Daydreams of cat herders

Describing the Role of the Scrum Master

Two months ago, my 91 year-old grandmother asked me what I did for a living.  On the surface, it seems like an easy question to answer, but it wasn’t.  I struggled.  The role of the scrum master was difficult to put into words, especially with someone unfamiliar with the complex world of software development.  Since then, I’ve put some thought into how I would describe my function for one simple reason:

If I’m adept at navigating personalities and if I can help teams solve complicated problems, I should be able to explain what I do for a living.

I asked anyone I could find how they would describe the role of the scrum master.  My teams helped, my network on LinkedIn helped, and the other scrum masters in my organization also helped.  These discussions are summed up below, and the next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I’ll be ready.

Cat HerderRole of the scrum master

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not comparing team members to cats.  Instead, I’m comparing how I’d imagine herding cats is to my experiences as a scrum master.  Have you ever had a hard time getting your team to show up to stand up on time some days?  Did the team take the time to gain agreement on some change to their process only to have someone do the opposite an hour later?  I hope it’s not just me.

Reflective Surface

For me, this is probably the most enjoyable part of the job.  My role isn’t so much about solving problems as it is to ask useful and insightful questions.  I use these questions to get the team and its members to think critically about their behaviors and to reflect on their interactions.  When we make a change in how we do things and succeed, we revel in the success.  When we fail, we talk about what we learned and try something new.  Both circumstances help us gain mutual respect and trust for one another.

Dot Connector

The world is filled with dots, or data points.  Some of these dots are useful and informative; other dots are noise.  More important than the dots themselves are how we choose to connect them.  Put another way, data is only as useful as the decisions it helps us make.  I help teams connect the dots in their world in useful and meaningful ways.  Many techniques exist to connect dots, and I chose one in particular as I crafted this blog post.

It’s called a schema, which I learned from Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  With a schema, you take something already known and adjust it slightly to explain something unknown.  For example, if I was explaining Uber to my mother, I’d tell her it’s a lot like calling for a cab except you use your phone to arrange your ride.  Accurate?  Yes.  Precise?  No, but at least it gives us a common language to begin a dialogue.

Cat herder. Reflective surface.  Dot connector.  That’s how I now describe the role of the scrum master.  Do you agree?  What else would you add?  Let me know in the comments below.

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18 thoughts on “Describing the Role of the Scrum Master”

      1. Priest facilitates sessions, the words (pastor) etymology comes from herder, they trust to what they preach and live the rules and principles, they listen to peoples impediments and try to solve them, act as a servant leader, they at least should be good in interaction with people and be able to socialize.
        I call myself often a mother and the reminds me of Padre.. To mention some connecting dots ????

      2. That seems like a reasonable comparison. As a priest though, wouldn’t that mean you believe in a single religion and all others are wrong? In other words, scrum is the only version of agile that works. All others are mistaken, and I should spend time and energy in converting them. How would you address that with your analogy?

        1. I would say the priest reminds a scrum master, nothing is prob 1:1.
          And scrum master is nicely above them because he or she isnt so narrowminded ??

  1. Rachelle Rowland

    Mom – my team often refers to me lovingly as “Mom”. You help them see when they might be in danger, but you don’t stop them. You are just there to nurture, encourage, motivate, inspire and then grab the first aid kit when needed. You allow them to learn from their mistakes and cheer for them when they succeed. You have to be really patient when they are learning new skills, believe in them, bring energy and excitement to tasks that might otherwise be boring. Oh yeah – and always bring snacks!

    1. That reminds me of a blog:

      It looks like you may already be aware of how he describes the anti-pattern when you say “You help them see when they might be in danger, but you don’t stop them.” If I had to paraphrase, I’d say you’re being a nurturing and occasionally tough love mom but never an overprotective one. Would that be fair?

  2. The closest I’ve got to describing the purpose of my role is “I (try to) help people work together more effectively”. Sounds simple, but we know it’s far from easy!

      1. Like a Lighthouse, a scrum master stands tall in both tough and good times for the team. She is a constant source of strength, protection
        and guidance.

        While she is alert and vigilant scanning the wider horizons for the team, she provides them comfort and safety as they navigate their way through adversity and challenges.

        Glue Stick – Ah, I owe this one to my daughter. She always carries a glue stick in her bag. When I noticed, I asked her why. She replied- “If I have a glue stick with me, I know I can fix anything.”

        Admitted, a glue stick cannot fix everything! Still, I was amazed at the confidence and faith she had in that tiny stick.
        I resonate with the same emotion and every single day, I strive to instill the same confidence in my teams.

        Symbolically, a scrum master indeed glues the team together in a single thread of common shared goal.

        Counsellor – Under the hat of a scrum master, you learn to “listen” to your team members.
        You help them see things clearly, from different perspectives without influencing and thus, facilitate decision-making.
        You provide an open and safe space to them so that they can express openly and freely without being judged.

        In short – it is all about enabling them to make their own choices, reach their own decisions and to act upon them.

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