Scrum Master Interview: Demand Creates Supply and the Job Market for Agile Practitioners is No Exception
Scrum has proven time and again to be the most popular framework for software development. Given that software is eating the world, a seasoned Scrum Master is nowadays in high demand. And that demand causes the market-entry of new professionals from other project management branches, probably believing that reading one or two Scrum books will be sufficient. Which makes any Scrum Master interview a challenging task.
If you are looking to fill a position for a Scrum Master (or agile coach) in your organization, you may find the following 54 interview questions useful to identify the right candidate. They are derived from my fifteen years of practical experience with XP as well as Scrum, serving both as Product Owner and Scrum Master as well as interviewing dozens of Scrum Master candidates on behalf of my clients.
So far, this Scrum Master interview guide has been downloaded more than 22,000 times.
Update 2021-09-12: I added three new questions on Scrum anti-patterns, from the Product Backlog to the Sprint Planning to the Sprint Review, to provide more insight into the Scrum value creation process and the organization’s return on investment.
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Download the 54 Scrum Master Interview Questions PDF
The free 51 Scrum Master Interview Questions PDF is not merely listing the questions, but also contains background information on:
- Why the questions are useful in the process.
- A range of appropriate answers.
Two to three questions from each category will provide more than enough ground for an engaging 60 minute-long conversation with candidates.
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The Scrum Master According to the Scrum Guide
While the Scrum Guide is sometimes detailing issues to a lesser degree, the Scrum Master role does receive appropriate attention:
The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.
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 change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.
Source: Scrum Guide 2017.
The Scrum Guide continues defining a Scrum Master’s services to the Product Owner, the Development Team, and the organization, which guided the creation of the following set the Scrum Master interview questions.
51 Scrum Master Interview Questions
Scrum is not a methodology, but a framework. There are no rules that apply to every scenario, just best practices that have worked in other organizations before. Hence, you have to figure out on your own what is working for your organization–which is a process, not a destination.
The role of the Scrum Master or agile coach in my understanding is hence primarily about leadership and coaching, but not about management. And most definitely, the Scrum Master role is not about process enforcement. This is also the reason, that the repository contains mostly questions that address a candidate’s soft skills. ‘Agile needs to be pulled; it cannot be pushed. (Unless your organization is planning to waste significant investments on some version of cargo cult agile, see also ‘Cargo Cult Agile: The ‘State of Agile’ Checklist for Your Organization.’)
The Scrum Master interview questions in this PDF are modeled after a holistic model of agile product development for software products:
In this model, product discovery is moved as far as possible to the left to keep costs of validating hypotheses — derived from a vision and strategy — low and increase the speed of experimentation. In this approach it is crucial that the Scrum Master coaches the scrum team to adopt such a holistic model, some call it dual-track agile, as well.
Therefore, the PDF contains additional background and contextual information, how the following set of questions can be interpreted as well as guidance on desired or acceptable ranges of answers for each question — based on such a holistic model. The questions themselves are grouped into seven categories.
Scrum Master Interview Questions: How We Organized Questions and Answers
The ebook provides both questions as well as guidance on the range of suitable answers. These should allow an interviewer to deep dive into a candidate’s understanding of Scrum and her agile mindset. However, please note that:
- The answers reflect the personal experience of the authors and may not be valid for every organization: what works for organization A, may not work in organization B.
- There are no suitable multiple choice questions to identify a candidate’s agile mindset given the complexity of applying “agile” to any organization.
- The authors share a holistic view of agile practices: agile equals product discovery (what to build) plus product delivery (how to build it).
Please find following 54 Scrum Master interview questions to identify suitable candidates for the role of Scrum Master or agile coach:
I. The Role Of The Scrum Master
Question 01: The Scrum Master Role as a Contradiction?
The Agile Manifesto infers people over processes. Isn’t a Scrum Master — whose role is meant to “enforce” the process — therefore a contradiction?
Scrum Masters do not wield any real authority but act as servant leaders. The Scrum Team does not report to them. This question is meant to help reveal whether your candidate understands that their role is to lead — as opposed to manage — the team. Asking this question is also likely to reveal why your candidate is interested in the role of a Scrum Master in the first place.
Acceptable answers should emphasize facilitation and support, for example:
- “I am the servant-leader for the Scrum Team. It’s my job to make them successful.”
- “I am neither a project manager nor a people manager. I support the Scrum Team in achieving self-organization. I do not tell people what to do.”
- “I am the Scrum Team’s facilitator as teacher, coach, or mentor, encouraging them to excel as a team.”
Question 02: Success Factors of “Agile”
What indicators might there be that demonstrate agile practices are working for your organization, and which of these would demonstrate your efforts are succeeding?
There is no standard or general definition of ‘agile success’ that can be used to measure an organization’s agility. Every organization must develop its own criteria. Increasing team velocity is usually not considered to be a meaningful indicator.
However, although mostly indirect, there are various indicators that may be useful in determining success:
- Products delivered to customers are resulting in higher retention rates, better conversion rates, increased customer lifetime value, and similar improvements to the business. (A successful Scrum Team provides a good return on investment to the business.)
- The improved organizational agility allows pursuing market opportunities successfully, which previously would have been considered futile.
- There has been a reduced allocation of resources to low-value products.
- Lead time, from validated idea to shipped product, has been reduced.
- The cycle time for hypotheses validations has been reduced, speeding up the product discovery process.
- Improved team happiness is exhibited by reduced churn and an increase in the number of referrals from team members.
- Increased competitiveness in the war for talent can be demonstrated by an increase in the number of experienced people willing to join the organization.
- Increased software quality can be demonstrated by measurably less technical debt, fewer bugs, and less time spent on maintenance.
- There is greater respect among stakeholders for the product delivery teams.
- Stakeholders are increasingly participating in events, for example, during the Sprint Review.
Question 03: Impediment Remover
Should a Scrum Master remove impediments on behalf of the Scrum Team?
A Scrum Master should not be concerned with removing problems that the Scrum Team can solve themselves, no matter how often this requirement is mentioned in job advertisements. If a Scrum Master acts like a ‘Scrum helicopter parent,’ their team will never become self-organizing.
A Scrum Team must learn to make its own decisions. This almost inevitably results in failures, dead-ends, and other unplanned excursions when the team is learning something new. Consequently, in the beginning, a team will need more guidance than usual from the Scrum Master — and of a different kind than exemplified by drawing offline boards (see Questions 31 and 32) or updating tickets in JIRA. Such guidance should not, however, become an exercise in protective parenting — a team must be allowed to learn from their failures.
That being said, there is one area where the Scrum Master is indeed removing problems on behalf of the team. This applies when the Scrum Team cannot solve the problem by themselves, for example, because the issue is an organizational problem. Now we are talking about “impediments.” Only in this situation, the Scrum Master becomes the impediment remover of the Scrum Team.
Question 04: Communication between Scrum Master and Product Owner
How should a Scrum Master communicate with a Product Owner?
Communicating honestly and openly is the best way for a Scrum Master to get the cooperation of a Product Owner. Both must serve as servant leaders without being authoritative, and each depends upon the other working reciprocally for a Scrum Team’s success (e.g. accomplishing a Sprint’s Goal). They are allies with respect to coaching the organization to become, and remain, agile.
A Product Owner is responsible for providing prompt feedback on product matters, clarifying goals, and for ensuring that the entire product delivery team understands the product vision.
A Scrum Master, in return, supports the Product Owner in building a high-value, actionable Product Backlog, and to this end must facilitate effective collaboration between the Product Owner and the Scrum Team.
Question 05: The Product Discovery Process
Should the Scrum Team become involved in the product discovery process and, if so, how?
There are two principal reasons why a Scrum Team should be involved in the product discovery process as early as possible:
- The sooner engineers participate in the product discovery process, the lesser the chances solutions will be pursued that are technically not viable or would not result in a return on investment.
- Involving a Scrum Team early on ensures that the team and its Product Owner develop a shared understanding and ownership of what will be built.
This helps significantly with allocating resources to the right issues, maximizing value for the customer, and mitigating investment risk by maximizing the amount of low-value work not done.
Involving the Development Team members early in the process ensures their buy-in, and the team’s willingness to participate in all phases of a product’s development. This motivates the team to participate when making changes necessary to accomplish the Sprint Goals defined for each Sprint or product release.
Question 06: Supporting the Product Owner
The role of the Product Owner is a bottleneck by design. How do you support the Product Owner so that they maximize value?
This question revisits the previous. Again, your candidate should focus on explaining why involving the Scrum Team early in the product discovery process is beneficial for both the Product Owner and the organization.
Additionally, Scrum Masters can effectively support Product Owners by ensuring that the Product Backlog refinement process is continuous and of a high value regarding the Product Backlog. “Garbage in, garbage out“ does apply to Scrum. Essentially, the Scrum Team either wins together or loses together.
Question 07: Access to Stakeholders
How can you ensure that a Scrum Team has access to a product’s stakeholders?
When answering this question, your candidate should explain that there is no simple way to ensure access to stakeholders.
For example, in larger organizations, functional silos, budgeting and governance practices, and organizational hierarchies often effectively limit team members’ access to stakeholders. Overcoming this organizational debt, thus building trust among all participants, is a prime objective for the work of Scrum Masters.
Your candidate might suggest encouraging stakeholders to engage in effective (transparent, helpful) communication. Sprint Reviews are a useful venue for this, and the interaction often promotes better relationships between different departments and business units.
Question 08: Stakeholders and the Agile Mindset
How do you promote an agile mindset across departmental boundaries and throughout an organization and, in pursuit of that, what is your strategy when coaching stakeholders not familiar with IT?
There are various tactics a Scrum Master can use to engage stakeholders with Scrum, for example:
- Most importantly, a Scrum Master should live and breathe the principles of the Scrum Guide and the Agile Manifesto. They should talk to everyone in the organization involved in building the product, and they should be transparent about what they do. (Read more: 10 Proven Stakeholder Communication Tactics During an Agile Transition.)
- Product and engineering teams can produce evidence proving to stakeholders that Scrum is significantly reducing the lead time from idea to product launch.
- Product and engineering teams can demonstrate that Scrum mitigates risk (i.e. the forecast of when new features could be made available), thus contributing to other departments’ successes in planning and execution.
- A Scrum Team can be transparent with respect to their work and proactively engage stakeholders by inviting them to Sprint Reviews and other events where the team communicates their activity or progress.
- Training for everyone in the organization, particularly the stakeholders, is important. One hands-on approach is to organize workshops designed to teach agile techniques for non-technical colleagues.
Question 09: Scrum and Senior Executives
How would you introduce Scrum to senior executives?
This is a deliberately open question meant to encourage discussion. In answering this question, your candidate should elaborate on how they would spread an agile mindset throughout an organization or, ideally, and more specifically, how they would create a learning organization that embraces experimentation in order to identify the best product for its customers.
A good candidate is likely to talk about the necessity of ‘selling’ agile to the organization in order to win the hearts and minds of the stakeholders. They will also point at the necessity to find a high-ranking executive to sponsor the transformation.
At the beginning of a transition any organization shows inertia to change, so to overcome this resistance executives and stakeholders need to know how Scrum will benefit them before they’re likely to make a commitment. (Read more: The Big Picture of Agile: How to Pitch the Agile Mindset to Stakeholders.)
One practical approach when introducing Scrum to senior executives is to organize workshops for higher management levels. Applying Scrum at the executive level has been successful in the past. Executives, and potentially even key directors, can gain first-hand experience with agile practices if organized as a Scrum Team.
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Good practices need to take into consideration an organization’s culture, size, product maturity, legal and compliance requirements, and the industry it is operating in.
Question 10: Overcoming Stakeholder Resistance
You’ve already provided your product’s stakeholders with training in Scrum. After the initial phase of trying to apply the concepts, when the very first obstacles are encountered, some of these stakeholders begin to resist continued adoption. What is your strategy for and experience in handling these situations?
This question is meant to encourage an exchange of ideas about, and lessons learned when overcoming resistance to Scrum within an organization. Familiarity with agile failure patterns that are common to many organizations will demonstrate your candidate’s experience. (We have published a list of several agile failure patterns.)
Your candidate should also be familiar with the particular challenge middle managers face in any transition to agile practices. Moving from a command-and-control style (i.e. managing people and telling them what to do) to a servant-leadership style — thus abandoning Taylor’s principles — is not for everyone.
Read more: Why Agile Turns Into Micromanagement.
II. Product Backlog Refinement And Estimation
Question 11: External Requirement Documents
The Product Owner for your Scrum Team frequently turns requirements documents received from stakeholders into tickets and asks you to estimate each. How do you feel about this procedure?
A Product Owner should not take this shortcut and turn requirements documents received from stakeholders into work items, and a Scrum Master should never accept such a procedure. It’s nothing more than a waterfall process dressed-up as a pseudo-agile practice.
If an organization is supposed to focus on delivering value to its customers, it is essential that any process involving ’requirements’ being handed down to its engineers by a project manager be abandoned. It makes no difference if the project manager is posing as a Product Owner. Instead, the organization should start including everyone in the product discovery process, thereby ensuring a shared vision of what needs to be built.
Question 12: PO Anti-Pattern
What kind of information would you require from the Product Owner in order to provide your team with an update on the product and market situation?
Information that a Scrum Master might require from a Product Owner when wanting to update their team on the product, or a market’s reaction to it, would include any information that could provide the Scrum Team with an understanding of why something is of value to customers. Such information may be of a quantitative nature (e.g. analytical data describing how a process is utilized) or of a qualitative nature (e.g. transcripts, screencasts, or videos from a user testing session).
An excellent suggestion on the part of your candidate would be for the Scrum Team to participate in gathering qualitative signals by taking part in user interviews.
Please note: Normally, the Product Owner would provide this information during Sprint Reviews or the refinement process. Noting that the question Q12 itself is pointing at an anti-pattern, that would make a good topic for a Retrospective, is a bonus for the candidate.
Question 13: Writing User Stories
Who should be writing user stories?
Writing user stories should be a joint effort by all members of a Scrum Team—card, conversation, confirmation. If it’s not, the team might not feel that they have ownership of the work items — inevitably leading to less or no commitment, reduced motivation, and ultimately a lower-quality product. Additionally, handing down user stories reduces the accuracy of forecasts by the Development Team members as the joint creation process creates the shared understanding necessary.
Question 14: A Good User Story
What does a good user story look like? What is its structure?
A good user story:
- Includes a description,
- Has acceptance criteria defined,
- Can be delivered within a single Sprint,
- Has all UI deliverables available,
- Has all (probable) dependencies identified,
- Has performance criteria defined,
- Has tracking criteria defined, and
- Is estimated by the Scrum Team.
Question 15: INVEST
What does the acronym INVEST mean?
The INVEST acronym was coined by Bill Wake and describes the characteristics of a good user story:
- Independent. The user story should be self-contained, in a way that there is no inherent dependency on another user story.
- Negotiable. Until becoming part of an iteration, user stories can always be changed and rewritten.
- Valuable. A user story must deliver value to the end-user.
- Estimable. You must always be able to estimate the size of a user story.
- Small. User stories should not be so big as to become impossible to plan, task, and prioritize with some certainty.
- Testable. The user story (or its related description) must provide the necessary information to make test development possible.
Question 16: Person-hour Estimations
Why aren’t user stories simply estimated in person-hours?
Estimating user stories in person-hours is rarely a good idea. It intentionally diverts the emphasis away from the true purpose of the estimation process: to create a shared understanding of the task ahead among all members of the Scrum Team. Ergo, the estimate itself is just a byproduct.
Estimating is often tricky when:
- Legacy software is involved,
- A team is facing significant technical debt, or
- A team is composed of mostly junior members.
Hence story points are much better suited to estimating than man-hours in all situations, but especially in tricky situations, because they reflect both the complexity of the task and the effort required to complete it.
Using person-hours instead of story points typically shifts the focus from value creation for customers to the more traditional project management of costs and budgeting, effectively imposing a waterfall process. Also, estimating in person-hours suggests an unmerited level of precision.
A good candidate would mention the ongoing discussion in the agile community as to whether estimations are useful in general. They would also likely point to the ‘no estimates’ concept.
Question 17: Cluttering the Product Backlog
The Product Owner of your Scrum Team tends to add ideas of all kinds to the Product Backlog as a reminder to work on them at a later stage. Over time, this has led to over 200 items in various stages. What are your thoughts on this? Can a Scrum Team work on 200 Product Backlog items?
Any Product Backlog larger than the scope of two or three Sprints is barely manageable. Misusing a Product Backlog by adding hundreds of items to it is a clear sign that the Product Owner needs help from the Scrum Team or the Scrum Master to better cope with an influx of ideas, suggestions, and requirements. A smaller Product Backlog avoids misallocating resources; a larger Product Backlog is an indication of waste.
Your candidate should make it clear that they would support a Product Owner in dealing with the size of the Product Backlog, and the ideation process in general, for example, processing input from stakeholders and customers.
III. Sprint Planning
Question 18: A Scrum Master’s Contribution to the Sprint Planning
How can a Scrum Master contribute to Sprint Planning in a way that enables the Scrum Team to work only on the most valuable user stories?
It is the prerogative of the Product Owner to define the business objective of an upcoming Sprint by identifying and ranking the most valuable user stories in the Product Backlog, and it is the duty of the Scrum Master to support the Product Owner in this. Pursuant, a suitable way for a Scrum Master to support a Scrum Team’s strive to work on the most valuable Product Backlog items is:
- To ensure that the Scrum Team is involved in the product discovery process at an early stage;
- To ensure that the Product Backlog refinement process is well practiced by both the Development Team members and the Product Owner; and
- To ensure that all user stories are created in a collaborative effort between the Product Owner and the Development Team members (the goal being a shared understanding of the user stories and thus joint ownership).
Your candidate should note that although the Product Owner practically outlines the scope of the Sprint, it is the prerogative of the Development Team to address technical debt and bugs during the same Sprint. A Development Team should be able to allocate up to 25% of their available capacity for this. (Read more: Technical Debt & Scrum: Who Is Responsible?)
Question 19: Assessing the Value of a User Story
With what metrics would you assess the value of a user story?
There are quantitative as well as qualitative measurements that may be used to assess the value of a user story or whether the investment is worthwhile. These may include, for example:
- Revenue increases,
- Cost-cutting benefits achieved by internal process improvements,
- Increases in customer satisfaction rates (NPS),
- Increases in signups for new products, or
- Positive customer feedback received by the customer care team.
Question 20: Selecting the Most Valuable User Stories
How do you facilitate user story selection in a way that the most valuable stories are chosen without overruling the Development Team’s prerogative to select the Sprint Backlog?
If a Development Team is involved early enough in either user story selection (preferably by jointly creating the stories with the Product Owner) or product discovery, a Scrum Master will probably not need to provide any guidance to see that the most valuable stories are chosen.
If a Development Team resorts to cherry-picking — choosing user stories only to satisfy personal preferences — during Sprint Planning, the Product Backlog refinement process needs to be seriously inspected. In all likelihood, the Product Owner is probably focusing on Product Backlog items that are not maximizing customer value.
Question 21: Time Allocation During a Sprint
How much of a Development Team’s capacity during a regular Sprint would you consider adequate for refactoring? Fixing important bugs? Exploring new technologies or ideas?
Apart from Sprints during which there are critical and urgent tasks to address (such as fixing a problem that has taken the website offline), a good rule of thumb is a 15-10-5 allocation of a Scrum Team’s capacity to refactoring, fixing, and research. Specifically, this means dedicating:
- 15% of a team’s capacity to technical debt and refactoring,
- 10% of a team’s capacity to bugs, and
- 5% of a team’s capacity to explorative spikes (when potentially helpful).
A Development Team may, of course, deviate from this rule of thumb depending on the context. Generally, consistently making these allocations will satisfy both the code quality and maintenance requirements of most software applications and build trust among stakeholders regarding the Scrum Team’s capability to deliver valuable product Increments.
Question 22: Assigning User Stories
Should a Product Owner assign user stories or tasks to individual members of a Development Team?
A Product Owner individually assigning user stories to members of a Development Team is not Scrum, and if a Product Owner is doing this they need to be stopped. Development Teams are self-organizing. The assignment of user stories and the distribution of tasks among the members of a Development Team is the prerogative of the team itself. Preventing this anti-pattern should be one of the Scrum Master’s most pressing concerns.
Question 23: Cherry-Picking Items
How do you deal with team members cherry-picking tasks?
A Development Team has autonomy in how its members choose to distribute tasks, so it may be that a presumed cherry-picking of tasks by individual team members is in fact a valuable and crucial part of the team’s path to performance.
However, if team members are complaining about how others are choosing their tasks, the Scrum Master needs to address the issue. Additional training might help some team members accommodate a greater variety of tasks. Or, perhaps, other team members may need to be gently pushed out of their comfort zone so that they will more readily choose different kinds of tasks over what they’ve become accustomed to. Pair programming may be a suitable first step in that direction.
An anti-pattern of this behavior is when specific tasks, such as quality assurance, are regularly left to the same team members. This pattern reintroduces sub-roles to the Development Team — and needs to be addressed by the Scrum Master.
Question 24: The Almost Ready User Story
A valuable user story is lacking the final user interface designs, but the design team promises to deliver on day two of the upcoming Sprint. The Product Owner for your team is fine with that and pushes to have the user story added to the Sprint Backlog. What are your thoughts on this scenario?
Whether an incomplete user story should be added to the Sprint Backlog depends upon the Development Team’s present concerns and experience with the circumstances. In the case of an incomplete or missing user interface (UI) design, for example, if the design team is almost certain to deliver because they have done so in the past, and if the user story is high value, and if the story can be accomplished within the Sprint despite its UI deliverables arriving late, and if the Development Team agrees to it — then an exception may be acceptable.
Beware that exceptions have a tendency to become accepted practices. An organization’s intent on being agile should not be allowed to bypass the Product Backlog refinement and Sprint Planning process. Your candidate should be aware that such situations are not tenable. Furthermore, if the implementation of a work item subjected to such an exception fails, no one will bother to read the fine print and acknowledge that an exception had been made. Instead, they will most likely view the Scrum process itself as having failed.
Your candidates may either accept or reject exceptions to the process. But they should also be able to analyze situations in which exceptions have been made, and explain the collateral damage that the Scrum Team may be exposed to.
Question 25: Sprint Planning Is a Waste of My Time
A member of the Scrum Team does not want to participate in Sprint Planning and considers the meetings a waste of time. How do you deal with this attitude?
If the member of a Development Team does not want to participate in Sprint Planning and considers the meetings a waste of time, they’re exhibiting a type of passive-aggressive behavior. Although not particular to Scrum, this is a problem because the underlying attitude is toxic and will affect both team-building and team performance as now the knowledge of a team member will not be available at Sprint Planning.
When the member of a Development Team behaves as described, the team’s Scrum Master needs to take action. Counterproductive behavior can neither be ignored nor tolerated if the team is to continue functioning. Effective action is likely to require probably a series of escalating steps:
- The Scrum Master may start by addressing the team member privately to discuss their reservations and, perhaps, more coaching needs or a longer training period.
- Following private discussion, the entire Scrum Team can be involved by making the team member’s reservations a topic of discussion during one or more Sprint Retrospectives. This enables the Scrum Team to offer their support to their teammate.
- If there is still no change in the team member’s attitude, a meeting with the team member and their line-manager is advisable.
- If no change can be achieved, it might be possible to reassign the team member to another (probably non-agile) team, or to a Kanban team unlikely to force the team member out of their comfort zone.
Situations such as described highlight how Scrum is not meant for everybody.
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IV. Daily Scrum
Question 26: The Formal Daily Scrum
Would you recommend formal Daily Scrums for all teams, no matter the size or experience level?
In answering this question, your candidate should exhibit common sense regarding “ritualized” Daily Scrums. Daily Scrums are an important part of Scrum, but not all Daily Scrums need to be formal — a Development Team should not have a Daily Scrum for the sake of having it; it serves a different purpose than ticking off a box on a checklist. A small, experienced, and co-located team may use a morning coffee break for their Daily Scrum.
Nevertheless, the Daily Scrum is the essential inspect & adapt event of the Development Team: are we still on track accomplishing the Sprint Goal? Or have we learned something since the previous Daily Scrum that requires to change our plan of how to achieve the Sprint Goal?
Question 27: Impediments
Do you expect experienced team members to wait until the next Daily Scrum in order to ask for help overcoming an impediment?
When impeded, members of a Scrum Team should never need to wait, neither for a Daily Scrum nor any other event, to ask for help. A team waiting to ask for help is a team delaying progress. If the more experienced members of a Scrum Team are waiting for the next Daily Scrum before either asking for help or themselves dealing with an impediment, the Scrum Master has team-building work to do.
Question 28: Leading a Daily Scrum?
How do you handle team members who ‘lead’ Daily Scrums, turning the event into a reporting session for themselves?
There are no leadership roles in the Development Team. However, it’s not uncommon for some members of a Development Team to assume leadership. This typically happens when a particular team member possesses superior (technical) expertise, communication skills, or simply a greater level of engagement.
All teams go through Tuckman’s stages of team development: forming, norming, storming, and performing. Scrum Teams are no exception.
It’s important that when a member of a Development Team assumes leadership this does not result in other members reporting to them. A Scrum Master must be vigilant and intervene if necessary to ensure that all team members communicate and work together — during Daily Scrums and otherwise — in the spirit of Scrum.
Question 29: Waste of My Time?
How do you manage team members who consider Daily Scrums to be a waste of time and are therefore either late, uncooperative, or simply don’t attend?
Refer to Question 25, where addressing this similar attitude and the behavioral problem is discussed at length. Your candidate’s answers should address similar points.
Question 30: Stakeholder Attendance
Your team’s Daily Scrums are not attended by any stakeholder. Should that change?
Asking this question can easily spark a philosophical discussion about whether stakeholders should be allowed to participate in a Development Team’s Daily Scrums. Try to avoid this.
If stakeholders participate in a Development Team’s Daily Scrums, is it likely to result in a form of reporting that circumvents Scrum rules? Not necessarily. It’s good if some adaptation of Scrum can be made to work for an organization. Allowing stakeholders to participate in Daily Scrums need not be ruled out if the Development Team finds it acceptable. In fact, if stakeholders attend Daily Scrums regularly, this invariably and significantly improves communication between a team and their stakeholders.
So shall a Scrum Master encourage stakeholders to attend Daily Scrums? That depends on the context; your candidate should not rule out their participation immediately.
Question 31: Daily Scrum with Distributed Teams
How do you approach Daily Scrums with distributed teams?
Daily Scrums for Development Teams whose members are distributed between different offices or working remotely are not much different from Daily Scrums for Development Teams whose members are co-located. The exception is that distributed teams sharing board activity may require video conferencing when working with offline boards that mirror each other.
If a Scrum Team is using online task management or planning software like JIRA, the team’s boards can be online and updates can take place on-screen. This generally makes it easy for members of a distributed team to follow board activity. With online boards in place, a Zoom or Google Hangouts call will likely be enough for a distributed team to have their Daily Scrum.
Alternatively, the Development Team may try an asynchronous Daily Scrum by utilizing messenger software like Slack. It is the prerogative of the Development Team to decide on the best way of handling their Daily Scrum event.
Question 32: The Scrum Board
Can you draw an example of a Scrum Team’s Kanban board — right now?
In this question, the qualifier ‘Kanban’ is used as a teaser. Anyone interviewing for the role of Scrum Master should be able to draw a simple Sprint board.
The columns of a Sprint board should usually include columns such as:
- Backlog of tasks,
- Task In progress,
- Code review,
- Quality assurance,
Additional information may be included on or attached to any kind of board:
- Scrum Team members,
- Sprint or event dates,
- Definition of “Done,”
- A burndown chart (progress and work remaining over time),
- A parking lot (topics for future discussion).
Your candidate should mention that a Scrum Master is not obliged to provide the Scrum Team with a Sprint board. A board is the responsibility of the Development Team working with it. The Scrum Master should, however, support the effort with an introductory workshop on the subject if no member of the team is familiar with offline boards.
Read more: How to Build Offline Boards.
V. Sprint Retrospectives
Question 33: Participants of a Retrospective
Who should participate in a Sprint Retrospective?
Only the immediate members of a Scrum Team — Development Team members, Product Owner, and Scrum Master — should participate in that team’s Sprint Retrospectives.
Especially noteworthy is that the line-managers of a Scrum Team’s members not be present. Also, they should not be allowed access to the minutes of any Sprint Retrospective.
Question 34: Team Health
Should you check a team’s health during a Sprint Retrospective, or is doing so unnecessary? If you do, how would you go about it?
Measuring the health of a Scrum Team — that is, getting an idea about current levels of engagement and satisfaction — is useful for identifying trends that may affect productivity and team cohesion.
For example, one effective method of measuring the health of a Scrum Team is to circulate an anonymous multiple-choice questionnaire before the team’s Sprint Retrospectives. A questionnaire that requires just two minutes to complete and uses a simple scale for each of the questions — from 1 (terrible) through 2 (poor), 3 (neutral), 4 (good), to 5 (excellent) — is usually well-suited.
During the Sprint Retrospective, the team should discuss the results with an aim to uncover any concerns or frustrations they may be harboring. (See above, gathering data.)
Question 35: Retrospective Formats
What Sprint Retrospective formats have you used in the past?
There are various Sprint Retrospective formats in common use, and each is meant to accommodate different situations. Your candidate should have experience applying more than one of these formats and should be able to share their logic for having done so. Some basic formats for Retrospectives include:
- The classic format:
- What did we do well?
- What should we have done better?
- The boat format:
- What’s pushing us forward?
- What’s holding us back?
- The starfish Sprint Retrospective:
- Start doing…
- Do less of…
- Do more of…
- Stop doing…
- Continue doing…
You can embed all of these formats in the general Sprint Retrospective format popularized by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby:
- Set the stage.
- Gather data.
- Generate insights.
- Decide what to do.
- Close the Sprint Retrospective.
There are several websites available that help Scrum Masters to customize Retrospectives to the needs of the Scrum Team, such as Retromat or Tasty Cupcakes. Alternatively, Liberating Structures provide excellent tools, too.
Suitable candidates will elaborate passionately about their preferred ways and tools for delivering Retrospectives. Candidates that provide only mechanical answers require more scrutiny as the Sprint Retrospective is a key event from a Scrum Master’s perspective.
Question 36: Retrospective Fatigue
How do you prevent boredom during Sprint Retrospectives?
When required to attend an uninspiring Sprint Retrospective, members of a Scrum Team will become bored.
There are many possibilities for variation that can be used to prevent a Sprint Retrospective from being boring, and team members from becoming bored. A different location, a different format, and shortening or lengthening the allotted time box are just some of the variations that can be tried.
Scrum Masters might also use a team’s choice of action items to encourage and structure discussions around issues that matter to the team, thus creating engagement through acknowledgment. Web sites like Retromat offer hundreds of different games and exercises to make Sprint Retrospectives enjoyable and valuable for the whole team.
There is no single solution, and consequently no single correct answer, to either boredom or this question. What’s important is that your candidate acknowledges that boredom with routine might become an issue and that there are ways to deal with it.
Question 37: Not Delivering on Action Items
If your team is picking reasonable action items but not delivering, how would you address the situation?
During a Sprint Retrospective, the members of a Scrum Team would usually pick some action items — tasks to be done — and include them in the upcoming Sprint Backlog. If these action items are subsequently not completed in a timely manner, the Scrum Master needs to follow up.
A team might not be completing the action items they’ve picked because they’ve run into an external impediment. If this is the case, the Scrum Master has to address the cause, and the team can then catch up during a later Sprint.
However, if there is no external impediment, the problem is likely due to motivation, attitude, or personal issues within the Scrum Team. In this latter case, the Scrum Master needs to provide the team members with sufficient encouragement or motivation to overcome the problem — a Scrum Team is self-organizing.
If a team is not completing the action items they’ve picked and the problem ultimately cannot be resolved, picking action items becomes a useless exercise and the Scrum Team’s continuous improvement effort will suffer as a result.
Question 38: Follow-up on Action Items
Would you recommend following up on action items? If so, how would you do that?
The Scrum Team is self-organizing. However, there are always moments when working on improving its practices is less of a Scrum Team’s priority. In this situation, a Scrum Master should follow up on the action items — tasks to be done — that members of a Scrum Team pick during their team’s Sprint Retrospective to remember everyone that Scrum is not working without self-organization.
A good way for a Scrum Master to do this is to start talking about the status of the action items picked during the last Sprint Retrospective before picking new ones by initiating a discussion at the beginning of each new Sprint Retrospective. (Note: This is not meant to be a reporting session but practical help to get self-organization going with the Scrum Team.)
Suppose this discussion uncovers action items picked during a previous Sprint Retrospective that haven’t been completed as expected. In that case, the team needs to understand why this happened and offer its support to prevent it from happening again.
VI. Agile Metrics
Question 39: Volatile Velocity
Your Scrum team is consistently failing to meet commitments, and its velocity is volatile. What might the possible reasons be? How would you address this issue with the team?
If a Scrum Team is exhibiting a volatile velocity, consistently failing to meet their forecasts, it suggests that velocity is being used as the prevalent metric for measuring that team’s progress.
Your candidate should mention this, and talk about the notoriety of ‘velocity’ as the industry’s most prevalent metric for measuring a team’s progress. They should further be able to explain why velocity is altogether a doubtful agile metric and point out that quantitative metrics are not ideally suited to measuring a team’s progress in mastering Scrum.
There are many factors that make a Scrum Team’s velocity volatile:
- New team members being onboarded;
- Experienced members leaving the team;
- The team working in uncharted territory;
- The team working with legacy code, probably undocumented;
- The team running into unexpected technical debt;
- Holidays and sick leave reducing the team’s capacity;
- An executive intervention changing a Sprint’s scope; and
- The team addressing unplanned priority bugs.
Another common cause for a Scrum Team to consistently fail in meeting their forecasts is that the team’s Product Backlog items are being poorly prepared, thus making the work items difficult for the team to estimate. Conversely, the projects being given the team might suffer from poorly documented legacy code, excessive technical debt, or just too much buggy and poorly written code — all of which make estimation a gamble.
Your candidate should not align themselves with the fallacy that a team’s adoption of Scrum is working only because a Scrum Team’s forecasts and velocity are aligned. Cooking the agile books is easy to do!
Question 40: Suitable Agile Metrics
What suitable agile metrics have you used in the past?
This question is an invitation to the candidate to share lessons learned from the successful application of metrics to help a Scrum Team improve continuously.
Suitable agile metrics follow three rules:
- The first rule of tracking meaningful metrics is only to track those that apply to the team. Ignore those metrics that measure the individual.
- The second rule of tracking metrics is not to measure parameters just because they are easy to follow. This practice often is a consequence of using various agile tools that offer out-of-the-box reports.
- The third rule of tracking metrics is to record context as well. For example, data without context, the number of available team members, or the intensity of incidents during a sprint may turn out to be nothing more than noise.
Examples of suitable agile metrics are:
- Lead time,
- Cycle time,
- Number of defects escaping to production, or
- Ratio of fixing work to creating new value.
Good candidates should be aware of the evidence-based management concept.
Question 41: Qualitative Metrics
What qualitative agile metrics would you consider tracking?
The purpose of qualitative metrics is to gain insight into how one or more of an organization’s Scrum Teams are progressing with agile.
There are several self-assessment tests available that a Scrum Team can regularly run to collect qualitative metrics about their implementation of Scrum — Hendrik Kniberg’s Scrum Checklist is a good example. The interval to test via self-assessment is every 4–12 weeks, with teams of lesser fluency running their tests at the lower end of this range. The individual values recorded by these tests are not very important, but the trend over time is. To visualize these trends, a Scrum Master will need to aggregate the results — in the case of Henrik Kniberg’s checklist, an agile practice map may be created over time.
While self-assessment tests like Henrik Kniberg’s checklist are usually team exercises for recording implementation metrics, sentiment metrics are best captured by running anonymous opinion polls to ensure the participation of the more introverted team members.
Using opinion polls, typical questions for recording sentiment metrics include:
- What value did the team deliver in the last Sprint?
- Has the level of technical debt increased or decreased during the last Sprint?
- Are you happy working with your teammates?
- Would you recommend your employer (or client) to a friend seeking a new job?
It’s best to run opinion polls after every Sprint; these polls should only require a few seconds to complete. As with the self-assessment tests, the individual values recorded by running anonymous opinion polls are not very important — it’s the trend over time that matters. Trends derived from these polls are great points for discussion during a team’s Sprint Retrospectives.
Concerning metrics in general, your candidate should support the Agile Manifesto and its principle of transparency: all metrics should be available to all members of a Scrum Team, and largely also to those working in the product delivery organization generally.
VII. How to Kick-Off A Transition to Scrum
Question 42: Kicking off Scrum
How would you prepare to kick-off transitioning to Scrum?
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. Your candidate should understand that an agile transition needs to have an objective and a goal — which means planning ahead.
To prepare for kicking off a transition to Scrum is to listen and observe: your candidate should express interest in interviewing as many team members and stakeholders as possible, before jumping into action. These interviews should include everyone, no matter their role — engineers, QA professionals31, UX and UI designers, product managers — in order to identify the patterns underlying current problems, failures, and dysfunction within the organization. Merging those patterns with the most pressing technical and business issues will identify the most likely objectives for the first Scrum Teams. This observation phase, during which a Scrum Master performs their interviews, will typically require between four and twelve weeks depending upon the size and structure of the organization.
The training of future team members and stakeholders should commence and run parallel to the interviews.
Creating the first Scrum Teams from the existing engineering and product departments is the second step in kicking off a transition to Scrum.
Your candidate should be able to sketch the rough plan of a transition and address common issues that might arise during kickoff.
Read more: How to Kick-off Your Agile Transition.
Question 43: Creating the First Scrum Team
How would you create the first Scrum team?
When an organization is transitioning to Scrum and at the same time dealing with significant organizational, business, and technical problems, the founding members of its Scrum Teams should be volunteers who fully understand the challenge ahead of them, rather than people pressed into service. The best volunteers are those eager to prove that becoming agile is the most effective way to reach an objective.
Candidates for the role of Scrum Master should be astute enough to suggest inviting every member of the product delivery team, as well as the C-level executives sponsoring the transition, to a kickoff meeting. The objective of a transition kickoff meeting is to support the members of the engineering and product teams in how they choose to self-organize into the first cross-functional Scrum Teams. Transition kickoff meetings can last a few hours or several days, depending upon the circumstances of a particular organization.
Despite the importance of the kickoff meeting to a Scrum transition, going much deeper into its structure will take too much time from the interview. It’s more important that your candidates embrace the idea of team self-selection and present a brief roadmap of what should happen next for the newly formed Scrum Teams.
Although somewhat dependent upon the existing skills, experience, and training of the members of an organization’s new Scrum Teams, your candidates should anticipate having to teach the very basics of Scrum following a kickoff meeting. They might propose doing this through a series of workshops or on-the-job training with exercises in Product Backlog refinement, writing user stories, estimating, creating boards, and setting up collaboration software.
Question 44: First Steps of a New Scrum Team
What do you recommend a newly formed Scrum team works on first?
The first critical issue for the majority of newly formed Scrum Teams is the existing legacy Product Backlog. Answers to this question need not reference Tuckman’s team development stages (see Question 28), additional team-building exercises, or any kind of Scrum training or workshop not concerned with the Product Backlog.
It is a rare occasion for a Scrum Master to start from scratch with a brand new team and no existing product — even more so in a nascent organization like a startup. Most often, it’s an existing product delivery organization with existing products and services that will ‘go agile’. For these cases, your candidate should point out that refining the legacy Product Backlog is the practical first step.
The legacy Product Backlog per se is an interesting artifact because it provides a comprehensive insight into the product delivery organization’s history: this particular Product Backlog allows for identifying organizational debt, process insufficiencies, questionable product decisions, and other anti-patterns.
Looking at a legacy Product Backlog, an excellent candidate will be able to point out some of these anti-patterns (e.g. outdated or poorly maintained tickets), and provide a good idea about how to transform the legacy Product Backlog into a well-refined, current Product Backlog such that a new Scrum Team could work with.
Candidates should mention that running Product Backlog refinement workshops creates a good opportunity to provide a new Scrum Team and Product Owner hands-on training with Scrum. This is because a Product Backlog refinement workshop will typically cover user story creation, knowledge transfer among team members, the estimation process (if applicable), introductory agile metrics, technical debt analysis, and other topics critical to the success of Scrum.
Read more: Product Backlog Refinement.
VIII. Scrum Anti-Patterns
Question 45: Scrum Master Anti-Patterns
What anti-patterns might a Scrum Master fall into during a Sprint?
Typical Scrum Master Sprint anti-patterns are below. Any of these behaviors will impede the team’s productivity. It is the Scrum Master’s obligation to prevent them from manifesting themselves. Some of the Scrum Master anti-patterns are:
- Keeping the Scrum team dependent: In this scenario, the Scrum Master pampers the team to a level that keeps the team dependent on his or her services: organizing meetings, purchasing stickies and sharpies, taking notes, updating Jira—you get the idea of this service level. More critical, however, is when the Scrum Master decides to keep the team in the dark about principles and practices to secure his or her job. This behavior is only a small step away from the dark side.
- Flow disruption: The Scrum Master allows stakeholders to disrupt the workflow of the Development Team during the Sprint. There are several possibilities on how stakeholders can interrupt the flow of the team during a Sprint:
- The Scrum Master has a laissez-faire policy regarding access to the Development Team.
- The Scrum Master does not object when management invites engineers to random meetings as subject matter experts.
- Lastly, the Scrum Master allows either the stakeholders or managers to turn the daily Scrum into a reporting session.
- Lack of support: The Scrum Master does not support team members who need help with a task. Development teams often create tasks an engineer can finish within a day. However, if someone struggles with a task for more than two days without voicing that they need support, the Scrum Master should address the issue. Importantly, this is also the reason for marking tasks on a physical board with red dots each day if they haven’t been moved on to the next column.
- Turning a blind eye to micromanagement: The Scrum Master does not prevent the Product Owner – or anyone else – from assigning tasks to engineers. The Development Team normally organizes itself without external intervention. And the Scrum Master should act as the shield of the team in this respect.
- Focusing on team harmony: The Scrum Master sweeps conflict and problems under the rug by not using Sprint Retrospectives to address those openly. This behavior is often a sign of bowing to politics and instead of using manipulation to meet organizational requirements that are opposing Scrum values and principles. If the organization values its underlings for following the ‘rules’ instead of speaking the truth why would you run Retrospectives in the first place? A ‘Scrum Master’ participating in cargo-cult Scrum is again a supervisor than an agile practitioner.
Question 46: Product Backlog-Related Scrum Anti-Patterns
As a Scrum Master, what are some of the Product Backlog-related Scrum anti-patterns that you need to keep at bay?
Garbage in, garbage out: No matter how well your team is self-managing, how low your level of technical debt is, or how well your team is collaborating with stakeholders in general, your team will be measured primarily by one criterion: can the Scrum team regularly deliver valuable, done Product Increments? The key to live up to that expectation is an actionable Product Backlog which is compact, concise, continuously refined in a team effort, and focussed on delivery of valuable Increments.
According to the Scrum Guide, Scrum Masters support the Product Owner in many ways to ensure this level of Scrum fluency:
- Page 7:The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including helping find techniques for effective Product Goal definition and Product Backlog management.
- Page 7:The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items.
- Page 7:The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including helping establish empirical product planning for a complex environment.
- Page 7:The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including facilitating stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed.
Typical examples of how organizations, Scrum team, or team members fail the principles mentioned above include:
- Prioritization by proxy: A single stakeholder or a committee of stakeholder prioritizes the Product Backlog. (The strength of Scrum is building on the strong position of the Product Owner. The Product Owner is the only person to decide what tasks become Product Backlog items. Hence, the Product Owner also decides on the ordering of the work items. Take away that empowerment, and Scrum turns into a pretty robust waterfall 2.0 process.)
- 100% in advance: The Scrum team creates a Product Backlog covering the complete project or product upfront because the scope of the release is limited. (Question: how can you be sure to know today what to deliver in six months from now?)
- Over-sized: The Product Backlog contains more items than the Scrum team can deliver within three to five Sprints. (This way the Product Owner creates waste by hoarding issues that might never materialize.)
- Storage for ideas: The Product Owner is using the Product Backlog as a repository of ideas and requirements. (This practice is clogging the Product Backlog, may lead to cognitive overload and makes alignment with the ‘big picture’ at portfolio management and roadmap planning level very tough. It also may lead to less collaboration as team members may consider the Product backlog to be ‘complete.’)
- Copy & paste PO: The Product Owner creates Product Backlog items by breaking down requirement documents received from stakeholders into smaller chunks. (That scenario helped to coin the nickname “ticket monkey” for the Product Owner. Remember: Product Backlog item creation is a collaborative team exercise.)
- What team? The Product Owner is not involving the entire Scrum team in the refinement process and instead is relying on just the “lead engineer” (or any other member of the Scrum team independently of the others).
- Submissive team: The Developers submissively follow the demands of the Product Owner. (Challenging the Product Owner whether their selection of issues is the best use of the Scrum team’s time is the noblest obligation of every team member: Why shall we do this? Is this the best use of our time from a customer perspective?)
- No time for refinement: The Scrum team does not have enough refinement sessions, resulting in a low-quality Product Backlog. (The Scrum Guide advises to spend sufficient time on refining the Product Backlog continuously. Which is a sound business decision: Nothing is more expensive than a feature that neither delivers value to customers nor supports the organization’s strive to create a sustainable business.)
- Too much refinement: The Scrum team has too many refinement sessions, resulting in a too detailed Product Backlog. (Too much refinement isn’t healthy either; you are overinvesting in something potentially wasteful.)
Learn more: 28 Product Backlog and Refinement Anti-Patterns.
Question 47: Sprint Planning-Related Scrum Anti-Patterns
As a Scrum Master, what are some of the Sprint Planning-related anti-patterns that you need to avoid as a team?
According to the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Planning plays a vital role in the value creation process of the Scrum team:
- Page 8: Sprint Planning initiates the Sprint by laying out the work to be performed for the Sprint.
- Page 8: This resulting plan is created by the collaborative work of the entire Scrum Team.
- Page 8: The Product Owner ensures that attendees are prepared to discuss the most important Product Backlog items and how they map to the Product Goal.
- Page 8: [Sprint Planning: Why is this Sprint valuable?] The Product Owner proposes how the product could increase its value and utility in the current Sprint.
- Page 8: [Sprint Planning: Why is this Sprint valuable?] The whole Scrum Team then collaborates to define a Sprint Goal that communicates why the Sprint is valuable to stakeholders.
- Page 8: [Sprint Planning: Why is this Sprint valuable?] The Sprint Goal must be finalized prior to the end of Sprint Planning.
Therefore, it should be of the highest priority of any Scrum team to perform the best possible Sprint Planning. It is the last moment where the Scrum team can change direction; once the Sprint Goal is defined, the investment decision is made. In my experience, the following six Sprint Planning anti-patterns have the most negative impact on a Scrum team’s value creation:
- What are we fighting for? The Product Owner cannot align the business objective of the upcoming Sprint with the overall product vision. (A serious business objective answers the “What are we fighting for?” question. A good goal derived from this alignment is focused and measurable, as the goal of the upcoming Sprint — based on the business objective — and Developers’ forecast goes hand in hand.)
- No business objective, no Sprint Goal: The Product Owner proposes Product Backlog items that resemble a random assortment of tasks, providing no cohesion. Consequently, the Scrum Team does not create a Sprint Goal. (If this is the natural way of finishing your Sprint Planning, you probably have outlived the usefulness of Scrum as a product development framework. Depending on the maturity of your product, Kanban may prove to be a better solution. Otherwise, the randomness may signal a weak Product Owner who listens too much to stakeholders instead of ordering the Product Backlog appropriately.)
- Unfinished business: Unfinished work items from the last Sprint spill over into the new Sprint without any discussion. (There might be good reasons for that, for example, a task’s value has not changed. It should not be an automatism, though, remember the sunk cost fallacy.)
- Last-minute changes: The Product Owner tries to squeeze in some last-minute Product Backlog items that are not ready yet. (Principally, it is the prerogative of the Product Owner to make such kind of changes to ensure that the Developers are working only on the most valuable tasks at any given time. However, if the Scrum Team is otherwise practicing Product Backlog refinement sessions regularly, these occurrences should be a rare exception. If those happen frequently, it indicates that the Product Owner needs help with ordering the Product Backlog and team communication. Or the Product Owner needs support to say ‘no’ more often to stakeholders.)
- Output focus: The Product Owner pushes the Developers to take on more tasks than it could realistically handle. Probably, the Product Owner is referring to former team metrics such as velocity to support their desire. (This is also a road to becoming a feature factory and deserves attention from the team’s Scrum Master. It is violating the Developers’ prerogative to pick Product Backlog item for the Sprint Backlog as well as Scrum Values.)
- No preparation: The Product Owner does not prepare the Product Backlog to provide useful Product Backlog items for selection by the Development Team. (Product Backlog needs to represent the best possible use of the Developers’ work from a customer value perspective at any given moment. In other words, your Scrum Team’s Product Backlog has to be actionable 24/7. By my standards, that means that you need to be capable of running a meaningful Sprint Planning instantly. Preparing a few basic Product Backlog items an hour before the beginning of the Sprint Planning is not enough.)
Question 48: Sprint Review-Related Scrum Anti-Patterns
As a Scrum Master, what are some of the Sprint Review-related anti-patterns that you need to avoid as a team?
According to the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Review is an essential moment of collaboration with internal and external stakeholders to reassure that the Scrum team is still on the right track:
- Page 9: The purpose of the Sprint Review is to inspect the outcome of the Sprint and determine future adaptations.
- Page 9: The Scrum Team presents the results of their work to key stakeholders and progress toward the Product Goal is discussed.
- Page 9: During the event, the Scrum Team and stakeholders review what was accomplished in the Sprint and what has changed in their environment. Based on this information, attendees collaborate on what to do next.
- Page 9: The Product Backlog may also be adjusted to meet new opportunities.
- Page 9: The Sprint Review is a working session and the Scrum Team should avoid limiting it to a presentation.
Some of the most damaging Sprint-Review anti-patterns in my experience are as follows:
- Following a plan: The Scrum Team does not use the Sprint Review to discuss the current state of the product or project with the stakeholders. (Again, creating transparency and receiving feedback is the purpose of the exercise. A we-know-what-to-build attitude is bordering on hubris. Read More: Sprint Review, a Feedback Gathering Event: 17 Questions and 8 Techniques.)
- Death by PowerPoint: Participants are bored to death by PowerPoint. (The foundation of a successful Sprint Review is “show, don’t tell,” or even better: let the stakeholders drive the discovery.)
- Sprint accounting: Every task accomplished is demoed, and stakeholders do not take it enthusiastically. (My suggestion: Tell a compelling story at the beginning of the review to engage the stakeholders. Leave out those user stories that are probably not relevant to the story. Do not bore stakeholders by including everything that was accomplished. We are not accountants; the output is less relevant by comparison to the outcome from a customer or value creation perspective.)
- Cheating: The Development Team shows items that are not “done.” (There is a good reason to show unfinished work on some occasions. Partially finished work, however, violates the concept of “Done,” one of Scrum’s first principles.)
- Scrum à la Stage-Gate®: The Sprint Review is a kind of Stage-Gate® approval process where stakeholders sign off features. (This Sprint Review anti-pattern is typical for organizations that use an “agile”-waterfall hybrid. However, it is the prerogative of the Scrum team to decide what to ship when.)
- No stakeholders: Stakeholders do not attend the Sprint Review. (There are several reasons why stakeholders do not participate in the Sprint Review: they do not see any value in the event, or it is conflicting with another important meeting. They do not understand the importance of the Sprint Review event. No sponsor is participating in the Sprint Review, for example, from the C-level. To my experience, you need to “sell” the event within the organization, at least in the beginning of using Scrum.)
- No customers: External stakeholders—also known as customers—do not attend the Sprint Review. (Break out of your organization’s echo chamber, and invite some paying users to your Sprint Review. Everyone will be grateful for that.)
- Side gigs: The Development Team was working on issues outside the Sprint Goal, and the Product Owner learns about those for the first time during the Sprint Review. (For the sake of transparency, openness, and respect: There is no room for side gigs when using Scrum.)
Question 49: Sprint Retrospective Anti-Patterns
What anti-patterns do you know of that can happen during a Sprint Retrospective?
Typical Scrum Sprint Retrospective anti-patterns are:
- Waste of time: The team does not collectively value the Sprint Retrospective. If some team members consider the Sprint Retrospective to be of little or no value, it is most often the Sprint Retrospective itself that sucks. Is it the same procedure every time, ritualized and boring? Have a meta-Sprint Retrospective on the Sprint Retrospective itself. Change the venue. Have a beer- or wine-driven Sprint Retrospective. There are so many things a Scrum Master can do to make Sprint Retrospectives interesting and valuable again, reducing the absence rate. Furthermore, it is good to remember that (in my experience) introverts like to take part in Sprint Retrospectives also.
- Prisoners: Some team members only participate because they are forced to team up. Don’t pressure anyone to take part in a Sprint Retrospective. Instead, make it worth their time. The drive to continuously improve as a team needs to be fueled by intrinsic motivation, neither by fear nor by order. Tip: Retromat’s “Why are you here?” exercise is a good opener for a Sprint Retrospective from time to time.
- Groundhog day: The Sprint Retrospective never changes in composition, venue, or length. In this case, the is that the team will revisit the same issues over and over again – it’s like Groundhog Day without the happy ending.
- Let’s have it next Sprint: The team postpones the Sprint Retrospective into the next Sprint. Beyond the “inspect & adapt” task, the Sprint Retrospective serves as a moment of closure, helping reset everybody’s mind so that the team can focus on the new Sprint goal. That is the reason why we have the Sprint Retrospective before the planning of the follow-up Sprint. Postponing it into the next Sprint may also interrupt the flow of the team, and delay tackling possible improvements by up to a Sprint. This is why it is important to have the Sprint Retrospective before the planning of the follow-up Sprint.
- #NoDocumentation: No one is taking minutes for later use. A Sprint Retrospective is a substantial investment for many reasons and should be taken seriously. Taking notes and photos supports the process.
- No psychological safety: The Sprint Retrospective is an endless cycle of blame and finger-pointing. The team wins together, the team loses together. Unfortunately, the blame game documents both the failure of the Scrum Master as the facilitator of the Sprint Retrospective as well as the team’s lack of maturity and communication skills.
- Bullying: One or two team members are dominating the Sprint Retrospective. This communication behavior is often a sign of either a weak or uninterested Scrum Master. The Sprint Retrospective needs to be a safe place where everyone–introverts included–can address issues and provide their feedback free from team members who are dominating the conversation, bullying or intimidating other teammates. The failure to provide a safe place will result in participants dropping out of the Sprint Retrospective and render the results obsolete. It is the main responsibility of the Scrum Master to ensure that everyone can be heard and has an opportunity to voice their thoughts. According to Google, equally distributed speaking time fosters and signifies a high-performing team. Read More: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.”
- Stakeholder alert: Stakeholders participate in the Sprint Retrospective. There are plenty of Scrum events that address the communication needs of stakeholders: the Sprint Review, the Product Backlog refinement, the Daily Scrum events – not to mention opportunities of having a conversation at water coolers, over coffee, or during lunchtime. If that spectrum of possibilities is still not sufficient, feel free to have additional meetings. However, the Sprint Retrospective is off-limits to stakeholders.
- Passivity: The team members are present but are not participating. There are plenty of reasons for such a behavior: they regard the Sprint Retrospective as a waste of time, it is an unsafe place, or the participants are bored to death by its predictiveness. The team members may also fear negative repercussions should they be absent, or maybe a homogenous group of introverts was unwittingly hired. Whatever the reason, there is likely no quick fix. The Scrum Master needs to determine what style of Sprint Retrospective will work best in their organization’s context.
Question 50: Improving as a Scrum Master
How can you (as a Scrum Master) identify where you need to improve?
This is a simple question: Regularly ask your team and stakeholders how you can improve as a Scrum Master.
Why not run a Sprint Retrospective on yourself? A dedicated Sprint Retrospective is much more effective than spending five minutes, asking for hints at how you might improve, at the end of each regular team Sprint Retrospective.
Good candidates also note that they proactively provide user manuals on how to work with themselves to other team members and the organization.
IX. Scrum Success Principles and Indicators
Q 51: When to Use Scrum and what to Look for
Can we use Scrum to solve any problem, task, or challenge? Or do you think that Kanban or even Waterfall may be better solutions in some cases? Moreover, if we choose Scrum, what principles and success indicators shall we observe?
Scrum is not the Swiss Army knife for any problem a product team may be facing. Throwing Scrum at all problems indiscriminately will likely be an ineffective strategy. However, when Scrum is chosen for the proper purpose, four first principles support Scrum Masters to help their teams deliver:
Choose Scrum for the Right Purpose:
Choosing the appropriate application area for Scrum is essential. Referring to the Stacey Matrix, applying Scrum to the areas “Chaos” and “Simple” is a waste. Scrum is best used in the “Complex” area. Here, empirical process control thrives, applying transparency, inspection, and adaptation to iteratively, incrementally developing valuable product Increments, thus mitigating risk.
Strive for High Product Quality:
From day one, keep technical debt small and work continuously on high product quality, reflected in the Scrum Team’s Definition of Done. Achieving business agility requires dedication to product quality and excellence at the technical level. (Learn more: Technical Debt & Scrum: Who Is Responsible?
Create and Maintain an Actionable Product Backlog:
Garbage in, garbage out: No matter how your Scrum Team is everything else, a sub-standard Product Backlog will diminish all other team achievements. Hence, it would be best to support the Product Owner and the Developers to maintain a permanently “actionable” Product Backlog. By “actionable,” I am referring to a refinement level of the Product Backlog that would allow a Scrum Team to run a meaningful Sprint Planning at a moment’s notice. (Learn more: 28 Product Backlog and Refinement Anti-Patterns.)
Embrace Self-Management and Take It to the Scrum Team:
Restrain from solving problems that your teammates can solve themselves. I know it feels good to be helpful; however, it is not your job as a Scrum Master to become the team’s helping hand in all matters. Instead, make self-management our number one priority and ensure that everyone lives Scrum Values. Be a servant-leader at heart and, therefore, a good role model for the Scrum team.
Note: All sketches are taken from a previous Professional Scrum Master class; check out my upcoming training classes here.
Q 52: Scrum Master Success
How could you measure the success of a Scrum Master?
There are several indicators of the success of a Scrum Master, for example:
- The Scrum team regularly meets Sprint Goals and delivers valuable, done Increments.
- They have an excellent understanding of the Scrum framework and the challenges it poses to individuals and organizations.
- They are prepared to step into the background when the Scrum team is successful.
- The successful Scrum Master strives to become redundant concerning the daily operations of the Scrum Team. (A successful Scrum Master can take a holiday at any time, just saying.)
- They spend more and more time on working with the organization while the Scrum team is self-managing.
- The Scrum team has high morale; rarely, a team member leaves the team, but others want to join it.
- The whole Scrum team is dedicated to continuously improve their skills and capabilities, branching out into adjacent areas of the organization in the process.
Q 53: Scrum Product Owner Success
How could you measure the success of a Product Owner?
There are several indicators of the success of a Product Owner, for example:
- The Scrum team regularly meets Sprint Goals and delivers valuable, done Increments, see above.
- The successful Product Owner aligns stakeholders and team member regarding product vision and Product Goal.
- They are obsessed with creating value for the customers while creating a sustainable business for the organization.
- Successful Product Owners are data-informed, not data-driven. Progress is made through applying empiricism.
- They include the Developers in the product discovery process early.
- Product Owners expect to be challenged by the Developers during Product Backlog refinement regarding their choices.
- They are transparent and outstanding communicators.
Q 54: Scrum Developer Success
How could you measure the success of the Scrum Developers?
There are several indicators of the success of Developers on a Scrum Team, for example:
- The Scrum team regularly meets Sprint Goals and delivers valuable, done Increments; again, see above.
- Developers actively engage in self-managing during the Sprint to meet the Sprint Goal.
- They take control over the Sprint Backlog.
- Developers accept the collective responsibility for quality.
- They uphold product quality by regularly inspecting the Definition of Done in collaboration with the Product Owner.
- Developers keep technical debt at bay by allocating sufficient time to refactoring and bug-fixing every Sprint.
- They take their commitment to continuous improvement as a team seriously by acting on actions items from Retrospectives.
- Successful Developers have a collaborative mindset; for example, they share knowledge, pair program, or swarm to support other Developers accomplishing their tasks.
- They identify gaps in their knowledge or experience and reach out to others to help fill them.
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How To Use The Scrum Master Interview Questions
Scrum has always been a hands-on business, and to be successful in this, a candidate needs to have a passion for getting her hands dirty. While the basic rules are trivial, getting a group of individuals with different backgrounds, levels of engagement, and personal agendas to form and perform as a team, is a complex task. (As always you might say when humans and communication are involved.) And the larger the organization is, the more management level there are, the more likely failure is lurking around the corner.
The questions are not necessarily suited to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an agile expert. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, they support figuring out, what candidate has been working the agile trenches in the past.
So, go for a pragmatic veteran who has experienced failure in other projects before and the scars to prove it. Last, but not least: Being a “Certified Scrum Master” – or having any other certification of a similar nature – does not guarantee success.
Recommended Reading to Prepare for the Scrum Master Interview
Regarding the general preparation for the Scrum Master job interview, I recommend the following literature on Scrum, Scrum Master, and team building:
- The Scrum Guide.
- The Nexus Guide.
- The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.
- Gunther Verheyen: Scrum — A Pocket Guide (Amazon advertisement.)
- Geoff Watts: Scrum Mastery (Amazon advertisement.)
- Stanley McChrystal: Team of Teams (Amazon advertisement.)
- Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Amazon advertisement.)
Update 2020-09-13: Comprehensive Content Refactoring and a New Document Stack
I refactored the ebook completely, eliminating a lot of content debt, and migrated the document to a new format that will allow for much speedier updates in the future. You will also now find all questions and answers listed below, starting with the first two areas of competence.
Update 2020-06-19: Remote Agile Transitions Challenges
We are used to saying the Scrum is a perfect probe for organizations, as it will reliably discover all dysfunctionalities. Since the pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely, this unique capability has been kicked into overdrive regarding remote agile transitions.
Three months into working with distributed teams, at least for the majority of us who are not working for one of the remote work pioneers like Automatic, Gitlab, or Buffer, operational issues at a tactical level have been addressed. Zoom has fixed many of the problems reported, we learned how to organize engaging remote events, and more people start embracing techniques like Liberating Structures or Training from the Back of the Room to get all sorts of work done. With a good outcome, as it seems that remote work improves productivity, at least when team members are engaged with their work.
Hence I do believe that the Scrum Master candidate needs to have a good understanding of how remote work is accelerating agile transitions and what the primary areas are that are affected.
For an extended list of remote Scrum challenges see Remote Agile Transitions — The Top-Ten Challenges.
Update 2020-04-08: The Scrum Master Interview Enhanced by Remote Scrum with Distributed Teams
How can we learn during the Scrum Master interview whether a candidate has experience with facilitating remote agile events?
To figure out the candidate’s level of competence, I like to run a Liberating Structures-based exercise during the interview. I use TRIZ to task the Scrum Master candidate to come up with suggestions on how to sabotage a remote Scrum approach effectively. These are some of the remote agile anti-patterns, the candidate should be able to identify:
- Remote Agile is just standard work-life plus Zoom: Pretending that working remotely is the same as usual except for the video cameras. (This approach ignores all the challenges that distributed team face, for example, not investing enough in getting to know each other better to build trust. We are Social animals and need to meet In person sooner or later to build lasting trust among teammates, thus creating psychological safety. Moreover, there are difficulties in reading the virtual room in general, which means that taking decisions to the team or calling out introverts manifest themselves differently in a remote working setup. Trust is the beginning of all; without it, transparency, inspection, and adaptation would be able to work their magic, and we end up as distributed feature factories.)
- Neither fish nor meat: Hybrid events create two classes of teammates — remote and co-located — where the co-located folks are calling the shots. (Beware of the distance bias—when out of sight means out of mind—thus avoiding the creation of a privileged subclass of teammates: “Distance biases have become all too common in today’s globalized world. They emerge in meetings when folks in the room fail to gather input from their remote colleagues, who may be dialing in on a conference line.” (Source.) To avoid this scenario, make sure that once a single participant joins remotely, all other participants “dial in,” too, to level the playing field.
- Surveillance: Trust won’t be built by surveilling and micro-managing team members. Therefore, don’t go rogue; the prime directive rules more than ever in a remote agile setup. Trust in people and do not spy on them — no matter how tempting it might be. (Read more about the damaging effect of a downward spiraling trust dynamic from Esther Derby.) https://www.estherderby.com/the-future-may-be-remote-must-it-include-surveillance/
- Mindless rituals: Leadership belief and or facilitation practices turn once useful routines into mindless rituals. (For example, think of Groundhog Day-style retrospectives over and over again. Answering the same three questions every single time is the easiest path to kill any form of creativity and collaboration. While this is hard to avoid in face-to-face environments, it requires much more dedication and energy in a remote agile setting.)
- Death by PowerPoint: Meetings still revolve around an individual broadcasting a slide deck. (While you might get away with this approach for some time in face-2-face environments, it will not fly with distributed teams. Sessions need to inclusive, interactive, and engaging to entice collaboration, think Liberating Structures, and Training from the Back of the Room.)
- Unstructured communication: “Didn’t you get the memo?” (There is no clear practice on how to communicate which kind of information to whom. Are we talking about email, Slack, the team wiki, a comment in Github, or the biweekly remote brow bag session? This lack of structure and agreement leads to stress—how can I avoid missing important news now that there is no longer a watercooler; do I have to monitor all Slack channels in real-time—and probably a feeling of being excluded. Maybe, this effect is just a missing update to the working agreement or team charter. But what if it is done deliberately? (Honi soit qui mal y pense.) in a remote agile environment always requires to overcommunicate and be completely transparent.)
For a comprehensive list of anti-patterns, read Remote Agile (Part 4): Anti-Patterns — Pitfalls Successful Distributed Teams Avoid.
Update 2019-10-12: Have You Already Downloaded Your Copy of the Scrum Master Trends Report?
Have you already dwnloaded your copy of the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019 that we produced in collaboration with Scrum.org, the leading Scrum training and certification institution founded by Scrum co-founder Ken Schwaber?
The Scrum Master Trends Report 2019 is based on a survey of over 2100 participants—both from Scrum.org’s as well as Age-of-Product’s member and subscriber base. The report focuses on trends useful to both new and experienced Scrum Masters and reveals salary trends, agile adoption patterns, while also exploring gender equality within the Scrum Master role. The participants represent 87 different countries and come from all levels of experience. The highlights from the 2019 report include:
- 81% are using Scrum with other agile practices, ie. Kanban, DevOps, XP.
- Scrum Masters with formal Scrum training and agile certifications have higher salaries than those without.
- Adoption trends show that 7% are continuing to use Waterfall while 11% are mature in their agile adoption; the remaining participants are early or growing their adoption.
- Female salaries are trending higher than those of their male counterparts.
Learn more: The Scrum Master Trends Report 2019.
Update 2021-07-11: Four new questions added (Section IX)
I added four new questions on Scrum success principles and indicators, ranging from when to use Scrum, Scrum first principles, to signs of successful Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and Developers.
Update 2019-03-27: Watch the Webinar on the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019
Recently, I joined a webinar with Dave West—the CEO and Product Owner of Scrum.org—on the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019. We explored the results including salary trends and agile adoption patterns, addressed gender equality within the Scrum Master role, and answered questions from the audience. The video of the webinar is available now:
Note: If the browser will not start the video automatically, click here to watch the replay of the webinar on the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019 directly on Youtube.
Update 2018-11-25: The Webinar Replay ‘Scrum Master Anti-Patterns’ Is now Available
The video of the webinar is available now—you may want to check it prior to your interviews:
Note: If the browser will not start the video automatically, click here to watch the replay of the webinar Scrum Master anti-patterns directly on Youtube.
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