Coaching a Scrum Master on a Struggling Team

Every once in a while an Agile team will begin to struggle. High priority stories left unfinished in a sprint, consistent poor quality, and a bickering team has all led to low team morale, sporadic productivity, and an unhappy product owner.

Ideally, the Scrum Master can observe and identify the core issues with the team and coach them back to a healthy state. But what if the Scrum Master is having difficulties doing so?

If you are a manager in an Agile organization or a leader of Scrum Masters, what role should you play in getting the team back on track? Here are a few of the techniques I have used:

Observe Scrum events (paying close attention to the planning and review sessions). Don’t ask anything or don’t recommend anything until you get a chance to observe. Watch planning sessions carefully. Are the right discussions being held within the team to determine acceptance criteria? Are technical complexities being reviewed and analyzed? Look for team body language. Do people seem distracted or uninterested? Is the team effectively using the sprint burn-down chart? During the review session, is the team taking their definition of done seriously?

Ask the right questions. Once you have finished observing, its time to begin asking a few questions with your Scrum Master. Probing questions will allow you to gauge the areas where the Scrum Master may need some help. Questions such as “What did you see in the planning session?” and “Why do you think the team is struggling?” are usually good starters.

Determine your next move: teach, mentor, or encourage. Based on the responses from the Scrum Master, you can assess your options:

If the Scrum Master has a good handle on what’s wrong and how to fix it, encourage him to take action and trust his ability to solve it.

If the issue is something the Scrum Master has seen before, is within their ability to solve, or is a challenge they feel confident resolving, mentor him. This may involve partnering with the Scrum Master to find a solution together. The next time this situation arises, he will be ready.

If the Scrum Master is new, feels overwhelmed, or does not have a good grasp on the issue, teach him. Explain various ways to solve the solution and begin to close gaps in experience or confidence. You may need to “pair” with him for a period of time until he is ready.

Establish a follow-up plan. Ask if they have everything they need and setup a specific date and time to check on progress. Be available as questions come up and continue to encourage.

Self-retrospect to determine how well you performed. Did you resist the temptation to jump to teaching or mentoring without observing and asking questions first? Did you ask the right questions? How well do you know your Scrum Master and did you assess your next move accurately?


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply