Everything You Need to Know About the Scrum Master

The scrum master facilitates the key processes that lead to success on a scrum team, yet many don’t understand the position. Learn what the scrum master role is all about.

Updated May 31, 2020

Agile dominates as the most common approach to project completion. According to a report by the Project Management Institute, 71% of organizations use some version of agile project management.

Agile removes organizational constraints on a team so they can rapidly drive toward completing a project’s scope of work.

What does agile have to do with scrum masters? While agile is the concept, scrum provides the process for executing a project using agile techniques, and the scrum master makes that process possible. Scrum is one of the most popular agile project management frameworks employed today.

Overview: What is a scrum master?

Scrum involves several distinct procedures and artifacts, which refer to the components essential to the scrum process, such as the backlog of work to be completed. A team must employ these procedures and artifacts in a specific manner for scrum to work. That’s where the scrum master comes in.

The scrum master facilitates a project team’s scrum process and ensures the team applies agile principles. The title comes from the idea that the scrum master is an expert at scrum and can thus coach others. The scrum master acts as the glue connecting scrum participants to the scrum process.

Imagine the scrum master as akin to a personal trainer at a gym. The trainer guides your workout and helps you achieve your fitness goals, but you must put in the work to make it happen. The same goes for a scrum team. The team executes the work, and the scrum master guides them toward their goals.

Scrum master vs. project manager: What's the difference?

It’s natural to confuse the scrum master and project manager roles. Scrum works within a decentralized team structure, so the project manager position doesn’t exist. This leads people unfamiliar with scrum to assume the scrum master acts as the project manager.

In reality, the scrum master handles virtually none of the responsibilities of a traditional project manager.

The project manager leads a team toward achieving the project scope, overseeing all aspects of a project such as budgets, resources, and task completion.

Scrum relies on teams to self-organize, so the concept of a scrum leader doesn’t exist. The team members themselves determine the tasks to address within a sprint, which represents a time-boxed interval of work typically lasting two weeks.

The scrum team works as a cohesive whole to drive toward the sprint’s goals, so the project manager role is superfluous. Instead, the agile scrum master guides the team and manages the process to ensure the group achieves its sprint objectives.

The roles and responsibilities of a scrum master

The role of scrum master has no authority over the project team. Instead, the scrum master works as a facilitator to help the team achieve its goals. This means the scrum master performs in several roles unique to scrum.

1. Process owner

One of the key scrum master responsibilities is to serve as the owner of the scrum process. The scrum master doesn’t decide what the scrum team works on. Instead, the scrum master helps the group apply scrum methodologies as the means to achieve a project’s deliverables.

For instance, the scrum master ensures the team uses the four scrum events, also called scrum ceremonies, a series of meetings that facilitate accomplishment of a sprint’s goals.

In the sprint retrospective, the last of the scrum events in every sprint, the scrum master asks how the team can do better in the next sprint. The scrum master won’t dictate the specifics of what to address; those are up to the team to identify.

However, the scrum master ensures that team members reflect on ways to continually improve.

2. Facilitator

The scrum master is a facilitator, but what does that mean? This person doesn’t just oversee the scrum process.

The scrum master enables the scrum team to excel by clearing obstacles impeding the team, such as other groups making ad hoc task requests in the middle of a sprint, and establishing an environment where team members are effective.

For example, the scrum master can partner with the product owner, the person responsible for delivering prioritized work to the team, on preparations for the next sprint. This collaboration ensures the product owner is ready with tasks to review with the team at the start of a sprint, eliminating delays.

3. Coach

The scrum master guides the team members on their application of scrum, helping them improve and optimize their processes with every sprint. The scrum master also works at the individual level, helping team members improve their application of scrum methodologies.

As the organization’s expert in scrum, the scrum master not only helps the team increase its effectiveness with every sprint, scrum masters also coach and educate the entire company on agile principles and scrum with the goal of expanding scrum across the business.

Enlightening project stakeholders is particularly helpful since they may have a limited understanding of scrum.

Benefits of having a scrum master on your team

On the surface, the scrum master position can seem superfluous. However, that’s only the case because many organizations fail to realize the advantages of the scrum master role. Scrum masters deliver several benefits to an agile team.

1. Scrum effectiveness

If your organization is new to scrum, the framework can prove difficult to master. Its components, such as artifacts and scrum events, can leave a newcomer perplexed over the purpose of each, or worse, how to apply them.

For example, Jira, a popular scrum-based project management software, incorporates functionality to execute a sprint, but using Jira without knowledge of how to apply scrum concepts, such as team velocity, won’t help the group achieve its goals.

A scrum master delivers insight and practical advice for how to implement scrum effectively.

The scrum master also educates the organization on the interactions with the project team that foster success versus those that detract from the team’s ability to fulfill objectives.

I’ve seen first-hand how companies unfamiliar with scrum impose demands on the team that weren’t vetted by the product owner, so having a scrum master responsible for resolving these challenges is an advantage.

2. Performance improvement

An important principle of scrum involves the idea of iterative improvement, not just in the products and services delivered to customers, but also in the teams and processes used to achieve that delivery.

A scrum master focuses his or her time on improving team performance, routinely reviewing processes for opportunities to increase efficiency, and working to remove distractions from the team so they can focus on meeting the sprint’s objectives.

3. Superior morale

Because the scrum master serves in a support role, this person helps both individual team members and the entire group become more effective and achieve more. This success inherently boosts team morale.

Team morale also increases through the scrum master’s various efforts to resolve conflicts and create a trusted environment that fosters team collaboration.

Through the removal of obstacles, continual improvement in processes and scrum application, and helping the entire organization understand and get behind the scrum approach, the scrum master frees up the team members to focus on their goals.

How to become a scrum master

Companies today require scrum masters to be certified. If you have no experience as a scrum master, these steps will put you on the path to becoming a scrum master.

Step 1: Learn scrum

Becoming a scrum master requires a deep understanding of scrum. Start by reading the scrum guide written by the founders of scrum.

If agile is a new concept for you, you should also read the agile manifesto to understand the four core principles of agile.

These serve as the foundation for scrum and a guide to executing the scrum process. The manifesto is written specifically for software development projects, so if your project lies outside of the software realm, replace the term "software" with your product or service.

Once you have a basic understanding of scrum, you can deepen your knowledge by attending conferences, workshops, or lectures about scrum and agile.

It would also be wise to familiarize yourself with project management tools common in scrum such as the whiteboard and sticky notes used in sprint planning.

Step 2: Seek professional development

A scrum master achieves results through coaching, collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution. Expertise in these skills is a must for scrum masters.

Look within your current organization for opportunities to strengthen these skills through training courses or mentorships. Many companies provide such opportunities. You can also look outside of your company for classes or seminars focused on these areas.

Step 3: Obtain certification

Ultimately, you must obtain scrum master certification. This certification requires renewal every two years.

Several professional organizations provide scrum master certification, such as Scrum.org or the Scrum Alliance. You must pass an exam to earn this certification. To prepare for the exam, attend a scrum course or workshop offered by the organization from which you’ll obtain scrum master certification.

Final advice about scrum masters

In my experience, companies often struggle to understand the role of the scrum master. If an organization uses the trappings of scrum but lacks a scrum master, it’s an indicator that scrum is not being implemented to its full potential.

These scenarios present an opportunity for the scrum master to make a significant impact. Scrum isn’t just a matter of implementing the process.

It’s about building team collaboration to the point where projects are conquered with routine regularity, and team members feel accomplished in their work. That’s where the value of a scrum master is truly realized.

The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned.