Tips for New Scrum Masters Part II: Coaching, Consulting, & Catalyzing Change

by Brandy Emesal
Image of a Scrum master coaching an agile team

As you work to demonstrate the Scrum values and support your teams and organization in doing the same, you will face abundant opportunities to coach, consult, and catalyze positive change. Because this is your area of expertise, you fulfill a position that simultaneously requires you to lead by example while also guiding others to discover their own path to agility.

Coaching, Consulting, & Catalyzing

Balance your expertise with their needs and goals.

Although coaching and consulting must be framed in terms of the subject’s interests, your presence as a Scrum Master sets the tone and creates space for tremendous growth in those around you. From the outside looking in, it seems a Scrum Master provides so much expertise. Scrum mastery, however, is really about helping others discover new ways to solve problems and communicate with others and with themselves. Truly effective Scrum Masters coach and cultivate culture within an organization. Here’s how to begin doing exactly that.

Become a shepherd of psychological safety. A business’ culture, moreover a team’s culture, includes a few key elements that can make or break its agility. Psychological safety, as a concept, speaks to the degree of comfort members of the group feel taking risks, failing, and speaking up, and whether they expect to be punished or rejected. Broken down for better understanding, psychological safety can be assessed through their:

  • Attitudes toward inclusivity
  • Trust — how they perceive the trustworthiness of the organization and its members and how much they believe they are trusted to make decisions, solve problems, and learn at work
  • Their sense of collective responsibility
  • How well they demonstrate the agile value of openness

To build and support truly great teams, observe and ask open-ended questions about attitudes, trust, responsibility, inclusivity, and openness, but do not exhaust yourself trying to force trust, openness, and positivity into a team that is struggling. Instead, leverage your position as Scrum Master, and therefore as a coach and consultant, to demonstrate psychological safety to your teams. Open-ended questions look like:

  • Could you tell me more about that?
  • What do you think? (especially to address someone who has not had the opportunity to speak yet)
  • Why do you think that is?
  • Is there agreement around what you are saying? 
  • What other ideas or opinions have we considered?

Related: Coaching Human Behaviors

Co-create a psychologically safe team environment.

The Scrum values serve as an “in” to help you help others succeed in a team environment. Focus, courage, openness, commitment, and respect all help build trust. 

  1. Focus promotes psychological safety with clearly defined roles and goals at every turn. That clarity of expectations also alleviates stress, which helps team members avoid overreacting with fight or flight responses to otherwise non-threatening problems. 
  2. Courage demonstrates psychological safety. As team members courageously take responsibility for their commitments, failures, and strengths the collective sentiment becomes one of demonstrative personal courage, supported by a team that makes space for vulnerability and growth.
  3. Openness goes hand in hand with courage, promoting the transparency necessary to inspect and adapt. Openness also reduces (and ideally eliminates) information hoarding, be that in relation to problems, progress, or helpful data and discoveries. It is worth noting that team members are most likely to demonstrate openness and courage if they witness authentic demonstrations of these values by leaders and stakeholders.
  4. Commitment cannot be faked for long, but it can be fostered when the other agile values are prioritized and demonstrated. With clarity of roles and goals, transparency into problems and discoveries, and the safety to courageously discuss the best interest of shared goals, team experiences, and organizational success, team members feel more committed and therefore demonstrate authentic commitment to each other and their customers.
  5. Respect is built. Practicing the Scrum values or the values outlined in the Agile Manifesto can help a team that reports low trust increase that metric over time. Each member of the team must take ownership of a psychologically safe space that demonstrates respect for differing opinions, equity, diversity, and a shared vision.
  6. Ask for consent. In business terms, it’s called “getting buy-in,” but that glosses over a much deeper, psychological concept at work. You have heard it in advice given to salespeople for decades: Get them to say yes. Going into any coaching opportunity, your team members may be on edge, and not without good reason. 

Related: Continuous Improvement — ScrumMaster Personal Improvement Tool

Coaching opportunities often arise from a conflict or problem. Additionally, through coaching, you may surface an underlying problem, about which one or many of your team members may be defensive. If the early parts of a coaching conversation leave someone feeling unsafe, they may struggle to communicate openly and authentically — many people will shut down entirely.

If, however, you request consent for a powerful 1-1 conversation before offering coaching or you ask the team in advance to consent and come with an open mind to a coaching conversation about a specific topic, you create space for them to witness their own resistance and say yes because they want to solve a problem with you. You may start with something like:

“I noticed {blame-free observation}. I would like to work together to {explain why/what’s in it for them}. Would you be open and available on {date}? I think this would take about {amount of time}.”

If the opportunity presents itself and you feel you should address it in the moment, try language like: “May I have your consent to explore that together a bit more? I think you’re onto something.”

Of course, any person has the right to say no to your offer. Indeed, some will decline the opportunity to be coached. Not only is this their right, but it is also a decision worth respecting. It is not impossible to have a productive coaching conversation with a reluctant participant, but your likelihood of appreciable success declines dramatically without buy in. If you are able to frame the opportunity in terms of their personal or team goals, that may help. If, however, it does not, do not be discouraged. New opportunities present themselves all of the time.

Related: Begin with the End in Mind — Defining Done in Every Coaching Engagement

Ask mostly open-ended questions.

These are, first and foremost, open. Avoid posing questions in a way that only leaves space for a yes or no answer. As you frame your questions, avoid positioning them as though you already know the “correct” answer. Be curious — the answer they will best understand, absorb, and leverage to make progress is the answer found, not just through the offering of additional solutions but via your invitations to introspection. Open-ended questions invite creativity and insights from unfamiliar angles because you and those being coached are walking together on a path to self-discovery. Try questions that evoke curiosity, discovery, joy, personal inquiry, and commitment. Ask:

  • What else is true about that?
  • What are all of the goals at play here (not just your goals)?
  • Why do you think that is? (Ask this repeatedly to continue to probe more deeply)
  • Why are you facing these obstacles? Why are they obstacles?
  • What is your responsibility? Are the responsibilities clearly defined, communicated, and agreed upon by all parties?
  • What could you do differently to improve your experience and the outcome next time?

Related: How to Engage Team Members in Scrum Events

Be a Change Agent for Your Team, Client, & Organization

Demonstrate a growth mindset and enlist help often.

By now you’re familiar with the tenets of Scrum and agility. What you may not have experienced, yet, is what happens without a values-based team culture or the organizational vision necessary to support continuous improvement.

  1. Prioritize your own continuous improvement. To be a true change agent, the culture of continuous improvement may have to start with you personally. This may be as simple as discussing your studies as a Scrum Master or modeling vulnerability by sharing your failures and enlisting the support of others in finding solutions. It does require, however, that you continuously prioritize pursuing growth as a person, Scrum Master, and employee or consultant. If you struggle to find time and space to prioritize your own learning opportunities, your openness, especially when you struggle, will help others understand why it is critical to carve out space for new learning opportunities.

  2. Model vulnerability. If you prioritize your growth behind the scenes but never allow others to see you doing so, you lose some of the benefit. Share your failures. Invite powerful feedback. Identify and discuss your growth opportunities. Moreover, enlist others’ help developing your growth strategy and/or holding you accountable to your goals for personal improvement. This is especially important if you only see one solution to a problem you face — by being vulnerable with your co-workers you open yourself up to solutions you had not previously dreamed existed.

  3. Enlist feedback and cooperation. It is not enough to simply express your vulnerabilities — you must cultivate the openness to enlist and receive feedback in a way your counterparts may feel enthusiastic about. This extends beyond you and your professional challenges. If your team is struggling to overcome impediments, reach out to other Scrum Masters or to the leaders, coaches, or peers who can and want to help.

 

Read Part One: Tips for New Scrum Masters Part I: Assessing Teams & Crafting Problem Statements

Read Part Three: Tips for New Scrum Masters Part III: Facilitating Focus and Alignment on Agile Teams

 

About the Author

Brandy Emesal is a Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) with certifications in Agile Leadership Essentials (CAL-E) and Agile Leadership for Teams (CAL-T). With a bachelor's of science in news-editorial journalism and a background as a marketer and military public affairs sergeant, she works on the Leaders Team at Scrum Alliance, creating content to help agile leaders and aspiring agilists advance their careers and empower their teams.

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Collection - Scrum Mastery: Building Blocks for Success

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