When I was a software developer and I met someone for the first time and they asked me what work I did, I would reply, “I type for a living.”

If you watched me work, you’d observe that I spent most of my time typing on a computer. Some meetings, some conversation, some whiteboarding, but mostly typing.

Typing was my primary, visible activity not my job. My job was to create value for customers. Solving problems or creating a feature that let them do something they couldn’t do before, but always adding value.

In the same way, it’s easy to conclude (based on observation) that a scrum master’s job is to facilitate meetings. That’s often the most visible activity they do.

But facilitating meetings is not a scrum master’s job. A scrum master’s job is to create high-performing teams.

Confusing activity for outcome is a common mistake within teams (especially during the daily standup) and a common mistake made about the role of the scrum master.

High-Performing Teams

A high-performing team:

  • Is predictable in what they deliver
  • Delivers customer value quickly
  • Focuses on the outcome of the work
  • Becomes more effective over time

Predictable

High-performing teams make and meet their commitments. They understand that it is impossible to predict the future (especially when creating software), yet they work very hard to deliver what they commit to on time. If they aren’t able to to meet their commitments, they get upset and work to improve for next time.

Scrum masters help the team become predictable by ensuring they don’t over-commit to the work they can do in a given increment. Scrum masters help the team hold themselves accountable to their commitments by helping make the work visible and encouraging the team to swarm on issues.

And, scrum masters ensure the team have metrics and visualizations of their capacity and predictability to help the team plan appropriately.

Delivering Customer Value Quickly

High-performing teams deliver customer value quickly and frequently. They understand that the primary measure of progress is working software and that the only measure of value delivered is working software deployed into the hands of customers.

Scrum masters help the team deliver value quickly by encouraging the product owner and teams to create small units of work that can be completed in a few days. They encourage short feedback loops which can take the form of small user stories or could be letting someone other than the developer get an “early look” at the feature to test it out and give feedback.

Scrum masters help the team deliver value quickly by helping the teams hold themselves accountable to meeting their “definition of done” for each piece of work. This ensures that everything delivered is in a state where it can be shipped to a customer while maintaining high quality.

And, scrum masters encourage the team to limit their work-in-progress (WIP) to ensure that issues actually complete on a regular basis. Two features done and ready to ship are better than ten features that are half-done. Customers don’t receive value until things are done and shipped.

Focus on Outcomes

High-performing teams measure success based on the outcomes they deliver to their customers. Everything they do is in service of this goal.

Scrum masters help the team to move past the “I’m a developer, you’re a tester” mentality and to one of true teamwork. In high-performing teams, everyone on the team shares the same goal and is willing to contribute to the success of the team, regardless of the type of work they’ll have to do to get there.

Mary Poppendieck calls this “flow efficiency” where you optimize for the flow of value to the customer. Most teams naturally optimize for “resource efficiency” (devs code, testers test, etc.).

For a fantastic example showing the difference in outcomes to the customer when you focus on flow efficiency instead of resource efficiency, look at the first part of this essay.

Scrum masters live in a mentality of flow efficiency and help teams understand this perspective by encouraging things like pair-programming and swarming on testing.

More Effective Over Time

High-performing teams maintain and increase their performance over time. And this isn’t just about the number of features delivered. High-performing teams perform better because they become stronger and healthier as a team over time.

Scrum masters understand that delivering good work on time and having a healthy team are not the same thing. And they understand that if a team is delivering but isn’t healthy, it is only a matter of time before the lack of team health starts to impact performance.

Scrum masters maintain a focus on the health of the team and the individuals in it. There are already dozens of people outside the team focused on what is being delivered when (stakeholders, customers, managers, etc.). But, without at least one person focusing on how to keep the team healthy and becoming more effective over time, teams run the risk of being “good” but not ever able to get to “great”.

Conclusion

The next time you hear someone say, “A scrum master is just a meeting facilitator” please point them here. This is like saying:

  • “A product owner just writes stories.”
  • “A developer just writes code.”
  • “A tester just executes test cases.”

When we confuse activity for outcome, we risk becoming complacent with how busy we are instead of asking how much value we’re delivering.

The job of a product owner, developer, tester or scrum master is to deliver customer value. Full stop.

And scrum masters are a critical component in helping the rest of the team to realize this.

Post-conclusion

Not all scrum masters are helping to create high-performing teams. There are scrum masters who just facilitate meetings.

If you feel that is the case on your team, it is worth asking whether or not you need a full-time scrum master. However…my guess is that if you look more closely at your team and why they’re effective, you’ll find that your scrum master is helping the team deliver more customer value. They’re just doing it in ways that may not be as easy to observe as watching them facilitating a meeting.