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Is Your Scrum Master a Servant Leader?

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If your organization is using the Scrum process, you may be familiar with the role Scrum Master aka “scrummee” in my team. If you attended any Scrum training or have been coached in Scrum, you would have definitely come across the fact that the primary responsibility of the Scrum Master is being a Servant Leader. Let’s see what Servant Leader means and you can decide whether your Scrum Master is really a Servant Leader.

A bit of the background…..

This term was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf and published in his essay The Servant as Leader in 1970. The essay was based on the book Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse. The short story is around the main character, Leo, who is a servant to a group of travelers on a mythical journey. He takes care of the group and all their needs. One day Leo disappears, the group scrambles, falls apart and cannot continue, and abandons their journey. Leo was being a good servant and, in turn, a great leader for the group.

What is a Servant Leader?

A Servant Leader’s primary trait is to put others and their priorities first.

Characteristics of a Servant Leader that pertain to a Scrum Master:

Listening: The Servant Leader uses good listening to make informed decisions.

The Scrum Master needs to listen to teams during the daily scrum, and other meetings, to pick up on clues about self organization, impeding items, where the team is at, etc.

If a team member is working on the same task for few days without much progress, and is not explicit about the holdup, the Scrum Master will be able to pick up on it just by listening at the daily scrum. The Scrum Master can then have a conversation to understand the holdup and help the team member with their progression.

So, listening is extremely critical to decipher impediments, emotions, happenings, etc.

Awareness: The Servant Leader gains awareness of situations from a holistic view to achieve better understanding of ethics and values.

The Scrum Master needs to look at situations from a higher level than the rest of the team. If your Scrum Master is also working as a development team member, it may hinder their ability to look beyond their development role, becoming too close to development tasks instead of being a good Scrum Master. When the Scrum Master is not working at the task level, it will enable them to view and attend to the team with a holistic approach.

Persuasion: The Servant Leader does not take advantage of their power and status by coercing compliance.

Scrum Master should not use his/her role to force the team to follow the Scrum process. They are the keeper of the Scrum process and need to ensure the team follows the process. To do this, they need to work with the team to explain the benefits, rather than forcing the team to follow the process blindly.

When the Scrum Master in a team comes to the Daily Scrum and tells them that the team should have a set of Working Agreements as common protocols without giving much explanation about the benefits, the team could immediately discard the concept. If the Scrum Master explains the benefits of having the Working Agreements by pointing out some of the obvious reasons to the team (team members always coming late to meetings, phone etiquette during meetings, etc.), it will be received better by the team.

Empathy: Servant Leaders attempt to understand and empathize with others.

The Scrum Master should be empathetic and willing to work with team members through their challenges. They should not criticize team members in an attempt to enforce the Scrum process. The Scrum Master should recognize, encourage and be appreciative of the efforts the team members are putting forth while pursuing their Sprint goal.

For example, when one of the members in a Scrum team is constantly lagging behind in their tasks and isn’t showing any interest in proceeding, the Scrum Master is able to connect in person with this member and identify that they are constantly challenged with their decisions by another team member. The Scrum Master can then arrange for a meeting between them and let them sort out their issues openly. They can have an open talk and clear lot of issues, helping them understand each other in a better fashion. A great advancement in this actual example, in very near future, these two team members will be frequently paired to program and produced great results.

Healing: Servant leaders try to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships.

The Scrum Master should be able to help team members resolve conflicts and issues. Instead of trying to come up with solutions readily, they should encourage team members to identify any issues and help them come up with their own solutions.

When a team is falling apart due to lot of unresolved personal conflicts, a focused retrospective meeting helps team members express their feelings and justify some of their behaviors through the various activities suggested by Esther Derby in her Agile Retrospectives book. This exercise helps the team to clear the air and move forward with some positive SMART goals.

ConclusionAny Scrum team will be lucky to have a Scrum Master that fulfils these characters. Does yours?

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. – Lao Tzu

Pradeepa is a senior consultant in Centare’s Agile Practice. Her specialty is in quality assurance and agile testing using Scrum. Her passion is to take agile methodologies and engage teams to build high-quality software that meets business needs.

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