Eight stances of a Scrum Master: my take on the ‘Scrum Master Virtues’

Reading time: 8 minutes

One of my most fondest memories of my PSM II training was a sheet depicting the various stances (and misunderstandings of the role) of the Scrum Master. This was based on the famous 2016 whitepaper of Barry Overeem, in which he wrote about his personal experiences as a Scrum Master. Last year, when I presented a recap of the lesson material for my peers, this happened to be the subject that appealed most to their imagination. Why? Because it’s pretty darn recognizable! In two different articles, I would like to elaborate on these stances in my own words (and even some experiences). And so, with my apparent characteristic flair for drama, I present you the roles and pitfalls – or rather the virtues and vices of a Scrum Master. But let’s start on a positive note! There are many facets to the role of a Scrum Master. But there is a time and place or any of these stances. As a Scrum Master, it is important to be aware of these, and apply these in the right place and time. In this article, I present my take on the eight stances of a Scrum Master.

First of all – I definitely recommend reading the whitepaper by Barry Overeem. It’s very clearly (and wittily) written!

The Servant-Leader

Perhaps one of the most important stances of the Scrum Master is the servant-leader. The goal is to serve: a servant-leader shares their power and puts selflessly the needs of the Scrum Team first and helps them to develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the Team working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the Team. A servant-leader also leads by example, not by their title.

An interesting example of a servant-leader is the role of the alpha wolf in a wolf pack. Of leaders, they are generally expected to be ‘in the front’. But not the alpha wolf. The alpha controls and observes everything from the rear, where he can see the rest of the pack. The weaker and elder wolves are in front of the pack, deciding the pace – as the rest follows. (Check what I wrote earlier about differences between project managers and scrum masters)

The Facilitator

The Scrum Master serves as a facilitator to both the Product Owner and the Developers. They help the Scrum Team understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives. A facilitator is and remains neutral, meaning they do not take a position in any of the discussions. I often say: a Scrum Master is the person of the questions, not so much of the answers. That means you’re not just responsible for facilitating Scrum Events (giving them purpose and effectiveness) but are there to facilitate on a larger scale: to promote good work atmosphere, collaboration, communication and synergy within the Scrum Team.

An interesting example of a facilitator is Alfred Pennyworth. Butler, aide-de-camp and father figure to Bruce Wayne, also known as Batman. He is not a superhero himself, but facilitates a superhero, just like a Scrum Master facilitates a Scrum Team full of superheroes. Due to Alfred, Wayne Manor and the Batcave are ever in a prime state, so that Batman can focus on taking out Gotham City’s villains.

The Coach

A famous quote attributed to Sir John Whitmore is “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping people to learn rather than teach them.”. Other than the teacher (another stance described below), a coach guides, without prescribing, the team to achieve optimal team performance. It’s not about giving advice, but asking the right questions so people come up with their own solutions. This role is about helping people to see new perspectives and possibilities.  A coach is humble, calm, patient and is a listener.

Overeem describes three perspectives in coaching:

  • Coaching the individual team members, with a focus on mindset and behavior;
  • Coaching the team in continuous improvement;
  • Coaching the organization in truly collaborating with the Scrum Teams.

Though I am not an expert on football (or sports in general), when I think of a great coach I typically think of Louis van Gaal. Though he does not seem humble and patient in his interviews in mainstream media, a closer look reveals a different mindset. As a coach he transfers his enthusiasm and self-confidence to his players and goes out of his way to create an atmosphere where his training and mindset thrives.

The Manager

What does a Scrum master manage? In a traditional sense, managing is assessment and control in a hierarchic structure, with power and communication flowing from the top down. Barry Overeem points out that agile organizations instead embrace ‘horizontal management’. Instead of managing resources and maximizing output, the Scrum Master manages impediments (and thus eliminates waste), the process, the team’s health, the boundaries of self-organization and the culture.

For more information on the Scrum Master as a Manager, here is a very interesting article by Gunther Verheyen.

Though there are plentiful examples of terrible managers in pop culture than there are great ones, one manager that stands out as a great example is the stoic Captain Raymond Holt (played by Andre Braugher) from the fictional comedy series ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’. He is the respected manager of the NYPD’s 99th precinct. His leadership style is firm and commanding while also supporting his team and considering their best interest at all times. His leadership creates a culture of accountability where people are responsible for their own success.

The Mentor

Mentoring (or counselling) is the process of transferring your Agile knowledge and experience to the Scrum Team, as that specific knowledge becomes relevant to what’s happening with them – in that very moment. A prerequisite is that the Scrum Master is knowledgeable on Scrum and can draw from experience.

A typical mentor-figure in pop culture is Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by the late Sir Alec Guinness, among others) from the Star Wars franchise. In the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), he is a mentor to Luke Skywalker, to whom he introduces the ways of the Jedi. After sacrificing himself in a duel against Darth Vader, Obi-Wan guides Luke through the Force in his fight against the Galactic Empire.

The Teacher

In essence, a teacher helps others learn new things by imparting knowledge or skills and instructing someone as to how to do something – in this case, how to adhere to Scrum theory, practices and rules. The Scrum Master should ensure Scrum is understood by the Scrum Team and everyone else involved with the Scrum Team (i.e. the organization, stakeholders). Barry Overeem shares a very important lesson in his whitepaper: “Don’t try to teach the team everything upfront, give them the opportunity to fail and learn from their own mistakes. Remember: mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

A legendary teacher in popular culture is Mr. Miyagi (played by the late Pat Morita), a fictional karate master in The Karate Kid film franchise. Even though Mr. Miyagi didn’t teach in a classroom, I learned a lot from his “wax-on, wax-off” approach in The Karate Kid.

The Impediment Remover

According to the Scrum Guide, one of the Scrum Master services to the Developers is removing impediments to the Developers’ progress. An impediment remover solves problems that go beyond the self-organization of the Developers and creates an environment where impediments can be addressed safely and freely. Be careful though! A Scrum Master should respect the self-organizing capabilities of the Developers; you are not there to solve everything.

In the Quentin Tarantino 1994 cult-classic ‘Pulp Fiction’, Harvey Keitel plays the role of Winston Wolfe, a professional cleaner also known as ‘The Wolf’. Winston Wolfe is the guy to call if you need a fixer who knows how to tidy up after other people’s messes. When two hitmen get themselves into trouble, they phone up The Wolf to come help them. Winston makes quick work of the emergency, acts efficient under high pressure and ultimately solves the problem in style.

The Change Agent

To enable a culture in which Scrum teams can flourish, the Scrum Master act as a catalyst for change; a change agent. The Scrum Master helps create an environment and a culture in which Scrum Teams can thrive. As a change agent, the Scrum Master is Scrum advocate, activist and ambassador. Scrum Masters as change agents help patiently shift the status quo to a more suitable environment. They know how to play the game: when to be disruptive and when to be careful.

When I think of a change agent, I think of the brave and inspirational Malala Yousafzai, an education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Pakistan. In 2012, Malala was shot by the Taliban after publicly speaking out about her fight to protect girls’ education. After surviving the attack she went on to share her story around the world and launched the Malala Fund in 2013 to raise awareness. She is viewed as a social change agent, as she continues to campaign for girls’ education.

My final thoughts on the eight stances of a Scrum Master

For every Scrum Master advancing their knowledge, knowing about the eight stances of a Scrum Master is a must. I for one was more mindful of my roles within the Sprints. There are however a few topics I would like to touch upon in more depth:

1: Sometimes I find the stances of coach, mentor and teacher a bit blurred, since these titles are used interchangeably a lot! I’d love to write an article where I go in more depth on these roles, but perhaps I can already explain it a bit as follows:

  • A teachers teaches skills and imparts knowledge on Scrum, by explaining the roles, events, artifacts;
  • A mentor imparts knowledge, but more ‘sage advice‘ during everyday encounters, based on the Scrum Master’s own experience;
  • A coach helps the team get the most out of their skills. Sure, the team may already know the knowledge taught to them by a Scrum Master in the teacher-role, but a coach helps them to embody values – and motivates them to go steps beyond.

2: I think that mastering the stance of change agent is what separates the great Scrum Masters from the good Scrum Masters. Embodying Scrum and agile, to become advocate, activist and ambassador and help organizations become environments where scrum teams can thrive – that sounds like the ultimate frontier as a Scrum Master!

What do you think of the eight stances of a Scrum Master? Do you find them recognizable?

Stay tuned for my next article: the eight misunderstood stances of a Scrum Master, and my take on the ‘Scrum Master Vices’!

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