A Scrum Master’s Starting Backlog

Make the most of your first sprint
A Scrum Master’s Starting Backlog

One of the down sides of becoming a Certified ScrumMaster is that everyone expects you to know what’s going on, even when you’re just getting started.

Your scrum team members — and your boss — expect you to come up to speed quickly. 

How do you do that in a way that is effective and will not undermine your long term position?

What are the right questions to ask — and how? 

Create Understanding and Build Trust

Scrum Masters have two overriding priorities when they join new organizations: Create understanding and build trust. To achieve these objectives, I recommend a process that looks a lot like a healthy retrospective

As outlined in “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great,” the five steps of a healthy retrospective are:

  1. Set the Stage

  2. Gather Data

  3. Generate Insights

  4. Decide What to Do

  5. Close

This kind of systematic approach to observation and data collection creates a comprehensive view of the organization and, as you meet with team members throughout the discovery process, helps you to build individual relationships based on trust.

The Four Steps of Scrum Master Discovery

Stepping through a scrum master discovery is not unlike the steps of a healthy retrospective. 

1. Set the Stage: What is the Vision?

You’ve just started in an organization. One of the first things you do is meet with your leadership. Find out what success looks like to them. What do they see as the goal in six months or a year from now? With a clear goal in mind, you can then evaluate how well the organization is moving toward that goal. 

For a more in depth setting of the stage, read “Liftoff: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams,” by Diana Larsen and Ainsely Nies.

2. Gather Data: Interviews, Observations, Retrospectives

When gathering data for a discovery leverage one-on-one interviews, team observations, and retrospectives. 

Interviews: Meet with all the key stakeholders related to the team or teams you will be working with: managers, product owners, scrum masters, business stakeholders, etc. Then ask them all the exact same set of questions. By using the same questions I can tease out quantitative trends that run across the organization. 

Types of questions to ask: 

  • How is success measured today?

  • Why do you want to adopt agile principles and practices?

  • What is the biggest challenge facing the organization/team today?

  • In six months, how will you measure my impact as successful?

Retrospectives: Starting your work with a team doing a retrospective is a great way to get engaged. Instead of just looking at the last sprint, set a three-month time box and use the framing question, “What is impacting your ability to get your work done, positive or negative?”

To take this a step further, offer to do a large-scale retrospective for the whole organization. 

Team practices observations: Instead of asking questions of the team, practice silence and observe. Observe the team through a full sprint of events to see how the team operated before you came along. Then ask yourself, “What works?” “Where are opportunities to improve?” “What are their impediments?” 

For team observations, create a “practices health check” in which you record your observations. A simple spreadsheet with yes/no questions based on the Scrum Guide and mapped to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition works well. 

3. Generate Insights: Examine the Data

Once you complete your interviews, retrospectives, and team observations, compile your notes into a set of data points. For example, each interviewee’s answer to “How is success measured?” or each anchor and propeller from the retrospectives. Then look at the data as a whole and analyze it. What are the common trends? Where is the low hanging fruit? What tensions exist?

4. Decide What to Do: Make Your Backlog

Your insights may then become your scrum master backlog, an ordered list of what’s important to focus on. You may want to meet with your key stakeholders, manager, product owner, and/or other scrum masters to get help with ordering the backlog and perhaps to even share the work. 

As with a good retrospective, the goal is to get to one or two actionable next steps right away. Focus on the top of your backlog and come up with specific plans of action that you can share with the team and your stakeholders.  

Building Trust Is As Important as Gathering Data

Throughout my experience as a scrum master, and more recently as a Certified Team Coach, a systematic approach to data collection and one-on-one engagement creates a feeling of order and stability as I come up to speed with a new team or organization. This in turn leads to trust. And as important as the data I gather is, creating the trust is even more so. 

Related article: Scrum Masters Help Build Trust


About the Author


Joel Bancroft-Connors is a Principal Consultant at Applied Frameworks and a Scrum Alliance Certified Team Coach®. Known to many as “The Gorilla Coach,” Joel has over 20 years of experience coaching teams and managing products at blue chip software companies. Joel also holds certifications as a Scrum Alliance Certified Team Coach, and Product Management Professional.




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