Essential Guide to Becoming a Scrum Master

By Kate Eby | October 5, 2016

In the game of rugby, a sport little known in America, there is a play called a "Scrummage." This field maneuver was the initial inspiration for a well-known Agile management framework now known by its nickname "Scrum." The purpose of a rugby Scrummage, or Scrum, is to re-start match play with several team members gathered in a tight formation. Players keep their heads down and work together to get possession of the ball. In companies using Agile methodologies, the person facilitating that team is the scrum master.

Scrum does not have a role that clearly maps to project manager (this is true in most incarnations of the Agile methodology; “There is no project manager in Scrum” is even a mantra). When transitioning to an Agile environment, the scrum master role may seem like the logical role for a former project manager. However, even a well-trained project manager will require training for the scrum master role. While there is some overlap of skills, the scrum master and project manager do not have the same objectives, tools, or approach to time and deadlines. Still, many of the skills required of a project manager can be applied to a scrum master. 

This article will discuss the different responsibilities and skillsets of a traditional project manager and a scrum master, and provide further guidance on the becoming a scrum master.

What is Scrum?

Scrum was first mentioned in the Harvard Business Review in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. They described an iterative and incremental product development method that, like a Scrummage in rugby, focuses on collaboration, teamwork, and speed. In the 1990s, numerous industries adopted the Scrum method including automobile, printer, and copier manufacturers. In 1995, Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, and others began development of the Scrum framework and in 2001 the method was outlined in the book Agile Software Development with Scrum. Learn more about how to use Scrum in project management by reviewing this article.


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Who Uses Scrum?

Today, there are numerous influencers in the Scrum universe offering certifications, advice, tools, and best practice strategies to strengthen understandings of the Scrum method and mindset. While today Scrum is used to create products and services across multiple industries, it is a dominant method in the IT industry for software development. Because it advocates continuous improvement strategies and follows guidelines set in the Agile Manifesto, Scrum has become a common method for developing a software product


Important Scrum Roles and Responsibilities

Scrum is a popular Agile choice because it provides a strong structure and a cadence of short bursts (Sprints) with well-defined roles and "ceremonies."  Unlike the linear Waterfall management methodology (analysis, design, develop, test, document), Scrum focuses on team collaboration, daily communication, and incremental progress.

Scrum’s structure defines three distinct roles: product owner, Scrum team, and scrum master. The product owner and the Scrum team's functions are supported and augmented by the work and responsibilities of the scrum master. 

Product Owner: The "champion" of the product who has a deep understanding of the product's strategic value. The product owner represents the interests and voice of the customer and other stakeholders. S/he also prioritizes backlogs that are communicated to the Scrum team through the liaison responsibilities of the scrum master. The product owner creates the product rollout or release schedule, and also sets the priorities for product development through short, one-sentence "user stories" of a feature or functionality that the Scrum team is to develop.

Scrum Team: Also known as the development team, this group is generally comprised of three to nine people. This team does the actual development work. In a defined incremental process, they perform the technical tasks to move the project forward through collaboration, communication, and teamwork rather than individualized tasks. The process is likened to a train moving in a set direction and time from station to station. The team meets daily to facilitate cross-functionality and analysis, which allows them to stay on track while working through short bursts of productivity called Sprints (work periods are predefined in one to four week intervals, so no one has to manage this aspect of the project). The goal is to work in a self-governed manner rather than waiting for tasks to be assigned.

Scrum Master: This person is the facilitator, coach, and liaison who provides guidance and assistance to both the product owner and the Scrum team. The scrum master has an important role that focuses on creating an environment to foster self-organizing behavior, or team "flow." The scrum master also assists the product owner with backlog size, priorities, and product release schedules. Additionally, instead of planning or managing time, the scrum master coaches and guides the team working on the project. 

But an important distinction is that the scrum master does not lead or manage the development process. Instead, the scrum master promotes activities to facilitate incremental development success by: 

  • Ensuring all standard Scrum practices are followed.
  • Eliminating obstacles to facilitate team progress.
  • Determining Sprint durations.
  • Setting up and facilitating daily Scrum, stand-up, and "Scrum of Scrum" meetings.
  • Asking the right questions of the team, such as what they are working on and if they have any distractions.
  • Understanding and communicating the Scrum framework, methods, and mindset.
  • Protecting the team from distractions.
  • Providing opportunities and tools for maximizing productivity.
  • Guiding the team and product owner to improve the effectiveness of their practices.
  • Resolving conflicts to foster a "state of flow."
  • Communicating with stakeholders.

The Role of a Traditional Project Manager

A project manager’s job is to lead, plan, oversee, assist, make decisions, and control the diverse activities of a project. The role is useful in coordinating teams or multiple projects and managing project timelines. Project management is often part of the Waterfall development methodology, where the objective is to deliver working software within budget, on schedule, and in accordance with the original requirements.

In the Waterfall model, the project manager is accountable for the project and the position is quite structured. S/he is involved in every step of the project including negotiating requirements, estimating time and materials, identifying risks (and estimating the costs of these risks), assisting team members in fulfilling their roles, assigning tasks, meeting with customers, passing on metrics, etc. The project manager may be accountable for one or many projects in an organization. Regardless of the project, however, the project manager’s objective is unvarying: to bring the project to successful completion on time and within budget. For more information, the Project Management Institute (PMI) oversees the development of PMBOK, a guide to standard project management guidelines and terminology.


The Difference Between the Scrum Master and Project Manager

There are numerous methods and structures to deploy a Scrum framework on a small scale, as well as enterprise scaled methods such as LeSS and SAFe frameworks. In either case, it is important to note that a scrum master is not a project manager. There are several key differences in these roles. Scrum is a methodology that recognizes and plans for the shifting tide of consumer expectation for innovation. It advocates a faster, more adaptive product development and rollout pace, and welcomes adjustments and innovation throughout the process. Unlike project management, the focus is on constant revision rather than rigid control to a prescribed goal. 

Human resources and talent managers are playing catch up on the fundamental differences of what makes a great scrum master versus a traditional project manager. These differences are best illustrated through the verbs used in their respective job descriptions. 

In job descriptions, project managers are asked to focus on tasks and outcomes by directing, supervising, managing, planning, performing, and coordinating to manage risk and achieve measurable and specific success goals. This often requires trimming the requirements in order to meet a deadline or negotiating an extension on the deadline for the sake of the release - and always means resisting a change to the requirements. Strict deadlines may also require cheating the testing timeline in favor of the development timeline. In other words, risk management skills are of great importance to the project manager. According to the PMI, "an experienced project manager (is) responsible for all aspects of project delivery, leading and directing cross-functional teams."

The expectations of a scrum master are different and the measures of success are often elusive. Scrum masters focus on coaching, mentoring, facilitating, conflict resolution, providing inspiration, and communication. A scrum master must be as technically sound as any team member but is called upon to guide rather than lead, listen rather than tell, and to encourage problem-solving. Scrum masters are successful when they achieve team unity, a culture of collaboration, and organizational improvement. 

A scrum master is often responsible for multiple teams, especially in large scale enterprise development. In smaller settings, it is not uncommon for a project manager to split their role and take on part-time scrum master duties.

While there is no exact translation of the positions, many of the skills that make a strong project manager can also make a strong scrum master. These skills include time management, communication, and problem management. Below is a table that explains the necessary skills for a project manager vs. scrum master.


What it Takes to Be a Scrum Master

When adopting Scrum, choosing the right person for the scrum master role is imperative. As illustrated in job descriptions and through the interview process, candidates for the role are asked to demonstrate key interpersonal skills that are as important as technical skills and mastery of the Scrum methodology. Skills that focus on enabling, providing service and motivation coupled with drive, persistence, and courage are prized interpersonal characteristics.

Qualities and Attributes of a Qualified Scrum Master include:

  • A thorough understanding of how the Scrum framework and Lean-Agile development works including:
    • Optimal Sprint durations
    • Backlog priorities
    • Knowledge of the artifacts and ceremonies of Scrum
    • Sprint backlog
    • Product backlog
    • Velocity chart  
    • Burn-down chart
    • Sprint planning
    • Daily Scrums or stand-up meetings focused on three questions
    • Sprint retrospectives
    • Sprint reviews
  • Experience in developing and strengthening Agile methodologies and values
  • Demonstrated situational awareness to:  
    • Facilitate discussion
    • Resolve conflicts
    • Strive for continuous improvement
    • Develop the team using task boards and tools, Test Driven Development (TDD) strategies, and communication to "grow" a self-directed team
  • Ability to act as a "Servant Leader" rather than assign and supervise tasks
  • Ability to move a team towards self-organization by: 
    • Eliminating of distractions and impediments
    • Fostering communication


Where Do You Find a Great Scrum Master?

A new Scrum team needs an experienced scrum master. Unlike a project manager, a scrum master is not responsible for leading or directing personnel. Rather, the focus is on activities and strategies that create an environment that values and encourages collaboration. As industries adopt the Scrum Framework, traditional project managers as well as Scrum team members are good candidates for the role of Scrum Master.

In most large organizations, a scrum master will be a full-time role that is responsible for multiple teams. In smaller organizations, a project manager, for example, may split their time as a project manager and scrum master.

To enhance their on-the-job experiences, there are numerous Scrum Master certifications and Agile Coaching programs that teach the terminology, methods, and best practices. Taught and tested in an online environment, these programs are great resources to learn the structure, expectations, and scenarios for Scrum.


Transitioning From a Project Manager to a Scrum Master

The transition from a project manager to a scrum master is not impossible, but it can be challenging due to the structured nature of the traditional Waterfall methodology. Traditional project managers are familiar with projects that have pre-defined requirements and hard-set completion dates. In Waterfall, the project is completed when all of these requirements have been met and tested, or negotiated out of the final product. At this point, the product is ready for handoff to the customer. In Scrum, the requirements and deadlines remain flexible, as a Scrum project is considered complete when there are no remaining backlog items in the queue. Therefore, it is impossible to pre-determine an end-date for a Scrum project. Scrum handoffs take place much more frequently (at the end of each Sprint), and the customer must accept it. A traditional project manager may have a hard time accepting the flexibility and self-organized team environment of a Scrum project, and thus the transition from one role to the other can be tricky to navigate.

The most important first step in the transition is understanding the differences between the two roles. If the objectives and responsibilities of the roles are not clearly delineated and understood, the transition can be messy and potentially inhibit project success. A former project manager should embrace the self-directed environment of the Scrum team and be open to the additional flexibility and experimentation afforded by the methodology. Ultimately, a project manager can make a successful scrum master if s/he clearly understands the different demands of the job before assuming the new role.

Project managers remain an integral part of the Waterfall method of development. However, even though the project management role does not exist in an Agile environment, the skills gained from experience are useful in managing Agile projects - such as continuing to ensure that projects run within time constraints and budget.

Scrum Master Interview Questions

When seeking a high-quality scrum master, you may want to ask the following interview questions to gauge their ability to perform the role:

  • Describe your understanding of the Agile Manifesto and “People over processes.”
  • What are the success criteria you look for and metrics you track to ensure Scrum is working for your team?
  • How does your role as scrum master work with the product owner?
  • How do you describe your role during stand-up meetings?
  • Do you write user stories?
  • Explain the Agile framework.
  • Do you hold any Scrum certifications?
  • How do you differ from a traditional project manager?
  • What are the most important roles in your Scrum team?
  • What are some other Agile frameworks you have used?
  • Should you ever use Waterfall instead of Scrum?

Scrum master remains a new role in most organizational structures. Those looking to become scrum masters are encouraged to have or develop the interpersonal skills demanded. Since fostering a self-organized team is the goal in Scrum, qualities like persistence, courage, and drive are key elements to successfully mentor Scrum teams. Like the game of rugby for which Scrum is named, a successful Scrum team - with goals set by the product owner and artfully coached by the scrum master - achieves optimum success when the objectives are clear, of short-duration, and constantly communicated. 

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