum.org or the Project Management Institute (PMI) to become a certified Scrum master (CSM)—but do you need to? The answer is personal, and will vary. Courses on Agile Scrum methodologies are certainly helpful in giving you background knowledge, including the language and how to use them, but you don’t need to be a CSM for all Scrum master jobs. If you decide you want to become a CSM, you’ll follow a series of courses (levels) taught by a Scrum trainer, where you will need to pass a certification exam to move from one to the next.
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
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.Manage Agile teams with Asana