The role of a Scrum Master is one of many stances and diversity. A great Scrum Master is aware of them and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. Everything with the purpose of helping people understand and apply the Scrum framework better.
In a series of blog posts I will share the different stances I consider to be relevant for the Scrum Master. This blog post is about the Scrum Master as a facilitator. The Scrum Master serves as a facilitator for both the Product Owner and the Development Team. In this blog post I’ll describe the definition of a facilitator, the misunderstanding and the characteristics of a great facilitator.
The picture below shows the other stances of the Scrum Master, these will be described in more detail the upcoming weeks.
What is a facilitator?
“Someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives; in doing so, the facilitator remains ‘neutral’ meaning he/she doesn’t take a particular position in the discussion.“
Key elements of this definition (and other available definitions) are:
- Help and enable others in achieving their objectives
- Be ‘content neutral’, not taking sides
- Support everyone to do their best thinking and practices
- Promote collaboration and try to achieve synergy
- Provide charismatic authority
Quite often, when I ask people to describe the Scrum Master as a facilitator, the only answer I get is that the Scrum Master facilitates the Scrum events. Sure, the Scrum Master is responsible for the Scrum process and should support the team in optimising their process.
The Scrum events are an important part of the Scrum process, and although the Scrum Master isn’t obligated to attend all the Scrum events personally, he should ensure:
- That the Sprint is used as a time-box during which a ‘done’, usable and releasable increment is created;
- That the daily Scrum is used for daily inspection of the team’s progress toward the sprint goal;
- That the Sprint Planning is used as an event for the team to discuss, plan and agree on a forecast for the Product Backlog Items they are confident they can complete in order to support the goals and strategy of the Product Owner;
- That the Sprint Review is used for a demonstration and inspection of the developed increment and adaptation of the product backlog if needed;
- That the Retrospective is used as an event during which the team inspect and adapt their practices and processes to improve key issues that are impeding the team’s progress.
The biggest misunderstanding is that facilitating the Scrum events is the only thing a Scrum Master should do as a facilitator. A great Scrum Master however understands that facilitation can be far more powerful…
How facilitation within Scrum was really meant
As described in the definition of a facilitator, this is someone who helps a group of people understand and achieve their objectives by promoting collaboration, optimising the process and creating synergy within the team. Given this context, facilitation encompasses far more than only hosting the Scrum events.
In his book ‘Scrum Mastery’ Geoff Watts describes facilitation as the underpinning skill and behaviour of the Scrum Master. “At all times Scrum Masters are of service to the goals of the team, the product owner and the organisation. And, if those goals conflict, they think of the long-term implications and the messages any compromise will send.”
A Scrum Master should:
- Facilitate relationships and collaboration both within the team and the teams environment;
- Facilitate the Scrum process and the continuous improvement of the process;
- Facilitate the integration of the Scrum team into the entire organisation;
- Facilitate the Scrum events to be purposeful and effective;
- Facilitate the team in achieving their (personal) objectives.
Lyssa Adkins offers a good description in her book ‘Coaching Agile Teams’:
“A Scrum Master should facilitate by creating a “container” for the team to fill up with their ideas and innovations. The container, often a set of agenda questions or some other lightweight (and flexible) structure, gives the team just enough of a frame to stay on their purpose and promotes and environment for richer interaction, a place where fantastic ideas can be heard. The coach creates the container; the team creates the content.”
Characteristics of a great facilitator
So a Scrum Master should facilitate by setting the stage and providing clear boundaries in which the team can collaborate to discuss their ideas.
Other characteristics of a great facilitator are:
- Designs and leads a meeting with the responsibility to help the team reach its goals and objectives;
- Asks powerful questions to provide new insights and perspectives;
- Listens to understand instead of listening to act;
- Creates a strong team instead of creating strong individuals;
- Helps things to happen instead of making things happen.
- Knows how to use light-touch facilitation
What great facilitation of the Scrum events looks like
Every Scrum event has a specific purpose that answers the question “Why do we do this meeting, anyway?” A great facilitator should ensure the goal of every event is clear, a lightweight structure is offered and the team achieves the purpose of the event. The earlier described goals of the Scrum events are still relevant, but via great facilitation the Scrum Master succeeds in getting more value out of every event.
Characteristics of well-facilitated Scrum events are:
- The daily Scrum contains an atmosphere where healthy peer pressure occurs on delivery quality, commitment and addressing impediments;
- The Sprint Planning is all about collaboration between the Product Owner and the Development team and has a strong focus on delivering business value. All team members understand the work and jointly agree to achieve the sprint goal;
- The Sprint Review is an energising event in which the Scrum team, sponsors and stakeholders together inspect the product increment and backlog. But also retrospect their collaboration and how this can be improved. They act as one team with the same purpose, there are no barriers between ‘client’ and ‘supplier’;
- The Retrospective is done in a safe atmosphere in which ‘the elephant in the room’ is addressed, discussed and turned into actionable improvements that the team members agree upon realising in the next sprint.
Summarised, great facilitation is about:
- Serving the team without being their servant;
- Helping the team make decisions and reach consensus that sticks;
- Addressing difficult attitudes, dysfunctional behaviours and unproductive attitudes that keeps meeting from achieving their outcomes;
- Being a keen observer;
- Stepping back as soon as you can support their continuous self-organisation;
- Knowing when to interrupt the team;
- Helping the team get quality interactions;
- Delivering questions and challenges.
Mastering these facilitation skills requires time, practice and continuous introspection and improvement. But taking the possible results of great facilitation into account, it’s definitely worth the effort!
 Scrum Mastery by Geoff Watts