Your browser does not support JavaScript! How does a Scrum Master actually facilitate anything? - Scrum Inc.
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I was recently coaching a team and got pulled-in to mediate between the Scrum Master and the Product Owner. It was revealed that the SM felt under-utilized. As I probed for why, one of the company’ s executive asked, "In your training materials, it commonly states that the SM facilitates this and the SM facilitates that, but it doesn’t outright define what it means to facilitate anything."

A great question! We discussed this for a while and arrived at not much more than the dictionary definition for the word facilitate.

Dissatisfied with this answer, I went to the source: Dr. Sutherland, the inventor of the Scrum Master role. Dr. Sutherland said that the word facilitate was chosen for the Scrum Master specifically because of that dictionary definition: to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.) Ultimately, the Scrum Master’s main function is to help forward the adoption of Scrum by their team and, the organization as a whole.

Additionally, they should be making it easier for all of the team to participate in Scrum events and to accelerate in terms of their volume of work (velocity). This answer was right in line with the Scrum Guide:

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules. The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

While this answer satisfied me intellectually, I also wanted to hear from others in the Scrum Inc. community about what they felt facilitate meant in the context of the Scrum Master’s role as an Agile Coach. Our Coaching Community of Practice meets weekly and the original question generated a lot of discussion and provided some great practical answers from personal experience in the role:

No interjection of one's own opinion or agenda

  • Let the participants determine the goal, don’t determine it for them
  • Beware of identifying with one specific person
  • Keep emotional distance
  • Think about deliverables and ask questions to facilitate that delivery [ex. the 3 questions of the Daily Stand Up]
  • Use active listening and questioning to guide the conversation and participants to find their own answers

Dr. Sutherland also encouraged me to do further research on the topic and sent an interesting article about the role of a facilitator by the Mind Tools Editorial Team. I found a few great ideas. Some of their best points:

To facilitate and event well, you must first understand the group’s desired outcome, and the background and context of the meeting or event. The bulk of your responsibility is then to:

  • Design and plan the group process, and select the tools that best help the group progress towards that outcome.
  • Guide and control the group process to ensure that:
    • There is effective participation.
    • Participants achieve a mutual understanding.
    • Their contributions are considered and included in the ideas, solutions or decisions that emerge.
    • Participants take shared responsibility for the outcome.
  • Ensure that outcomes, actions and questions are properly recorded and actioned, and appropriately dealt with afterwards.

Note the bolded words (their emphasis), which describe the facilitator’s responsibilities: design and plan, guide and control, outcomes recorded and actioned. Furthermore, of major importance is the inclusion of everyone in the process in terms of inputs as well as outputs, and that the action items created should become goals to be completed.

The one word we need to be careful with in the above is the word control. That idea is where we could get into trouble. Scrum Masters need to lead structured conversations for an important reason:

Teams can get off track easily, and need to be reminded to focus because our meetings are time-boxed. However, what we don’t need to do is control a situation in order to achieve an agenda outside of the context of the team or for boosting our own egos.

Overall, the discussions led to me think even deeper about how Scrum differs from the traditional Command and Control model seen in business. Scrum delivers better products faster than other methods because it leverages the minds of all involved and no one person on the team is as smart as all of the people on the team. The combined brainpower that Scrum enables, through proper facilitation, can ensure that companies who embrace it stay ahead of their competitors.