When Adam Salasek completed his scrum master certification program in 2019, he was full of ideas about what his new career path would be like. The program’s instructor had taught hopeful future scrum leaders (we will be using this term in place of the more commonly used “scrum master” — see note on terminology for more detail) how to improve communication among team members and nurture team growth in such a way that it becomes self-sustaining.
“The best way it was put to me is that the biggest job of a scrum master is to make themselves not needed,” Salasek said.
What Does a Scrum Leader Do?
Salasek had been working as a project manager at United Airlines, and after he completed the certification program, he applied for an open scrum leader position at the company. But from the beginning, the role felt different from what he expected.
“I remember [during] my interview, they said ‘accountability’ probably six or seven times,” Salasek said. “And I’m like, ‘I just recently went through the scrum master training and accountability is not a single thing on the list of what a scrum master is supposed to be.’”
After he got the position, he realized the role was a hybrid between scrum leader and project manager, rather than a pure scrum leader position. He worked as one of several scrum-leader-slash-project-managers on a large project, each with their own development teams focusing on specific features. They were expected to be on top of deadlines, monitor their team’s rate of work and ensure that the developers on their teams always had something to work on. Basically, they had some project management responsibilities as well, which is outside the usual scope of scrum leaders.
So, what exactly is the role of scrum leader? And what should it be?
Revisiting Terms Like ‘Scrum Master’
Scrum Leaders Help Teams Facilitate Communication
Scrum leaders are an integral part of an agile team. They help facilitate essential agile processes that teams practice, like daily check-ins, sprint planning meetings and sprint retrospectives. But above all, scrum leaders help teams work better as a team.
“The scrum master’s main objective is to enhance the team — to improve and develop the individual team members and their processes as a whole,” said Jessica Bahr, a scrum leader with financial services company Charles Schwab.
Part of Bahr’s job as scrum leader is doing a lot of what she calls “communication wrangling” — checking that team members have the information they need to be successful and putting practices in place to prevent information silos.
“Sometimes in service to getting project priorities out the door, product owners can take shortcuts that may be at odds with the way the team has decided they want to work ... And so there’s almost this natural tension between scrum masters and product owners.”
Scrum leaders often act as a kind of communications coach, teaching team members how to communicate better with one another, resolve disagreements in productive ways and support each other’s growth. Bahr said one of the red flags she watches for is whether a team is always falling behind on work.
“Are we constantly behind the eight ball? Are we constantly in a state of trying to catch up?” Bahr said. That’s usually an opportunity for her to step in as scrum leader and test out processes to help the team more consistently meet their goals, like breaking stories into smaller tasks.
“So that if we do have those moments where we really have to work hard, and we really have to drive and get it done, those are the exception rather than the rule,” she said.
The roles of project manager and scrum leader may seem similar, but they actually have separate but often overlapping goals, Bahr said. While project managers are focused on the product and delivering it on time, scrum leaders are focused on the health of the team and their growth as a unit. Ideally, teams should not have the scrum leader and project manager roles fulfilled by the same person, Bahr said.
“Sometimes in service to getting project priorities out the door, product owners can take shortcuts that may be at odds with the way the team has decided they want to work,” she said. “And so there’s almost this natural tension between scrum masters and product owners.”
Being a Scrum Leader Can Get Messy
But the day-to-day work of scrum leaders at many companies can be far from the agile ideal.
“A lot of organizations are in different stages of their agile journey, whether they ever get all the way there or not,” Salasek said. “I think an effective scrum master needs to be able to balance those things and always be pushing to get more towards that true scrum way.”
There’s a natural barrier to practicing scrum in its pure agile form because many companies don’t have the luxury of flexible product release deadlines and must instead fit the development schedule to the promised delivery date. That has huge repercussions for how development teams work and are organized.
At Salasek’s company, that meant combining scrum leader and project manager into a single role. But balancing the two can be difficult.
A big part of the challenge, according to Salasek, is the organizational pressure that comes at development teams from different directions. Project stakeholders — like product owners, top-level executives and customers — might all have different expectations for what the product should look like and which features are most important.
“We’ve got all of these kinds of people that all have a stake in the program, and they all have concerns over when things will be delivered,” Salasek said. “What happens is, [the development team] has three, four or five different people all reaching out to them individually — they don’t know what priority they have because there’s so many people all managing their work.”
That can quickly become distracting for team members, who need to focus on engineering. If a scrum leader is not there to protect their team from those pressures, the team can end up wasting a lot of time trying to satisfy all the stakeholders while not really moving the project in the right direction. And that kind of disorganization is bad for the team in the long run.
Scrum Leaders Need to Know When to Push Back Against Management
It’s not easy to insulate a team, though, especially for scrum leaders who also take on other roles like project management because it means saying no to important stakeholders like managers and customers.
“I have this person who’s got all this authority who’s asking for something,” Salasek said. “So I’m going to just give them that information, rather than [say], ‘Unfortunately, for us to do that it’s going to require something outside the realm of what we’re comfortable doing’ — which is hard. It’s hard to know when to do that.”
“It’s not about good or bad ... It’s about, ‘Is that process working for them? Could it be better?’”
One area where scrum leaders may have to push back often is during meetings. If too many managers regularly attend a development team’s meetings, for example, scrum leaders should step in and work with stakeholders to keep those meetings smaller and more focused on issues relevant for developers. That can be as simple as setting up separate meetings to update managers on the project and let them ask questions, Salasek said. The trick is to keep the scope of meetings small and to make sure development teams have the time they need to plan out sprints.
Pushing for better communication and processes is not only beneficial for individual teams, it’s also helpful to the overall efficiency of the organization. It’s improvements like that — more than whether companies have true scrum or not — that are a sign of scrum leader success.
“It’s not about good or bad,” Salasek said. “It’s about, ‘Is that process working for them? Could it be better?’”
Scrum Leaders Build Self-Sustaining Processes
Scrum leaders also spend time on building self-sustaining work practices for their teams. It’s important to develop processes that support a “proactive mindset,” Salasek said. Rather than waiting to be told what to work on, developers can follow those procedures to grab work items from the backlog. Having procedures in place prevents developers from wasting their time working on low-priority tasks.
“If they don’t have the conversation about what should be picked up next, maybe they just start working on something that hasn’t even been refined by the team,” Bahr said.
One way scrum leaders can help is by removing themselves from the process and preventing themselves from becoming a bottleneck for the team. Salasek refrains from telling the team every time there is a new reported bug, for instance. Instead, he helped set up a bug dashboard so the team could see the bugs in need of fixes and assign themselves to one whenever they have some spare time.
Not all processes scrum leaders build to help their teams work efficiently need to be so high tech. Some can be as simple as creating checklists for teams to refer to, which is especially helpful for once-a-year or once-a-quarter processes that can be hard to remember how to do. Bahr also relies on scrum ceremonies to facilitate better communication, like using agile story cards to accurately size tasks and help the team not under or overcommit themselves.
Scrum Leadership Requires Great People Skills
Good scrum leaders are able to understand both larger organizational objectives and the small details of how teams are functioning.
“It’s about zooming in and zooming out, to understand and counsel the team on how the decisions that they make at the ground level are impactful on a bigger scale,” Bahr said.
A lot of scrum leaders have a background in project management, but while understanding how to manage a budget or a project schedule is useful, it’s more important for scrum leaders to have good people skills, Salasek said.
“The actual attributes to be effective in a true scrum role are almost more aligned with someone like a therapist, people understanding human behavior,” he said.
“The scrum master role hinges so much on the trust of the team.”
That’s because helping people work effectively in teams takes a good understanding of how people and teams are motivated. Bahr said one of the most important ingredients for a well-functioning team is a sense of psychological safety among its members. Good scrum leaders can spot problems and know how to cultivate trust within teams. Sometimes scrum leaders do things to help their team that can seem counterintuitive for project managers, like letting teams fail so they can learn from their failure what they need to do to work better together.
Having some technical experience as a scrum leader can be helpful too, Bahr said, but not necessary. That’s because it’s helpful for scrum leaders to speak the same language as their team to establish a sense of trust — if scrum leaders work with engineering teams, it helps to have some understanding of development work.
“The scrum master role hinges so much on the trust of the team,” Bahr said. “If they question your credentials or they question your experience, it’s really difficult to get buy-in. So being able to communicate to them that you understand their language and their problems and are motivated to help them solve their problems always requires a little bit of speaking that same language.”