Peer Recruiting: How to Hire a Scrum Master in Agile Times

TL; DR: Peer Recruiting

Peer Recruiting is the new hiring: Shortly, all creative, technology-based organizations will need to abandon the command & control structures that served the industrial world of the 20th century so well. Instead, they will reorganize themselves around autonomous teams to deal with the complexity and pace of innovation of the 21st century.

In such an agile world, recruiting will become a team decision, and the role of the human resources department will change into a supportive one. Recruiters will need to become servant leaders or facilitators, guiding the peer recruiting process.

The following guide to peer recruiting is based on my experience in participating in the recruiting of such team members with Scrum-related roles over the last five years. This first article will cover the Scrum master role.

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I. Peer Recruiting and the New Role of HR

In the near future, all creative, technology-based organizations will need to abandon the command & control structures that served the industrial world of the 20th century so well.

Instead, they will become self-organized structures, built around autonomous teams. (Think of General Stanley McChrystal: “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”).

Note: A good intro in the idea of the “Team of Teams” from an organizational point of view is Culture First’s podcast: Team of Thrones.

In such an agile world, recruiting will become a team decision, and the role of the human resources department will change into a supportive one. Recruiters will need to become servant leaders or facilitators in this peer recruiting process.

The Supportive Role of the HR

Peer recruiting does not imply, that HR will be rendered obsolete. On the contrary, HR will in the future continue being a major contributor to the success of the whole organization. However, HR’s role will change from choosing someone from the candidate pool and present that individual to the team as the new teammate. Instead, HR will support the team picking the “right” candidate and ensure that the legal and administrative side is being taken care of.

Typical tasks of the peer recruiting process, that HR will provide to a team, therefore, comprise of:

  • Creating the remuneration package for the position in question (in compliance with the organization’s principles)
  • Handling contractual and administrative issues (social security, visas, work permits, etc.
  • Supporting the team creating a job advertisement (if required)
  • Placing job advertisement and run corresponding campaigns
  • Doing background checks and pre-screenings of applicants
  • Organize interviews and trial days (from travel arrangements, and meet & greet to introducing the organization)
  • Collecting the team’s feedback after interviews or trial days
  • Handling the signing of the contract
  • Finally, kicking-off the onboarding process for the new teammate.

These steps hold a significant opportunity for HR to become a change agent for the organization, contributing to its agile transition by ensuring that new hires will have the required agile mindset.

Why Bother with the Inclusion of the Team at all?

You may wonder why a change of process will be required in the first place?

There are plenty of reasons, my top three being:

  1. It’s consequent. On the one side, the team is empowered to make decisions that directly impact the return on (product) investment. On the other, they are being patronized by deciding on new teammates for them?
  2. It also means the team has skin in the game. And they will be motivated to go the extra mile to make the new connection work. Now, it is their responsibility, too.
  3. Last but not least, not involving the team immediately signals to all candidates, that your organization isn’t agile, but merely “doing Agile”—a weak value proposition in the war for talent with an agile mindset.

The Current Status: The “How to Hire a Scrum Master” Survey

For about three weeks before this article, I have been running a poll “How Does Your Organization Hire a Scrum Master?”, and so far almost 240 participants have contributed:

Peer recruiting survey results: How to Hire a Scrum Master in Agile Times

It turns out that about 18% of organizations that are supposedly agile delegate the final hiring decision to the team itself.

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The “Agile Transition – A Hands-on Guide from the Trenches” ebook is a collection of articles I have been writing since October 2015. They detail the necessary steps to transition an existing product delivery organization of over 40 people to agile practices. Download it for free:

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Now, let’s have a detailed look at the proposed process, which has been proven to be motivating as well as successful several times so far in different organizations.

II. The Eight Steps Peer Recruiting Process of Hiring a Scrum Master

1. What kind of Scrum Master Are You Looking for?

This is the question you will need to answer in the first place:

What is the purpose of building autonomous teams in your organization? Does the organization want to become (or stay) agile? Or is the organization just “doing agile”?

Given that the original Scrum motto of “inspect and adapt” meanwhile turned into a quasi-religiously followed set of principles—as taught in any official Scrum certification training—, this question is less trivial than it sounds.

The majority of applicants for a Scrum Master role I have met so far were following exactly this dogmatic set of principles. And I am skeptical that candidates would make an excellent addition to any agile organization. It is all about mindset, not skills. (Read also: Scrum Master Anti-Patterns: Beware of Becoming a Scrum Mom or Scrum Pop.)

So, in the “team of teams” universe, you should always hire for the mindset. While you can quickly teach skills, training someone unsuitable in the right mindset will be futile most of the time. This is also the reason, that in this agile, and complex world formalized, certified experience rarely matters.

Hence, the following description is targeting organizations that want to become agile. (See also “Scrum Master Certifications—A Necessity?” paragraph below.)

2. Create a Job Advertisement

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a necessity to run a job ad. Someone in the product development organization would personally know a suitable individual and introduce her to the team. (And the organization.)

Unfortunately, truly agile people—those that are not merely sticking to the letters of their Scrum certification manual—are in short supply. So there probably will be the need to create a job ad for the website, as well as other channels.

I strongly recommend to kick-off the collaboration between the team and HR at this point. Most ads that HR departments produce for agile jobs are simply awful. Their usual “I don’t know what this is all about, but I have to come up with an ad by 12 pm, so I copied the text from a competitor” approach scares away suitable candidates, because they sense the lack of competence.

Instead, I suggest to sit together with the whole team, share a coffee, and get a copy of the ad right, by being authentic, and human, and reflecting the culture of the organization.

3. Run the Job Advertisement

That is the HR department’s job. However, the team may have good suggestions outside the typical LinkedIn approach. Why not try Reddit, for example? Or sponsoring some meetups of the local agile community?

4. Pre-Screening Applicants

It would be helpful for the team if HR could pre-screen applicants. This screening could be the standard background check. Or a first analysis if a candidate is suitable for formal reasons or in compliance with internal programs of the hiring organization, for example, diversity initiatives.

Unsuitable candidates should then be at least flagged, and probably be removed from the pool. (Although the team should be aware of that for transparency reasons.)

5. Discuss Suitable Applicants with the Team

The team members should then be provided with access to all suitable candidates, preferably in the form of anonymized CVs: No photos, no age, no gender, no ethnic group, no religious believes—any information on candidates that might trigger a bias of whatever kind should be excluded.

Also, you will normalize information on a candidate’s public profile, e.g. blog or Twitter or other accounts. A summary such as “A is actively contributing to the Scrum community by running a meetup as well as creating a newsletter with 800 subscribers“ will suffice for the selection process.

If this approach requires a scissor, glue, and a Xerox machine, so be it. Please keep in mind that these biases are triggered on autopilot and that there is not willpower known to mankind that could prevent biases from interfering with the selection process.

Then have a joined meeting—HR & all team members—and discuss whom to invite for the in-person interviews. (A simple dot-voting will suffice in the end.)

6. Running the Interviews

The “Hiring: 38 Scrum Master Interview Questions to Avoid Agile Imposters” PDF provides a broad set of questions (and possible answers), spanning five categories.

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Those are the starting point for the interviews. The purpose of the interviews is to identify those that will be invited for a trial day with the team.

Instead of one or two team members having an extended interview with a candidate each, I recommend to run interviews of 30 minutes each with as many team members as possible. The trick is that you split the questionnaire evenly among all of the interviewers and later aggregate the answers. Thus, you will obtain more constructive feedback from all the interviewers.

Tip: Create interview teams of two teammates each: One is asking questions, while the other is taking notes. After half of the interview has passed, they switch roles. The reason for that is that most people are not good at leading the conversation and at the same time take meaningful notes. Two people, however, will have a much better chance to recognize signals on the candidate’s side, for example, particular answers or body language.

Note: It is important that exactly the same procedure applies to all candidates otherwise the results are less comparable.

It is a good practice to run these debriefings to aggregate the answers right after an interview round with a candidate. Target for objectivity and have HR handle this task. They are the professionals.

The most important question to answer, however, is the “Would you like work with the candidate?” question. And that one should be asked the next morning. Sleeping on it will sober the interviewers, and thus provide a path for a better decision.

Tip: Go with your first thought and walk away from any candidate who will have lost the “yes” overnight. Don’t rationalize your decision, as people can be taught news skills, but they won’t change their personality. The trial day is an expensive exercise, and should not be wasted.

Candidates that are not considered for a trial day should receive an answer, detailing the reasons for the decision. I know that legal departments tend to freak out over this. They usually fear legal action, for example, on the grounds of discrimination legislation. However, respect and transparency are vital values of the agile community and should be honored accordingly in my eyes.

Finally, invite the candidates that the team would be interested in working with for a trial day. Let the team make a suggestion for a date, as they need to align a trial day with their sprint rhythm.

7. Have a Trial Day

Given my holistic view on being agile, a trial day for a Scrum Master should not merely focus on basic Scrum mechanics. If you do that, you might risk ending up choosing someone who is comfortable with “doing Agile by the book”. (Whatever book that is…)

Hence, the purpose of the trial day is in my eyes to get a practical understanding of how the future Scrum master can support the whole organization in becoming (more) agile. The three top areas, I focus trial days on, are as follows:

The Team

This is the simple part. Good exercises for hands-on learnings are:

A. Understanding the Current Status of the Team

Have an introductory session with the complete team, a kind of “ask me anything” session for the candidate. A simple questionnaire will do the job, for example: 20 Questions a New Scrum Master Should Ask Her Team to Get up to Speed..

B. Running a Retrospective

Ask the candidate to run a retrospective with the team in question. 30 minutes to prepare for the exercise should be more than generous. I would expect a seasoned Scrum Master to have prepared retrospectives at hand. (Retromat offers a wealth of exercises to choose from, see also: How to Curate Retrospectives with Retromat.

Peer Recruiting: How to hire a Scrum Master – survival kit by Stefan Wolpers

Scrum Master survival kit…

By “retrospective” I am not referring to the basic “good, bad, and 2 actions items” 30 min version. I would expect something a bit more sophisticated along the lines of Esther Darby’s and Diana Larsen’s book: “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great”.

C. Creating a Dashboard with Agile Metrics

Visualizations are essential to stakeholder communication, and I believe the Scrum master should take care of collecting data, aggregating information, and finally providing the gained knowledge in a way that helps the organization grow.

In this exercise, the candidate would be asked to create an initial version of such a dashboard and start collecting the first data. Typical metrics that are readily available by questionnaires or polls are:

  • Team happiness,
  • Perceived value delivered to customers during the last sprint,
  • Perceived current level of technical debt,
  • The agile health level in the organization:
  • Last, but not least, Team velocity, as well as a burn-down chart, are both particularly well suited to understand better the candidate’s mindset of being agile.

Note: Acquiring stakeholder feedback on the level of appreciation of the product delivery organization will most likely not be possible on a trial day.

The Product Organization

Good exercises for the product organization are:

1. Understanding the Current Status of the Team from the Product Owner’s Perspective

Have an interview with the Product owner on the current situation from her perspective. Again, a simple questionnaire will do job, for example: 20 Questions from New Scrum Master to Product Owner.

A good candidate will be prepared for that interview, and provide her ideas on how she can contribute to improving the agile product discovery and delivery process.

2. Participating in a Backlog Refinement

The candidate should participate in a backlog grooming session, helping the team to improve the product backlog of the product owner—garbage in, garbage out, right? The candidate should demonstrate best grooming practices during the exercise, addressing, for example, :

  • How to deal with large product backlogs,
  • Bill Wake’s INVEST principle to create user stories,
  • How to handle acceptance criteria (for example, use Gherkin…)
  • The whole estimation vs. estimates process: estimation poker, knowledge transfer, #noestimates, predictability as an agile key metric.

A good candidate can ask the right question during refinement session without having detailed knowledge about the product backlog itself. Handling the process and its principles are in the focus of this exercise.

3. Stakeholders and the Organization Beyond the Product & Engineering

This part of the trial day assesses the future Scrum master’s communication capabilities. “Selling” the product and engineering organization to stakeholders and the rest of the organization is a not just a valuable, but an essential trait to either further an agile transition or maintain its dynamic.

It will be particularly important in organizations with silos and legacy command & control structures outside of the product and engineering organization. Or in fast-growing startups with a lack of organizational structure to begin with, particularly when those are sales- or marketing-driven.

The task for the candidate will be to design a basic communication strategy with stakeholders that is suited to support transparency, interaction, and collaboration. (Read more on this topic here: 10 Proven Stakeholder Communication Tactics during an Agile Transition.)

A worthwhile trial day usually requires a full working day, as well as the attention of the whole team. Which is a pretty significant investment. So, choose the candidates carefully.

Tip: Invite the candidate—as well as the whole team—for lunch. It will be pretty much impossible for her to play a role for 60 minutes when interacting socially with several other people at the same time. Having food together brings out true colors… 

Note: Menlo Innovations takes the trial process even a bit further: “So we bring people in and get them to speed date with our own staff. The question is always: would you like to work with this person? If the answer is yes, then we bring them into work with us for a day, then a week and then a month. If the answer is still, “Yes, I would like to work with this person,” then they are hired.”

8. Gather Feedback from the Team the Day after the Trial Day

Collect the feedback from the team members the day after the trial day with a simple questionnaire:

  • “How would you rate the candidate’s competency level on a scale from:
    • 1 [Awesome!] to
    • 6 [Thanks, but no thanks.]”

  • “Did the candidate do anything to impress you positively?” (Free text field.)
  • “Did the candidate do anything to impress you negatively?” (Free text field.)
  • “Would you consider working with the candidate as your new teammate?” Three options:
    • Yes
    • No
    • Don’t know

  • “Should we make the candidate an offer? Three options:
    • Yes
    • No
    • Don’t know

If the feedback is not unanimous, it is HR’s task to take over. Either by entering the contract negotiation, or provide negative feedback from the team, and continue the search.

If the feedback is not unanimous, the team should discuss—under the moderation from HR—whether the differences are surmountable or not. In the latter case, the candidate should not be forced upon the team. The team always has a veto right.

III. Scrum Master Certifications—A Necessity?

What about Scrum master certifications, Scrum Alliance’s CSM, for example?

Let Jilles van Gurp answer this question:

“I congratulate Ken Schwaber on his well-oiled business of scrum training large parts of the industry (me included) but I believe that he doesn’t honestly believe a two-day training is enough either.”

And Dan North describes today’s situation as follows:

“Modern Scrum is a certification-laden minefield of detailed practices and roles. To legitimately describe oneself as a Scrum Master or Product Owner involves an expensive two-day certification class taught by someone who in turn took an eye-wateringly expensive Scrum Trainer class, from one of the competing factions of “Professional” or “Certified” (but ironically not both) schools of Scrum training”.

As both Jilles and Dan mention, the agile-industrial complex feeds its followers well. Nevertheless, it’s a fallacy to believe that two or three days of Scrum training will be even remotely successful in teaching the participants about Scrum.

Scrum is a framework to begin with, easy to understand, but hard to master. Scrum needs to be adapted to each organization depending on its culture, size, or the kind and maturity of its products, just to name a few aspects of this process.

So, training—leading to a CSM or equivalent certificate—can only cover the smallest common (Scrum) denominator of all organizations: Artifacts, meetings, and procedures. All issues that make a transition to agile complex and hard to master need to be experienced first hand. You cannot compensate for a lack of experience by applying a dogmatic process to the letters of a book. That results in cargo cult Scrum.

Therefore, a Scrum Master certificate is in many cases more of personal branding or advertising than a sign of expertise.

IV. Conclusion

If your organization shall become agile, switching the hiring process to peer recruiting will be a necessity. It won’t make HR obsolete, but its role will change to facilitating others choosing the right candidates. HR will thus become a change agent, contributing to the agile transition of the organization.

Trying to stick with the traditional command & control process on the other side would signal everyone with an agile mindset that your organization isn’t agile, but merely “doing Agile”.

And why would a real talent want to join you then?

Please share your own experience in the comments.

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