Coach, Mentor, Teacher or Facilitator – Which Scrum Master role is key to your success?

Over the span of my professional career, I have worked many different jobs, and each provided me with a unique perspective. A few years ago, as I took on a new role as a Scrum Master for the first time, I realized that this job was very different from any others that I have held in the past. At first, I felt that being a Scrum Master was simple – I was basically the “gopher” for the team, doing whatever they needed, took on whatever task they required regardless of how mundane it was.

Then as I gained more understanding of the Scrum principles and philosophy, I realized that being a Scrum Master goes far beyond simply doing administrative tasks and reacting to the team’s needs. I realized that I needed to support the team in more complex activities that required me to utilize a multitude of skills such as teaching, coaching, mentoring, etc. From that point forward, I invested significant amount of time and energy to improve my skills in all these areas. However, I was challenged by the complexities of each facets of the Scrum Master role, and did not know how to approach this in a methodical fashion. After struggling with this for several weeks, I discovered that I needed to organize my skills development process and prioritize my learning activities. I would like to share this approach with you in event you are encountering a similar situation with your teams.Scrum Master Role

Here’s how I prioritized my focus areas as a new Scrum Master:

  1. Facilitator
  2. Teacher
  3. Coach
  4. Mentor

At the time, because I was relatively junior in my career, I had not yet realized the importance of a mentor. Due to my lack of “real-world” experience, and possibly a lack of humility at the time, I didn’t think I needed anyone to tell me what to do. However, having completed several training courses on Scrum concepts and practices, I knew that to be successful as a Scrum Master, my main job will be to help the team succeed through effective facilitation of various events and activities. As a result, I focused my energy on becoming the best facilitator I can. How did I learn to become an effective facilitator? Primarily, my learning was derived from failing, sometimes quite miserably, and reflecting on what I can do differently; think of it as a series of short experiments.

My secondary focus was to become a teacher of sorts. I knew that to ensure the team understood how to apply Scrum effectively, they needed to have a solid understanding of the theory and values behind Scrum. Why did I decide to learn facilitation before teaching? While it is possible to focus on teaching before facilitation, I felt that I needed to earn the respect from my team first before they will consider me to be a subject matter expert. Having a foundation of trust was important and enabled me to have an audience that is eager to learn.

Coaching someone to help them discover their own solution, rather than just offering the solution to that person, is a tricky skill that did not come naturally to me. If you are more of an analytical person such as myself, it may not come naturally to you either. Knowing this, I invested heavily into learning various coaching techniques and gaining a deeper understanding of human psychology in an effort to serve as an effective coach. This is an intricate art and not a science, and it is a skill that I will continue to hone through more experimentation and reflection.

Mentoring is yet another hat that many Scrum Masters often need to wear in order to be successful, and it is arguably the most difficult of the skills to master. Instead of seeking to accomplish short-term objectives as you do in coaching, mentoring enables us to help another person build a long-term skill that will serve them for years to come. In the context of a Scrum team, the Scrum Master must be able to mentor the team and help to develop a continuous learning mindset that goes far beyond the basic principles. Similar to coaching, mentoring also requires a bit of creativity and artistry – something that is very difficult to master.

In summary, the Scrum Master role is a complex role that is often misunderstood and as a result under-valued by many organizations. Our job as passionate Scrum practitioners is to champion this role and help our teams and our organizations understand how powerful this role can be by demonstrating the level of influence we can create; by building successful, high-performing teams, we can showcase the true value of the Scrum Master and help educate others. No matter how you decide to approach this role, mastering each of the key capabilities will be critical to a memorable and rewarding journey.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai