Scrum Master Interview Questions (1): The Scrum Master Role
TL; DR: Scrum Master Interview Questions (1)
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 a suitable set of Scrum Master interview question more necessary than ever to help you identify suitable candidates.
If you are looking to fill a position for a Scrum Master (or agile coach) in your organization, you may find the following 47 Scrum Master interview questions useful to identify the right candidate. They are derived from my fourteen 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.
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Maybe ‘Agile’ in general is a fad as opposed to a trend. Though whatever the case, we can say for sure that Scrum is very popular in software development. Demand for seasoned Scrum practitioners and the entry of new professionals into the market are both on the rise.
If you are looking to hire a Scrum Master for your organization, you will find the following interview questions useful in identifying the right candidate. Being cognizant of what to listen for in a candidate’s answers to these questions will allow you, as an interviewer, to more quickly understand not only a candidate’s familiarity with Scrum — but also their agile mindset. Given the complexity of applying agile practices to any organization, multiple-choice questions are mostly insufficient when you need to discern a candidate’s agile mindset.
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Topics of the Scrum Master Interview Questions Guide
The interview guide comprises eight topics, from the role and artifacts to collaboration with the Product Owner to Scrum anti-patterns. This article will cover the largest category of them — the role of the Scrum Master:
The Background on the Role of the Scrum Master
- Scrum is not a methodology, but a framework. There are no rules that apply to each and every scenario — just good practices that have worked before in other organizations.
- The good practices of other organizations cannot simply be copied to your own. Every good practice requires a particular context to work.
- As somebody hiring for a Scrum Team, you need to determine for yourself what works for your organization — which is a process, not a destination.
- The role of a Scrum Master is primarily one of servant leadership and coaching. It is not a mere management role. (Although the Scrum Master role also has management aspects, for example, regarding the responsibility for promoting and supporting Scrum within the organization.)
- A Scrum Master should recognize that different stages of a Scrum Team’s development require different approaches: some, teaching; some, coaching; and some, mentoring.
- A Scrum Master should know of the Shu-Ha-Ri (Japanese martial arts) method of learning new techniques.
- A Scrum Master’s principal objective should be to remove themselves from daily operations by enabling the Scrum Team to be self-organizing.
- Being a Scrum Master does not entail, and should never entail, enforcing processes.
- Scrum is not designed for bean counters, although some metrics are helpful in understanding the health of a Scrum Team. Generally, insisting that the team achieve specific KPI (e.g. forecasts vs. velocity) does not help.
- Scrum doesn’t elaborate on the process that enables a Product Owner to add valuable, usable, and feasible work items such as features to the Product Backlog. Product discovery using the Design Thinking, Lean Startup, or Lean UX frameworks help, but in any case, a good Scrum Master will want the Scrum Team to be a part of this process (whether by participating in user interviews or running experiments).
- A Scrum Team’s communication with stakeholders should not be run through a gatekeeper (e.g. solely through the Product Owner) because this hurts transparency and negatively affects the team’s performance. Sprint Reviews, conversely, are a good way to stay in close contact with stakeholders and to present the value delivered by the Scrum Team during each previous Sprint.
The Interview Questions Regarding 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 managing — 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 the 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 a first-hand experience with agile practices if organized as a Scrum Team.
There is no right or wrong answers 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.
These interview questions are not intended to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an expert on agile software development. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, these questions will provide ample support for determining who among your candidates has actually worked successfully in the agile trenches — and who among these candidates are, in fact, imposters.
What questions do you ask Scrum Master candidates regarding the role of the Scrum Master? Please, share with us in the comments.
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