Be a better scrum master: A guide for recovering PMs

In your organization's agile transformation, where do the scrum masters come from? One common scenario is to reassign project managers. And while many agile gurus may argue this is a huge mistake, I strongly believe that project managers can make excellent scrum masters.

Project managers are known for being goal-oriented high achievers and strong leaders. But it's this type-A kind of personality that may initially throw project-managers-turned-scrum-masters into a bit of a tailspin. They can feel lost without a project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) to guide them through their processes.

However, it's that same kind of personality that will motivate novice scrum masters to prepare for their new role and want to be the best they can be. Here are six things a project-manager-turned-scrum-master can do to be not just good, but awesome.

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1. 'Be' agile rather than 'do' agile

First, recognize that agile is a mindset, not a checklist or prescriptive methodology. Scrum and agile are not synonymous terms. Even though your role as a scrum master is to be a "master of scrum" and its associated practices, many organizations use a hybrid of agile practices rather than pure scrum.

Scrum and other agile frameworks and techniques provide guidelines and a common vocabulary to use, but there are no one-size-fits-all answers. It's important to understand the principles behind the guidelines to know how to best adapt to your environment.

It may feel to new scrum masters as though their responsibility is to follow the Scrum Guide to the letter, enforcing every "rule." However, they always need to understand the intent behind those "rules" and remember that their role is more coach than enforcer.

2. Be okay with ambiguity and 'just enough'

Though it's frustrating not to have a playbook, agile frameworks are empirical models that are used when there are unknowns in what you're delivering. You can't plan everything up front when you don't yet know what you don't know. In agile, the goal is to "progressively elaborate." Teams work iteratively and incrementally so they can learn along the way and continue to make changes as they learn.

Project managers are known for their attention to rigid control of change, wanting to prevent scope creep at all costs. While it's difficult to unlearn this behavior and unsettling to not have that big plan up front, some former project managers find the empirical model that agile frameworks provide a liberating and welcome difference.

Carl Adamson, agile coach, trainer, and scrum master at Agilistix, discovered that to be true.

"After many years as a project manager, making the commitment to moving to agile lifted a big weight off my shoulders. No longer did I have to control change or produce unrealistic, pretty Gantt charts guesstimating the outcome of the project."
Carl Adamson

3. Make 'inspect and adapt' major parts of the process

Working in short increments gives you the opportunity to experiment and "fail fast." In other words, learn quickly what works and what doesn't. Getting quick feedback allows you to continue to build on what’s working well while letting go of features that are not giving customers the value they need.

Continuous improvement is not a new concept to project managers. But project managers typically do not view failure as a good thing. Truth be told, I doubt that failure feels good to even the most seasoned scrum master.

However, using agile practices, you'll see that those short iterations allow you to learn from failures and pivot. In a traditional world, you panic and are desperate to fix your issues before anyone gets wind of them. But there's transparency in the early discovery of issues, and the teamwork required to resolve those issues is another change that most former project managers welcome.

4. Empower your team to self-organize

In agile, scrum masters use a servant-leadership style, which means empowering the team to self-organize, make decisions, and have more autonomy. This is perhaps the most difficult mindset change for the former project manager. Project managers are used to being in control, making decisions, assigning tasks, and checking on status.

While it may seem that the scrum master doesn't have as much leadership responsibility as a project manager, I'd argue that the servant-leadership role requires a deeper level of leadership skills. The scrum master needs to possess the emotional intelligence and relationship skills to guide, coach, and support the team, helping it to grow and leading by example.

The scrum master must be humble enough to recognize that others may have a different way of approaching a problem and allow them to experiment and learn.

If the team has trouble meeting its commitments, the scrum master must coach to inspect and adapt to help build a high-performing team.

5. Communicate and collaborate

Project managers focus on process and projects. Scrum masters focus on relationships and conversations.

One of the value statements in the Agile Manifesto is "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools," which means you must communicate and collaborate with people rather than through tools.

Let go of the checklists and the bureaucratic processes that get in the way of healthy dialog. Have conversations. Remember to listen, seek to find a win-win, and lead from the heart.

6. Have a common set of expectations and seek support

Perhaps the biggest problem I've seen with project-managers-turned-scrum-masters is the lack of understanding of their role from their own management. New scrum masters who are rightly practicing the agile mindset and using a servant-leadership style with their team will likely be very conflicted if they are expected to report up the chain to a command-and-control manager.

It's important that all leaders in an agile transformation have a common understanding of the scrum master role and that the expectations are clear. Managers, too, are often confused about their role in an agile transformation. Hopefully, they too are practicing servant-leadership skills and will help to guide the new scrum master.

However, if the manager expects command-and-control behavior from the scrum master, it might be a good idea for the scrum master to seek support from an agile coach or a trusted leader.

Embrace an agile mindset

Agile transformation is not easy and is often confusing for former project managers. Where once you had a PMBOK with a clear understanding of deliverables and expectations, you're now met with ambiguity and a whole new way of working.

However, you have a wealth of experience that will help you coach your teams. Having undoubtedly experienced the issues of a traditional approach, you will soon recognize the benefits of working with this new model. Once you've embraced an agile mindset, you will become the strongest advocate of this approach, leading the way in your organization’s transformation.

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