Breaking the status quo as Scrum Master

Editor’s Note: Tanner here. I’m usually the one doing the writing but not today.  I ran into Sjoerd a few days back.  Awesome guy, great writer, and he has some refreshing perspectives on agility and Scrum Mastery.  Also, he’s been gratuitous enough to share his thoughts on my blog with all of you today.  For more from Sjoerd, click here.

Hey Scrum Master!

Here is to you, the battering ram, breaking through barriers that are barring your team from awesomeness.

It takes a lot of courage to be touching the raw nerves, to address the elephant in the room, to being radically transparent and enabling continuous improvement.

Introducing Scrum will involve dragging the company through its own dirt, exposing toxic politics and power plays. These invoke emotional reactions.

So how do you, as Scrum Master, keep breaking the status quo, without being a constant pain in the ass to your colleagues?

Apple 1984 commercial

You’ll be a role model to some, to others a heretic. Some will respect you as a  ‘seasoned veteran’ others will judge you to be an ‘obscure cargo-cult leader’.

It’s fine to be a major pain in the ass at times, as long as you have something to show for it. So ask yourself, what makes you a good Scrum Master?

Represent us.

The web is full of malpractitioners I call Scum (lacking the ‘r’ of respect).

As a Scrum Master, understand that your behaviour represents us all. Thus, make sure you are qualified to represent us. Constantly involve yourself with the Scrum community. Keep learning and training throughout. Do this through official channels so you are not being thought some obscure concepts and practices.

Deal with your own Ego first.

In your journey to creating better, healthier environments not just for ourselves, your team, but our legacy too, you will be fighting the Ego systems, including your own.

Exploring DiSC assessments and endless series of retrospectives taught me a lot of things I already knew about myself, but more importantly, they exposed a great number of blind spots. It exposed that I have a high-ego strength and thus fighting Nega-me would prove a worthy test of character.

deal with your ego first
Scrum Master, deal with your ego first

I have high standards, and I tend to impose them on others I work with; (DoD hurray). I dream of Michelin star code kitchens. I am result-driven and welcome challenges without fear. Awesome. But fighting Nega-me means I have to strive to be a more “active” listener, be less domineering, put more energy in personal relationships; I need to be more approachable and develop a greater appreciation for the opinions, feelings and desires of others.

Wow, those are not the least of attributes a great Scrum Master should have. And I‘m lacking them. So that is my first priority. So, I believe Scrum Masters should deal with themselves first.

Use the guide to be a guide.

Understand that the Scrum Guide is, well… a guide. Don’t enforce any of it. Help the team to understand why it says what it says. If the team chooses not to follow the instructions of the guide, yes, they are bound to get lost. That is okay, as long as you are there to help the team get back on track. Learn how to play ‘The Dogma Defence’ right.

Always be ready to provide teams a helping hand in defining the first next step, and accept that sometimes they will instead choose to take steps into a different direction.

Always level up! – continuous improvement

You are there to help, guide, facilitate and support your team and organisation in every way you can. One way to get your kudos, is to enable your team to level up by enabling ‘continuous improvement‘ through experiments and training. Do this below the radar if you are fearing top-down resistance. Just get this going casually. The best way to break the status quo is for no one to notice it.

You are the Chief Impediment Remover, so remove anything that blocks your team from developing its super powers.

Talk about your failures.

Support your team all the way. They will fail at first, as everyone generally fails at doing something new. When they struggle, provide support.

Tell them not to give in, but get better at it. Even better so, deliver anecdotes on how you yourself failed, like “one time I accidentally rm -rf/ -ed a staging server”. Make it safe to fail. There is only one question to ask when dealing with failure:

What did we learn?

Know what to focus on.

There will be moments during which you will feel completely overwhelmed. So know that you aren’t supposed to be the superhero that solves solves each and every impediment.

So, when facing the ‘Mount Doom’ of Technical Debt, be Sam Gamgee.

evil tower of technical debt
“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”

Be the eye of the storm.

Another thing I know about myself is that I am not a patient person. And here it is: patience is one of the most powerful traits a Scrum Master should have. The Scrum Master should patiently allow a team to work its way through its own struggles. It can be tempting to intervene, to provide a clear set of instructions, to delegate actions… but the key is to allow the team to work it out themselves. They shouldn’t be relying on you. Yes, you might have hundreds of awesome approaches and tools lined up, but do not impose them on your team! Know when to offer support as a means to provide ‘grip’.

Know that the team will look to you for setting the tone. Be calm. Try to never raise your voice to team members. I have done this once, and this instantly became one of my biggest moments of failure.

Set the right example to your team.

Promise each other to provide active back-up when an individual is challenged or pressured. Lead by example. Don’t allow your team to be put up with shit, not even when it comes from a customer. This said, also don’t allow your team to deliver shit. Even under time pressure, keep telling your team to

take the time to make it right. Nothing goes out, if it isn’t right.

Don’t be an actor.

There are so many stances a Scrum Master could take. Some prefer active, situational coaching, whilst others prefer to train from the back of the room: involved but distant. Just beware not to charge in without properly assessing the situation. Don’t act like a ‘Captain Hindsight’, telling everyone how they should have done it differently. Remain authentic. Don’t ‘act’ your role.

Gain support through results.

Make sure you understand that your ‘definition of success’ (if there is such a thing), isn’t to increase a teams velocity or effectiveness. In the end, it is the product that should do the job in satisfying its users, customers, the management organisation, the stakeholders… and the team.

The product represents you!

If the product represents you, and the product is inspected at the Sprint Review, you’d better work on the ‘epicness’ of that Sprint Review. A great Sprint Review, might just get you a ‘get out of jail free card’ for your rebellious cheekiness. Every Sprint Review should include some cheeky, positive “Oh… and just one more thing…” that is unexpectedly blowing everyone’s socks off. Motivate the team to add their own ‘super secret awesomeness’; suggest this as a DoD if you will.


You don’t make yourself popular with your colleagues by you constantly returning a ‘No’ to their requests. However…

Teaching yourself and assisting Product Owners in delivering “No, we will not include this in the Sprint/Product Backlog” in a professional, but emphatic way, is a means to earning the respect of the Development Team and Stakeholders alike. So when can a Scrum Master say no?

Explaining the ‘Why’ behind the ‘No’ is as important as it is for developers to understand the ‘Why’ behind the requirement. So, in delivering a ‘No’, explain what is needed to turn it into a ‘Yes’.


People will tire of your seemingly tireless drive for change, exposing anti-patterns, and dealing with conflict and failures. To some you will now be a ‘pain in the ass’. You will be associated with constant conflict. Organisations tend to discourage and avoid it, and consequently the organisation (your colleagues) will avoid you.

The routine will become a bore and eventually, the Scrum adoption will stall and you, yeah even you, will eventually lose the motivation to helping and guiding those who don’t seem to appreciate it. This is when you’ve reached a new status quo.

In this case, when user and stakeholder excitement and the team’s pride in the product are dwindling, take the time to refuel and…

humbly ask for help

I dare you to speak these sentences during retrospectives with your team:

  • “I have trouble getting it right.”
  • “How can I do it better?”
  • “What am I not getting right?”
  • “I don’t think I can do this alone.”

Put your ego aside, and always stay appreciative.

Thank you


  • taking the time to scan through my ramblings.
  • your courage, commitment, respect, focus and openness.
  • breaking the status quo.
  • being an awesome Scrum Master.
  • enabling continuous improvement.
  • not being a pain in the ass.
  • making it all the way to the bottom of this lengthy post.

– and a MASSIVE “thank you” to Tanner Wortham! for inviting me as a guest writer on his awesome, helpful, enlightening blog that is guiding us to being awesome at Scrum. I hope to cross the Pacific some time soon. Cheers. Nyland out.

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