Coaching a Controlling Scrum Master

As more and more organizations begin to shift to Agile practices many existing Project Managers are making the transition to become a Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager. I have seen many people make this move seamlessly and are doing quite well while there are some who find the new role a little more challenging.

A natural tendency for those making this transition is to bring with them the practices that made them successful in their previous role as a Project Manager. The success or failure of a project would often land in the lap of the Project Manager. By having this responsibility, the Project Manager would do the things deemed necessary to ensure a project was delivered on time and under budget.

The nature of Agile teams will shift many of these responsibilities to other roles on the team (or they may not be needed at all). Product or project accountability should begin to transition to the whole team – not just one individual.

The behaviors and actions often seen as strengths for a Project Manager do not always translate to being the Scrum Master your Agile team really needs and is craving for. Giving up control when you have always had control is never easy. However, by being too controlling you may never give your team the opportunity of experiencing all the benefits of being self-accountable and self-healing.

You can usually sniff out the symptoms of a controlling Scrum Master by watching their interactions during a daily stand-up meeting.

  • Is the Scrum Master moving the tasks on the Information Radiator?
  • Is the Scrum Master assigning tasks to people?
  • Is the Scrum Master speaking more than anyone else?

There are times, especially with new Agile teams, when a Scrum Master will need to be a bit more directive and play an active coaching role but this should only last a few sprints. Well-functioning Agile teams do not need an additional layer between them and their work.

Well-functioning Agile teams do not need an additional layer between them and their work.

If you are a leading or coaching a Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager who may be a little too controlling, here are a couple approaches to take:

Observing. One of the first things I do is ask the Scrum Master to step back and just observe. Just about everything you need to know about people and teams can be learned just by watching and listening to them. This will often get the Scrum Master thinking more about team dynamics and health.

Connecting with people. During this period of observation, I will often ask the Scrum Master to schedule one-on-one sessions with each team member. Learn more about their team members personality, their approach to work, and their life outside of work. This will often get the Scrum Master thinking about the importance of relationships and of serving others.

Focusing on impediments. Scrum Masters increase their value when they are clearing the path for their product owners and team. This is done by shifting from day-to-day task management to becoming a relentless remover of impediments. This will often get the Scrum Master thinking about how they play a part in delivering value to our customers.

Journaling. I will sometimes ask them to journal what they are seeing and how their team is responding. I was never able to commit to journaling until a couple of years ago but have found it’s a great technique to help with self-awareness and development. After a sprint, we will often review some of the journal entries together. This will often get the Scrum Master to focus on how their actions may be impacting their team.


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