Understanding the ScrumMaster's Role in Team Communication
A common misunderstanding among those new to agile is exactly what the role of the ScrumMaster is on the team.
I have often heard people say, “I didn’t sign up to be a ScrumMaster; it’s not my job to talk to the product owner,” or “I’m not the ScrumMaster; I don’t like to act like one.” These individuals believe the ScrumMaster is the center of communication between the team and the product owner. Therefore, developers can abdicate any responsibility to communicate with stakeholders.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
The ScrumMaster should not be the sole point of contact between the team and the product owner (or other stakeholders). Relying on them to do this negatively impacts the quality of communication through entropy, by having one person always communicate everything back and forth.
The ScrumMaster’s role is to be a facilitator for the team and enable communication between the team and stakeholders. While the ScrumMaster may have to get involved in solving some issues—that is why it is important that the ScrumMaster is given authority in the company to do so—they should avoid getting directly involved, and instead opt to coach or guide the team to a solution.
The ScrumMaster should facilitate sprint planning, grooming sessions, and opportunities for the team or individual team members to get clarity on requirements, as well as push back on unrealistic requests and propose innovative technical solutions to business needs. When they become the filter for all communication, things get lost in translation, the team doesn’t develop what the customer needs, and collaboration becomes impossible.
By having the ScrumMaster simply facilitate communication, the hope is that the next time the team is struggling, they can have conversations on their own to let the business know the impacts early, so impediments can be removed. Over time, the team will be able to figure things out more effectively, build a relationship of trust with stakeholders, and feel comfortable asking questions.
If the team cannot get clarification or answers from the product owner, then the ScrumMaster should help the team solve this issue, but not by getting the answers themselves. Enabling the team to avoid all responsibility of communication is in direct contradiction to the Agile Manifesto—after all, we value “individuals and interactions” as well as “customer collaboration.” A team cannot claim to be following agile and find no value in either principle.
Communication is a two-way street. Agile ceremonies such as retrospectives, backlog grooming, and sprint planning may seem like a drag to some, but all provide the key benefit of fostering communication that leads to successful action. A team member who doesn’t want to collaborate or communicate probably isn’t a good member of the team.
ScrumMasters should coach teams to be honest and open with the product owner, coach product owners to invest appropriate time to meet with the team and be open to change, and hold all parties accountable to the agile process you have in place.