What makes a good scrum master? 10 essential qualities to look for

A scrum master is the lodestar to the scrum team ship.

In a nutshell, they ensure that the team follows the scrum process throughout the span of the project.

So, that entails things like navigating conflict, facilitating productive scrum events, promoting community and clarity, offering coaching and guidance, and so on. But you likely already know these things if you’ve landed on this article.

What you really want to know is what makes a good scrum master. The role is a new one, and its reality in everyday working life tends to be complex.

After all, scrum masters don’t have any real authority. Nor is there a universal handbook on how to be a scrum master, or a degree focused on scrum master skills. If you perform the role, you’re doing so while it’s in its infancy.

But there are still some absolute fundamentals you’ll need to do the job well. So, what makes a good scrum master? Start with these ten essential qualities.

Scrum: a framework designed to offer a better way to build products. It encourages software development teams to work together, to self-organise, and to continuously improve by reflecting on results.

1. Clear communication

Firstly, and most obviously, a scrum master must be a strong communicator.

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are with the scrum framework, how organised you are at managing projects, or how deep your technical knowledge runs.

If you can’t communicate with your team clearly and effectively, then you’re going to struggle as a scrum master.

2. Natural authority of character

A scrum master is a “servant leader”. So, they don’t have the usual, HR-based powers over the team that you might expect.

Rather than simply forcing decisions, then, the scrum master must be a more directional leader.

Team members follow them out of trust and respect – not due to an official authority capacity. And this requires a natural authority of character to pull off effectively.

3. Openness to change

Next, what makes a good scrum master is their openness to change. After all, an agile software development environment should encourage experimentation.

A good scrum master will suggest new things. They’ll switch things up now and then.

And of course, they’ll carefully observe the results of any changes to help continually drive better ways of working moving forward.

4. Competence in conflict management

Being a scrum master means being able to handle conflict. In any project, you’re going to naturally hit upon issues that team members can’t agree on.

And as part of facilitating and moderating, you’ll have to help navigate and resolve these issues so the team can achieve their end goal.

Sometimes, that means you also need to be comfortable with being inconvenient or annoying. (It’s an unfortunate side-effect of addressing unproductive / dysfunctional attitudes.)

5. Knowing when (and how) to push back

As a scrum master, you’ll often need to push back against the demands of product owners. It’s your job to protect both your team and the quality of the project – meaning no cut corners, no last-minute rushes, no technical debt where it can be helped.

An overzealous product owner or a non-technical stakeholder might not always know when they’re asking for too much from the team. But you do.

So, you’ll need to be able to push back in a way that keeps the peace.

6. Knowing when to speak up, and when to shut up

This ties in with the next point. Sometimes, what makes a good scrum master is simply knowing when to speak.

You’ll need to make suggestions to help steer your scrum team along the right course. You should assist when the team has hit a dead-end.

But you also need to let the team troubleshoot and work things out on their own. If you’re constantly jumping in with all the answers and pushing your advice right away, you’re not giving the team a chance to learn (or think) for themselves.

7. Genuinely caring for your team

You can’t be a good scrum master without being empathetic, or without genuine care for the people that make up your team. You need to understand each individual in the scrum team.

What are they good at – personally and collectively? And what are they not so good at? Going deeper, how does Ben handle feedback? Does Alex tend to clash with Sam? What motivates Lou?

Only by taking the time to understand your team, the people it comprises, and their frictions and needs, can you help create a better working environment.

8. Ability to appear unneeded

Looking unneeded is not the same as being unneeded. Rather, what you’re aiming for here is to develop your team to the extent that they can self-organise efficiently.

They’re not dependant on you for help with every little thing, and they don’t fall apart the second you’re not there.

From the outside, your team looks so good that anyone not in the know might even wonder if you’re needed.

9. Unafraid of failure

Failure isn’t a dirty word in scrum. It’s a stepping stone to success.

So, what makes a good scrum master is an empirical approach that – rather than fearing failure – seeks to learn from mistakes. This isn’t to say you should strive for failure – but nor should you fear it.

See any failures as attempts, and ones that the team can readdress and grow from.

10. Comprehensive technical knowledge

Last, a scrum master has to know their stuff.

Being a good project manager is one thing. Having the knowledge to understand and navigate the key technical issues in an agile software development environment is another entirely.

It’s okay not to be a deep specialist in every given area, but you will need a good generalist technical proficiency coupled with a willingness to keep on learning.

TL;DR: What makes a good scrum master?

You’ll need a diverse mix of skills to succeed as a scrum master.

It’s not enough to be a keen scrum advocate who knows the agile rule book by heart. It’s not enough to have great soft skills when it comes to dealing with others. And nor is it enough to be a fount of tech knowledge.

Rather, what makes a good scrum master is a smattering of all these skills combined.

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