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What does an Agile scrum master do? (And how can you get the most out of working with one.)

If your organization is getting started with an Agile software development project, you can expect to be working closely with an Agile scrum master. This person plays a very important role in the development process and will be both your right hand and your window into the work the Agile team is doing on your project. If this is your first Agile project, however, you might have some questions about what a scrum master is, and how you should be working with them.

So, what is a scrum master, what do they do, and how can you get the most out of working with them? The short answer is that a scrum master is a project manager for Agile and scrum projects. The scrum master’s job is to organize and manage everything that is not the actual software development. They handle the team’s administrative tasks, remove obstacles so the developers can get work done and make sure the client, the development team and all other stakeholders know where the project is at all times.

So how do you get the most out of a project manager when you have one?

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Get the right people into the meetings

in the beginning Agile might seem like a lot of meetings, but there’s a reason for that. Agile methodology uses well-documented processes including a series of meetings (which are also sometimes called ceremonies or events):

  • Sprint Planning - a meeting in which the upcoming sprint, or period of work is planned
  • Daily Scrum or Stand-up - the meeting that addresses the day’s work
  • Sprint Review - a meeting in which the team showcases the work they did in the last sprint
  • Sprint Retrospective - a meeting in which the team reflects on the last sprint, and tries to understand what worked, what didn’t and what can be changed to improve the next sprint
  • Backlog grooming - a meeting in which the project owner and the scrum master prioritize tasks for the project

The meetings, which include only certain project stakeholders, enable team members to get up to speed, change direction quickly and reprioritize things you thought were high-priority last month but aren’t so this month. If the meetings are done well, the project is Agile — it can change on a dime when it needs to. If these meetings are done poorly, the whole process can derail. And one of the easiest ways to derail a meeting is to not have the right people in it.

The only person who is in every meeting is the project manager, or Agile scrum master.

Know that the scrum master can’t make decisions for you

A scrum master is an expert when it comes to Agile, but it’s important to remember that you, the client, are an expert when it comes to your business and your needs. The scrum master might be running your project, but there are some decisions they cannot make without you.

Take the backlog grooming session, a meeting that allows the project owner and the scrum master to sit down and decide what a project’s priorities are. It’s the difference between knowing which of an application’s features are must-haves and which are nice-to-haves, so it’s important that all the right people are in the room for this meeting at the same time. Scheduling this meeting can be difficult — it’s a long meeting, and if the project touches different departments, all their leaders will have to be in the room together.

Some leaders might try to get around this meeting by sending someone else or by attempting to meet with the scrum master separately, but that’s a mistake. Each department head will have their own high priorities for the project. If they each meet individually with the scrum master, the Agile team won’t know which priority is the highest, because the scrum master doesn’t have the authority to make that decision for the client.

Only an organization’s leaders can do that, and they’ll have to do it as a team.

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Keep the wrong people out of the meetings

Sometimes a leader who doesn’t want to attend a meeting sends someone else in their place, and sometimes a person who shouldn’t be in a meeting wants to sit in.

Enthusiasm for your project is great, but this is another way to derail an Agile ceremony. Each Agile event is designed to perform a specific function and each works in a different way. Some, like the daily stand-up, are designed to be short and focused on the day’s work. Adding people who can’t contribute to that meeting is unhelpful and may stretch it out with comments or questions that might be better handled in another forum.

Some meetings, like backlog grooming sessions, are long enough as it is. Adding extra people may potentially throw the meeting off-track and waste everyone’s time.

Trust your project manager when they do (or don’t) invite you to a meeting. If you want to know what happening in a meeting they weren’t invited to, that’s totally fine - it’s your project, after all. Just don’t try to sit in. Instead, request an email from the project manager, explaining what happened in the meeting. It’s their job to keep you updated on where the project is now, and what the next steps are.

Learn to spot a struggling scrum master

You should trust your scrum master, but what if you suspect that they’re not handling the project well? If you’re worried about your scrum master, ask yourself one question:

Does anyone involved with the project — you, the developers or any other stakeholder — not know what its status is?

If the answer is yes, the scrum master is doing something wrong. One of their most important jobs is to keep everyone updated, and you, the project owner, should easily be able to get the project’s status from them if you don’t know already. If you leave a meeting with your scrum master, and you don’t know how the project is doing, it’s time for an intervention.

What can you do? Maybe it’s a simple training issue. Or maybe you need to call in an expert.

Omni is a Wisconsin-based technology consulting firm with a wide range of experience when it comes to both Agile methodology and project management. We can help your struggling project manager or send you one of our own. Interested in learning more? Give us a call and tell us about your development project. We’ll help you manage it.

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Paul Rasmussen

About Author Paul Rasmussen

Paul wants to live in a world where he can golf every day of the year, he has an unlimited number of “Do Overs," and he hits every goal he sets for himself. As a project manager, one of Paul’s strengths lies in managing multi-faceted Agile projects. After tackling some tough ones, he’s learned a lot about which management styles do and don’t work in a given situation, when and how to ask the hard questions, and how to identify who can be counted on at critical junctures. Throughout the project cycle, he strives to give team members and clients more than what they expect. “When I can do that, it’s amazing to see the lasting business and personal relationships that are made.” Outside of work, you are likely to find Paul at the golf course, brewing up his own specialty beer, or whipping up something new and crazy for Saturday breakfast. The past few years he has spent an inordinate amount of time assembling toys for his kids. Paul grew up in Sparta, near LaCrosse WI. He graduated with a degree in Management Information Services from UW - Oshkosh. He and his wife Jody have two daughters (Maddison & Skylar) and a son (Dyllan).


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