From zero to Scrum Master in a year

New Thinking 8 June 2016 Megan Styles

“I’ll worry about testing when it becomes a problem”. What’s wrong with this statement? You’ll probably think of a few things straight off the bat. What if I told you the speaker was a Product Owner? Alarm bells? Me too. Here are just a few of them:

  1. The Product Owner is invested in the ‘what’ of the product, not the ‘how’. So why is this one thinking about testing?
  2. Waterfall may be creeping in here. A ‘testing later’ attitude is never a good sign
  3. Where’s the team? Shouldn’t they be focusing on testing? Where’s the Scrum Master? This sort of attitude should be nipped in the bud

The Scrum Master was me and all three alarm bells were blaring loud and clear. The question was ‘what should I do about them?’. To avoid the easiest and also the most painful avenue of panicked flapping, certain attitudes must be prevalent in the fledgling Agile company.

To help teams truly fly, a business needs empowered people starting with Agile coaches and Scrum Masters. This is harder to achieve than it sounds and the whole environment must be geared towards it. People, culture, practices. Everything! Obviously, this is a difficult journey and many factors must be considered when building this sense of empowerment in your new agilists.

Three factors are among the most important:

  1. Expectations
  2. Support
  3. Safe to fail

Agile changes the game when it comes to roles. Each role – especially when attempting Scrum – is fraught with meaning and, therefore, the danger of ASSUMPTIONS (capitalised because of their importance).

When beginning my first engagement as a Scrum Master, I leapt in with both feet and very quickly found myself in the deep end. I had all the theory and none of the experience. My counterpart Product Owner and team had a lot of experience in traditional delivery and limited Agile theory, so we both made assumptions about the Scrum Master role. Unfortunately, this led to us simultaneously falling out of the nest and being unaware of it. Scrum will not fit all environments... and it’s better to figure this out upfront.

Thus the need for support. This is vital in all Agile organisations, old and new. Experienced support can point out the dangers, both before and during your Agile journey. This will help avoid truly dire straights and also help with learning through doing. For example, good support will help a new team avoid making assumptions. Neglected expectation setting is a sure way to end up in a difficult and potentially unsolvable situation.

Support is also involved deeply in our third success factor – creating a ‘safe to fail’ environment. Young birds learn to fly by falling. Children learn to walk by falling. We have all learned many of our most potent life lessons through getting it wrong. So why is it that businesses create a culture that punishes failure? How can your teams learn what works and what doesn’t if they’re scared to try new things? Agile can be boiled down to two words… Continuous Improvement.

All members of the team must feel safe to try their best. Especially if they’re likely to fail. The role of Scrum Master involves pushing a team to try new things. If the team is so risk adverse that they’re unable to listen to this urging, the Scrum Master role is rendered powerless. You are wasting your money employing someone to beat their head against a brick wall. Seriously, I’ve been there and that’s what it feels like.

Agile is more than Scrum. Agile is not faster and cheaper. Agile is hard and involves huge changes to mindset and culture. Expectation setting, support and support networks are just three success factors I’ve noticed in my first year as a Scrum Master and I’m looking forward to putting them into practice with my next fledgling Agile team.