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Scrum Master Personality Types for Maximum Benefit


From CartoonStock by Artist Kate Taylor

How does a company identify and hire an excellent scrum master (SM)? Finding the right kind of person assures an organization that it can exceed its average return-on-investment on “projects;” see Erin’s presentation Scrum Exceeds Expected Value Due to Frequent Feedback for details. So what are the best scrum master personality types and which behaviors and attributes are the most desirable for a scrum master to have?

Going Agile can be Terrifying

Many organizations attempting to become agile typically do so with trepidation. In fact, the more successful an organization has been in using traditional project management methods, the less likely it is to fully embrace agile. The result is a typically painful period of adjustment where project managers (PMs) try their hands at “running scrum teams,” as opposed to retraining – if possible – to become excellent scrum masters.

In general, project managers don’t make good scrum masters. The “easy reason” for this is that project managers occupy the command + control space while good scrum masters are true servant leaders. Although it happens every day in corporate America, I don’t recommend turning PMs into SMs. Instead, I recommend adding PMs to scrum teams either as members of the development team or perhaps elevating them to product owners. The scrum master has to be able to say “no” to deadline requests if the team doesn’t want that, for example, yet encourage/lead the team to negotiate bits and pieces of high priority stories with their product owners.

Perhaps the best we can do in this article is to describe personalities and attributes that produce excellent scrum masters and hope that companies that are on the road to agile will embrace these descriptions to help them find the best candidates.

What to Look For in a Scrum Master

Recall the definition of a scrum master from Scrum, The Essential Agile Method for Software Development

“A servant leader: An individual who works for the entire team as a facilitator and coach….”

Also recall the five values of a scrum team

  • Commitment
  • Focus
  • Openness
  • Courage
  • Respect

What sort of person is capable of supporting a scrum team to help realize, demonstrate and hold one another accountable to these values?

In the excellent article The Impact Of The Scrum Master’s Personality On Team Success, author Rumesh Wijetunge offers his five most preferred personality traits of a scrum master as follows [NOTE: Descriptive summaries are mine but are based on the author’s work]…

  • Extrovert – Communicates effectively with anyone who impacts the team, whether internal or external to the organization.
  • Agreeable – Compassionate and friendly. Listens well. Is empathic.
  • Open – Encourages trial and error. Facilitates self-organization and celebrates failures as they occur, since failure is our single fastest path to long-term success.
  • Conscientious – Is organized, protects the team from outside distractions, removes impediments to the team’s success.
  • [Is not] Neurotic – Narcissistic and/or overly emotional behavior distracts the team from its mission.

Of these, I believe the most important (skill|talent|behavior) is communication.

Several years ago I wrote about two types of individuals who are well suited for work as a scrum master. I called these individuals…

Of these, the Strength Finder is my favorite sort of person to work for. Their mission is supporting their team(s) to help them become better at all they do. Note that the Everyday Evangelist plays an important role in cases where agile has local support in a company but is not yet embraced throughout the organization.

Can Anyone Become a Scrum Master?

At a recent agile users group meeting, we discovered that there are two distinct opinions among the group: Those who think that “good scrum mastering” can be taught and those who don’t. I tend to belong to the latter camp, having seen all manner of leaders who simply couldn’t get out of their own way to help their top performers succeed – primarily due to personality quirks.

On the other hand, perseverance might win the day…

“Through perseverance many people win success out of what seemed destined to be certain failure.”

~ Benjamin Disraeli

Another Gauge for Identifying a Good Scrum Master

Beginning in 1952, Clare Graves was the first of several individuals to establish an “ethical scale” to help identify why people reacted differently to specific circumstances. He called this the “Theory of Levels of Human Existence.” Graves’ eight levels of existence became the basis for the system known as Spiral Dynamics. A good example of the Graves Model is shown below, introduced in the article Values Development, Behaviour Change and Conservation (see the full model using this link).

From the article "Values Development, Behaviour Change and Conservation"

Persons who occupy the levels of…

  • Consensus (green on the scale)
  • Integral (yellow on the scale)
  • or Holistic (turquoise on the scale),

…will make the best scrum masters. If you haven’t seen this kind of model before, it’s worth the trouble to view the entire chart and take a few minutes to understand its meaning.

A Final Thought About Scrum Master Traits

As it happens, Geoff Watts wrote the article Getting RE-TRAINED as a ScrumMaster – in fact it was his first such article – in 2010. In it he reviews what the scrum master is actually responsible for and he reinforces what we’ve said above about the attributes a scrum master should have.

Quoting Geoff… “The ScrumMaster has four main responsibilities:

  • Facilitation of the individuals and interactions
  • Agent of change within the organisation
  • Impediment remover
  • Remover of distance between business and development

(end of quote)”

Geoff and the members of one of his classes initiated a set of properties that eventually became the acronym RE-TRAINED. It stands for those attributes a scrum master needs to have…

  • Resourceful
  • Enabler
  • Tactful
  • Respected
  • Argumentative
  • Integrity
  • Networked
  • Empathetic listener
  • Determined

The choice of a scrum master is critical to the success of the scrum team. I offered various perspectives in this article to help you understand what to look for in terms of personality types, behaviors and traits. One further selection tool is the Graves Model.

As opportunities arise in the future, we’ll delve a bit more into some or all of these topics.

About Jeff Hayes

Jeff is a speaker, an agile coach and project manager, and acts as influencer and connector to help teams and their organizations reduce chaos in order to achieve full agile transformation.
 

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