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Why essential Scrum Master skills are elementary

From sprint planning to servant leadership, Scrum Masters help Agile developers, product owners and other team members perform at their best. Here's what makes a good Scrum Master.

You don't have to be a full-stack developer to become a Scrum Master, but you should be creative and quick with a whiteboard marker.

A Scrum Master facilitates the procedures of Scrum, which is a framework for Agile development. This person orchestrates the events, also called ceremonies, such as the daily Scrum and the sprint review. Broadly speaking, Scrum Masters enable collaboration, resolve conflict and improve processes. The Scrum Master is there to serve the team.

Requirements changes and technical issues stall work during both individual sprints and the whole development cycle. When work interruptions occur, Scrum masters should lead collaborative efforts to address impediments -- especially if they're external. A Scrum master with these advanced skills can help a software team greatly.

Beyond project management abilities, skilled Scrum Masters are also team leaders. They build trust, promote healthy conflict, get commitment, ensure accountability and maintain focus on sprint goals.

If you're ready to advance your Agile development career, study up on these three essential Scrum Master skills.

1. Scrum Masters are good learners

People often use Scrum, Agile and other software project management terms interchangeably -- and incorrectly. To become a Scrum Master, learn the difference between Scrum and Agile. Successful Scrum Masters understand the details and nuances of the Scrum framework.

Scrum pillars and values.
Study core Scrum pillars and values to become an effective Scrum Master.

There are three pillars of Scrum: adaptation, transparency and inspection. And the framework has five values: respect, courage, openness, commitment and focus.

The book Essential Scrum by Kenneth S. Rubin is a great resource for Scrum Masters of any skill level. An Agile and Scrum trainer, Rubin describes the Scrum process and characteristics.

Scrum competency means you know these concepts and activities:

You can pursue Scrum Master training courses and certification, from organizations like or the Scrum Alliance. Each organization's exam and certification terms differ. Some Scrum Master certifications expire, while others do not. Check whether your company supports training classes under its continuing education program. If you already hold a basic Scrum Master certification, look into the benefits of an advanced certification.

2. Scrum Masters are good leaders

The Scrum Master is the glue between the product owner and the development team. The relationship between the Scrum Master and the product owner is key to success.

The product owner is responsible for story creation. Then, the entire Scrum team reviews these stories to finalize, estimate and prioritize them. The Scrum Master ensures the development team fully supports story refinement, also called backlog grooming. The product owner takes on product challenges and changes in feature prioritization. To assist the product owner, the Scrum Master informs the development team of product changes. Scrum Masters should especially highlight changes that affect work in progress during a sprint.

The Scrum Master helps the product owner by being a good leader. A Scrum Master:

  • holds the Scrum team accountable to the defined sprint goals;
  • implements effective product backlog management;
  • helps the Scrum team understand story grooming and estimated product backlog items;
  • arranges the product backlog to maximize value; and
  • facilitates Scrum events.

Conflicts will arise in performing this service. Work to resolve issues and enforce the values of Scrum.

Scrum Masters' work doesn't stop within the boundaries of their own development teams. To remove impediments for their teams, Scrum Masters collaborate with stakeholders and other dev teams. Some Scrum experts say this liaising falls outside of the traditional Scrum Master role, but it's much needed, and you're the right person to do it. As a Scrum Master, use leadership skills to collaborate across teams, negotiate schedules and facilitate technical meetings.

A good leader is organized and communicates well. Scrum Masters must be accountable and build consensus throughout an organization. Work with the team every day to help them achieve sprint goals.

Learn new skills from books about leadership. Many titles focus on leading Agile teams, but they don't have to pertain to Agile or Scrum specifically. I recommend The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Find a book that resonates with your personal approach to leadership.

Sharpen your leadership skills through practice. Take on a nontechnical leadership role outside of your job. Look into community volunteer opportunities, such as coaching a youth sports team. The same elements of collaboration and teamwork that win soccer games can apply to successful Agile software delivery.

3. Scrum Masters are good listeners

Be a good servant leader. It starts with being a good listener. Listening is a must-have skill for Scrum Masters. Pay close attention at daily standups, backlog meetings, sprint planning, team review and retrospective. Hear where issues arise, raise awareness of them, and lead the team to a resolution.

Many Scrum Masters fixate on following the framework. But think of Scrum as a foundational tool, not the goal. Agile development centers upon the concept of change, and the framework and processes necessary to manage change. So, the Scrum framework must adapt to best support the team. Every team executes Scrum ceremonies but works differently from others.

These sorts of Scrum Master skills -- listening, empathy and flexibility -- won't pop up on a certification test, but they matter in the real world.

Scrum master skills checklist

  • Facilitates Scrum activities: standups, backlog meetings, sprint planning, team review, retrospectives
  • Knows Scrum values, principles and practices
  • Adapts Scrum framework for team needs
  • Coordinates with other teams and stakeholders
  • Resolves issues and removes impediments
  • Communicates and listens well
  • Collaborates with groups
  • Coaches colleagues to success
  • Drafts and updates the team agreement
  • Adapts to change

A team agreement is in the Scrum Master's toolbox to get everyone on the same page. The team agreement, or team operating procedure, is a document that defines things for the team, such as core working hours, Scrum ceremony formats, escalation paths and stakeholder involvement. The agreement is a living document; the team should modify it as the group changes. These guidelines should enable transparency across personalities and roles.

A Scrum Master who learns, leads and listens is in the right position to make the team run efficiently. These Scrum Master skills support rapid, predictable delivery at every iteration. And that kind of software delivery is ultimately why the team chose Scrum.

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