Choosing the Right Scrum Master: 4 Must-Have Qualities

August 2, 2013

If your software company has — like many of its peers — shifted to agile development practices, it likely means you’ve adopted (or are thinking about adopting) Scrum. And if that’s the case, your business needs a Scrum Master to ensure that everyone stays focused, on task, and unimpeded.
The term “Scrum Master” may bring to mind different images for different people (for some, maybe it’s a beefy guy with a Dutch accent, taped knuckles, a serious case of cauliflower ear). The truth, of course, is that the unifying characteristics of great Scrum Masters are internal rather than external, and the four must-have qualities listed below could actually be solid prerequisites for any lead project management role.
In fact, according to Scrum co-founder and OpenView senior advisor Dr. Jeff Sutherland, great Scrum Masters can come from virtually any background or discipline (i.e., engineering, design, testing, product management, journalism, academia, social work, etc.), and their role is relatively simple:

  • remove impediments
  • guide the team in Scrum practices
  • protect against outside interference

In that sense, a Scrum Master closely resembles the role of a personal trainer, writes Agile software development expert Mike Cohn. While that person may not have any direct control over what you eat and how hard you work out, they can inspire you to do those things through effective coaching and enablement.

4 Qualities Great Scrum Masters Have

Because the role of the Scrum Master lies somewhere between management function and team leader, defining the skills or qualities that make for good Scrum Masters can be difficult. Adding to the complexity of selecting the right Scrum Master is the fact that very few employees start out with the qualities needed to fulfill that role, and defining it is very often dependent on your company’s unique product challenges.
That said, there are four characteristics that you should look for when choosing the right Scrum Master:

1. A firm grasp of servant leadership and facilitation

Scrum Inc. Chief Operating Office Alex Brown points out that the role of the Scrum Master isn’t to tell a team what to do, it’s to support the team members in what they do best by helping them identify and remove impediments. It’s not always an easy mindset for individuals to transition into, Brown suggests, but the best leaders typically have the drive to encourage and enable others, which is required if the team is going to achieve its full potential.

2. A relentless approach to the pursuit of continuous improvement

Above all, being a successful Scrum Master is about improving the way a team works. Brown says that the best way to do that is through a retrospective analysis of processes and procedures that results in streamlining and optimization. While many employees are going to focus on what they are doing at the moment, it’s the Scrum Master’s job to encourage them to step back, review, and be precise about identifying anything that’s standing in their way.

3. A good relationship with the team and a certain degree of influence

As Cohn points out in this post, a Scrum Master may act as a team leader, but he or she typically lacks the authority of a true manager. As a result, a Scrum Master must be able to naturally command the respect of the team if he or she hopes to influence specific actions.

4. A breadth of product, market, and domain knowledge

The more Scrum Masters knows about their products, markets, and development processes, the easier it will be for them to diagnose subtle technical issues and convey resolutions to their team. That’s critical, says Cohn, because that knowledge will ensure that the team stays on course as it pursues a specific goal.

Should You Rotate the Scrum Master Role?

In most households, family members all share chores. For instance, in his family, Cohn says that his kids may be responsible for taking out the trash and washing the dishes one week, while he and his wife tackle those duties the next.
However, when it comes to cooking dinner, Cohn says that his wife is the only person who prepares meals — and that’s simply because she’s far better at it than anyone else.
Tech companies should approach the Scrum Master role the same way, Cohn writes in this post on his blog.
Once you’ve found a great Scrum Master, don’t rotate that person out of the job unless they — or the team — give you a compelling reason to do so. Otherwise, you’ll open yourself up to a number of potential issues, not the least of which is team-wide mutiny.

Additional Resources for Choosing the Right Scrum Master

Chief Business Officer at UserTesting

Tien Anh joined UserTesting in 2015 after extensive financial and strategic experiences at OpenView, where he was an investor and advisor to a global portfolio of fast-growing enterprise SaaS companies. Until 2021, he led the Finance, IT, and Business Intelligence team as CFO of UserTesting. He currently leads initiatives for long term growth investments as Chief Business Officer at UserTesting.