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Scrum Masters Need to be Good Listeners

NEW Agile Coaches have to do more listening than speaking

Anthony Mersino

August 1, 2018

12:00 AM

As a Scrum Master, listening is one of the most important tools in your tool box. While there are reasons for the Scrum Master to speak up, in general Scrum Masters should be listening significantly more than they are speaking.

I was at a client site and sitting near a Scrum Master recently and I overhead a series of his phone meetings. In addition to speaking loudly, I noticed that the Scrum Master talked a lot. Not just occasionally, but continuously through the meetings. If I had to guess, I’d say he spent 80% of his time talking and 20% listening. Does that seem right to you?

How Much Should Scrum Masters Speak?

I got to thinking about how much time should Scrum Masters be talking during meetings. I know that what I overheard was over the top, but what would be the correct amount?

Sprint Planning

The Development Team is responsible for creating the Sprint Backlog. I don’t see a need for a Scrum Master to say much in this meeting. They might be reminding the team of planning considerations like company holidays or previous sprint velocity. But scrum masters don’t actively lead or (God forbid) drive the planning.

Daily Scrum

The Daily Scrum is where I see many Scrum Masters talking a lot more than they need to or should. The most common mistake I see is Scrum Masters running this as a status meeting, directing the conversation, and interviewing people to get their status. Using Jira or an online tool almost always results in this behavior, which is one of the reasons I prefer to use physical task boards instead of online agile tools.

The Scrum Guide says that the Scrum Master is responsible to make sure that the team holds the Daily Scrum, that it be effective and kept within the timebox. The best Scrum Masters teach the team to conduct their own Daily Scrum, and then they get out of the way. [Get More Tips for Effective Daily Scrum Meetings Here]

Sprint Review

I’ve seen a wide range of participation styles for Scrum Masters during the Sprint Review. Some act as the host and emcee, which can be great middle of the road approach. They get the meeting started and then perhaps show the sprint by sprint velocity trend, and the turn it over to the Product Owner, or the team.

Other Scrum Masters turn it entirely over to the team. They leave it to the team to start the meeting and showcase their own results.

Finally, there are other Scrum Masters who dominate the meeting, talk the entire time, and only briefly ask team members to participate. This is the worst case scenario.

Since the Sprint Review is a focus on the product and getting stakeholder feedback, I think it is best if the Scrum Master says little or nothing.

Surely Scrum Masters Speak in the Sprint Retrospective

You might be thinking that the Retrospective is the meeting that (finally) the Scrum Master gets to speak up. Yes and No.

The Scrum Master is the facilitator for the Sprint Retrospective. And Yes they should speak up. But they should not dominate the conversation. In fact, one of the main goals of the Scrum Master is to get the team engaged in making the team’s process more effective and enjoyable. [Read more on Improving your Retrospectives]

Action Steps for Scrum Masters

If you are a Scrum Master or Agile Coach, take a moment to reflect on how much you speak and how much you listen to others speak.

  1. Track Your Talk Time with a Tally Sheet. You could get scientific about it and collect some data. A very simple technique would be to create a tally sheet of all the times you and the various other participants speak up in a meeting.
  2. Record Your Meeting and Listen. You could get more granular and specific feedback by recording your meeting and then compiling the exact number of minutes and seconds everyone speaks. The effort to do that might outweigh the benefits. (Please get agreement in advance from the team to record the session!)
  3. Ask Others. You might try asking various team members or other participants for what they think about your level of participation.
  4. Try Not Speaking. If you are wondering how much you speak, try not speaking. Let the team know that you are running an experiment and want to try saying less. Just be quiet and see what happens.
  5. Bring in an Observer. If you are lucky, there is an Agile Coach or other Scrum Master who can come to your meetings and observe. They can help you to identify areas where you are saying more than you need to or holding back the team from participating.

I believe that the Scrum Master needs to listen first. And that they need to say less, a lot less. Master the art of active listening. Or ask powerful, open ended questions that spark creative thinking and help others solve their own problems.

For more scrum master and coaching tips, see my post on what makes an agile coach effective. You can also visit our coaching resources page here.

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