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Agile
7 minute read

Tracking the Scrum Master Growth Path

Whether you’re exploring the fundamentals or refining your leadership skills, these recommendations will help you chart a path toward becoming a true transformation expert.

When the Scrum framework was introduced to our company in 2009, none of us understood what the Scrum master should do. After we finished our training and began to request team roles, our CEO was surprised that I chose Scrum master instead of product owner. What a product owner does was clear to him, but the day-to-day responsibilities of a Scrum master were not. Given the ambiguity, how would he evaluate the success of my work and how would I evaluate my own progress on this career path?

Even today, many companies struggle to properly assess the work done by a Scrum master. And yet the position remains in high demand, with almost 66,000 job postings for Scrum masters in 2020—a number expected to grow by 37.9% over the next decade.

Scrum masters are expected to be facilitators, coaches, mentors, trainers, and leaders, but their routes to achieving expert status in all of these areas are as varied as their backgrounds, which range from technical to business to professional coaching. A Scrum master starting their position with strong top-down management skills, for example, may struggle to develop the qualities of a servant-leader within a Scrum team’s non-hierarchical structure. A professional coaching history may help someone undertake the servant-leader role with relative ease, but they may require more time to successfully adopt Agile methods—something that would come as second nature to a Scrum master with a technical background. In short, it’s unreasonable to expect a Scrum master to step into the role with the full spectrum of skills required or to master missing skills overnight.

Whether you’re just starting out or already advanced in your career, you likely have the same question that confounded my former CEO: What proven competencies should Scrum masters acquire throughout their careers?

The following Scrum master growth path will answer that question and guide you toward becoming a true transformation expert.

Learn the Fundamentals: The Beginner Stage

Early in your career, you’re focused on the basics: mastering the Scrum framework, guiding your team’s understanding of Scrum theory and practice, and working with the product owner on Scrum artifacts—most significantly, the product backlog. As a Scrum master in the beginner stage, you’re developing your competency with the standard roles and processes that organize the work of a Scrum team.

The Scrum master assessment from AgilityHealth shows five competencies: foundation, planning, execution, leadership, and coaching. While Scrum masters should work on advancing in all of these areas at every stage of their careers, a beginner should pay close attention to the foundation. Scrum.org’s professional Scrum competencies and the Scrum Guide’s instruction on roles and processes can help a novice Scrum master set team responsibilities, structure, norms, working agreements, practices, and workflows—and understand the Agile values that inform them.

[The Scrum Master competencies and key skills as defined by AgilityHeath. The competencies, Foundation, Planning, Execution, Leadership, and Coaching, are arranged in a circle, with associated skills listed beneath. Under Foundation are Team Norms, Roles & Expectations, Team Structure, and Agile Values. Under Planning are Backlog Refinement, Planning at Scale, Sprint Planning, and Metrics & Reporting. Under Execution are Daily Scrum, Impediments & Dependencies, Subject Matter Expertise, Value Delivery, and Measure & Grow. Under Leadership are Protect From Disruptions, Positive Encourager, Enable Autonomy, Effective Facilitator, and Self-organizing Teams. Under Coaching are Relationship Builder, Effective Communicator, Teacher & Coach, Good Listener, and Healthy Culture.]

Building and leading a team grounded in Scrum theory will prepare you for the Scrum master’s primary role: supporting your developers and the product owner in the finer details of the daily work. It’s critical to establish a strong collaboration with your product owner as you begin to familiarize yourself with backlog management. Help them facilitate different events like planning, value stream mapping, story mapping, and design brainstorming. Home in on DEEP (detailed, emergent, estimated, prioritized) and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based) techniques to frame backlog items in terms of user needs.

A robust product backlog will help the developers understand what work needs to be done, when, and why; it will help the product owner eliminate unnecessary questions, requests, and dependencies; it will enable the team to achieve its shared goals by keeping everyone on course to maintaining a transparent and efficient workflow; and it will mark your progress toward the practitioner level.

Refine Continuously: The Practitioner Stage

After theory comes practice, and when working with the team on day-to-day improvements, you will invariably stumble upon resistance, artificial boundaries, and cultural clashes. Be ready to overcome two related challenges at this stage: 1) building team consensus (see the Tuckman model) and 2) improving your skills in execution and planning.

With a firm grounding in Scrum theory, you can begin to model rules and processes for your team through well-planned Scrum events. Work with the team to apply Agile values to real-life situations and evaluate each sprint—and each new initiative—based on those values. For example, when planning a retrospective after a major update, prepare questions for the team, such as:

  • Did we need to implement this functionality at this stage?
  • How did this update serve our customers or improve product quality?
  • What would have happened if we hadn’t implemented these features now?

Such questions will uncover the value of using outcome-based metrics for ongoing and future product work. Understanding key metrics such as velocity, cycle time, lead time, customer satisfaction, team happiness, innovation rate, and defect rate will allow you to plan at scale, manage stakeholders, and help the team set the right objectives to best achieve product outcomes.

As a practitioner approaching the expert stage, you should feel more comfortable with the role of servant-leader. Build empathy and remain unbiased to overcome team dysfunctions, and leverage collaboration to turn disagreements into creative opportunities for planning and executing future product goals.

Lead in an Environment of Change: The Expert Stage

There is no universal definition for what makes an expert Scrum master. Different companies prioritize different things—at some, coaching and facilitation may be most important; others may prioritize delivery and execution.

For me, leadership agility is the hallmark of an expert-level Scrum master. A Scrum master demonstrates leadership agility in the unpredictable context of a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, thriving in uncertainty and in areas not covered by standard rules, roles, and processes. A Scrum master who excels at leadership agility should be able to:

  • Evaluate each situation in its own context to find the best solutions.
  • Apply Lean thinking and look at the big picture to identify gaps in the workflow.
  • Use active listening, powerful questions, and coaching models to bring out the most in the team.
  • Build accountability within the team to reduce dependence on the Scrum master.
  • Know how to engage management when organizational impediments are impacting the team.
  • Help the team develop an outcome-focused vision of product success.
  • Mentor and lead in developing agility throughout the organization.

People who understand leadership agility act as change agents above all. They lead in an environment of change rather than reacting to crises.

Advance the Profession—at Every Stage

A beginner may call on their company or project management office to provide additional support and training. An expert may thrive in an environment of autonomy and trust. But the mark of a true professional, regardless of their career maturity, is self-education and engagement with a community of other working professionals. The most experienced Scrum master and the most earnest beginner actively participate in—and shape—the professional discourse.

Organizations such as the International Association of Facilitators, International Scrum Institute, and the International Consortium for Agile provide access to conferences, webinars, publications, toolkits, and a network of colleagues. The professional certifications offered by Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, and the LeSS Company are all highly visible means of tracking your progress that instantly convey your expertise to current and future employers. A recent analysis from Coursera found that certifications from Scrum Alliance appeared in more than 9,000 job postings across LinkedIn, Indeed, and SimplyHired, with additional demand for certifications from Scrum.org and Scaled Agile.

A chart listing the top Scrum master certifications and the number of times each appears in a job posting. Under the categories Certification, Organization, LinkedIn, Indeed, SimplyHired, and Total are seven rows: 1) CSM, Scrum Alliance, 3,011, 1,667, 1,207, 5,885; 2) CSPO*, Scrum Alliance, 1,258, 825, 547, 2,630; 3) PSM, Scrum.org, 519, 183, 141, 843; 4) CSP-SM, Scrum Alliance, 420, 204, 158, 782; 5) SSM, Scaled Agile, 277, 201, 111, 589; 6) PSPO*, Scrum.org, 326, 104, 90, 520; 7) CSD, Scrum Alliance, 70, 60, 31, 161. There is also a footnote: The full name of each certification was used in searches to avoid confusion with overlapping acronyms, unless marked with an asterisk.

Different levels of certifications exist for different levels of expertise. For instance, the Project Management Institute offers advanced-level Scrum master certification specializing in Disciplined Agile delivery and Scrum Alliance’s Certified Scrum Master is followed by the Advanced Certified Scrum Master credential. And while there’s no substitute for hands-on experience, these graded levels of certification can serve as concrete markers of progress in your career.

How Will You Define Success?

If you don’t know where you stand in your development, always look to your team. The real measure of a Scrum master’s success is their team’s success. The Scrum master growth path will ultimately guide the growth of your company too. While serving as an advocate of your company’s stated values, you are also in the unique position to be an agent of change, relentlessly challenging those values to summon initiatives that will propel your teams to new levels. In short, your continuous growth as a Scrum master makes a real difference in the success of your projects, your company, and your career.

Where the Scrum master growth path leads next is up to you. Being a Scrum master is a rewarding career, and many find that it becomes a lifelong role. However, your individual path may lead you in new directions. Years of guiding teams as a servant-leader can help you develop the skills needed to pursue executive positions in people management. Alternately, handling the product backlog and allocating resources can equip you for a move to the business side of projects as a product owner. You may decide you want to continue leading Agile transformations at an organizational level and take on a mentorship role as an Agile coach. The options for career growth are as varied as the backgrounds of Scrum masters entering the profession. And the skills you acquire in the course of developing this role will allow you to serve as a change agent within your organization no matter what position you hold.

Understanding the basics

The employment data firm Burning Glass reported almost 66,000 job postings for Scrum masters in 2020, and predicts a 37.9% increase in demand for Scrum masters over the next decade.

The career path of a Scrum master is marked by several key skills and competencies. As you advance from beginner to practitioner to expert, you will master skills in foundation, planning, execution, coaching, and leadership, developing leadership agility skills to help you thrive in an environment of change.

If a Scrum master chooses to move into another role, they have several options for the next phase of their career. Some go on to become a mentor or Agile coach, others become product owners, and some move to an executive career track.