Scrum Mastery Requires Humility: My New Year’s Resolution

It’s that time again. The end of the year, where many of us take a step back to reflect on the year that will almost be over soon and create another new year resolution. Like many of you, I do the same. On my last year life retrospectives, I wrote about servant leadership. This year’s retrospective is the continuation of it.

This year I learnt a lot about the relationship between mastery and humility. I was reminded by Ken Schwaber’s statement when he told me the reason why he chose the term Scrum Master rather than Scrum Coach because mastery is about the “being” and not the “doing”. Mastery is not an end state but rather a continuous pursuit of excellence, craftspeopleship and professionalism. As a master, the being is more important because if the Scrum Master gets the being right, the doing will be manifested right by itself. Even though in our industry, people are more focused on getting “doing” than “being” right.

This year I had an unexpected opportunity to be in Japan, and had an interesting encounter within a short amount of time with a Zen Master in one of a local Buddhist temple. That experience was a life changing experience for me. This year is when I finally understood by what Ken Schwaber meant about the “being” of a Scrum Master is more important than the “doing” after interacting with this Zen Master.

I. To Master Scrum is to Have The Beginner’s Mind

Zen Master is not a title you earn by getting certified. It is a state of being and it is a recognition from the people around the Zen Master. As a master, the Zen Master have the beginner’s mind. It is a state of mind where the master does not bring his/her own bias/preconceived ideas even when seeing something repeatedly throughout his/her life. Clean slate, empty glass, every time. Only with the beginner’s mind, the Zen master is able to serve his/her people best according to the context people are experiencing.

When we don’t bring our preconceived ideas, we become less judgmental and most importantly we do not try to push our own agenda. And I’ve learnt this important lesson about having the beginner’s mindset when working with clients who are transitioning towards agility this year.

When working with clients in transitioning towards agility, I often need to work with other consultants and Agile Coaches and it fascinates me to see them bring their preconceived ideas about the perfect agile organisation structure which often times are copy-pasted from another company’s X model. Another instance is when I see many experienced project managers bring their preconceived ideas about Scrum and treat the Sprint as a mini-waterfall. Within the organisation level, I’ve seen how the management map the Product Owner to the business analyst who works for the project manager or product manager and make the Scrum Master as the team’s personal assistant.

This year I am involved in a large scale organisation transformation in a multinational company. My personal challenge in a large scale transformation is to have the beginner’s mind knowing there are a plethora of templated agile scaling frameworks in the market. I am always tempted to copy-paste an already existing organisation model made by other organisation. But then I realised even though doing so is easier and faster, it is not going to stick in the company. I also need to encourage the whole company to not be tempted to copy-paste those templated scaled agile frameworks.

Mastering Scrum is not about mastering the Scrum mechanics or the “doing”. Mastering Scrum is about mastering empiricism that is mastering transparency, inspection and adaptation. Mastering empiricism requires the beginner’s mind because empiricism requires us to have the humility to not bring our biases and preconceived ideas and the courage to acknowledge that what we already know may not be what the organisation needs. And in Scrum, you have to do that every single Sprint mainly during Sprint Retrospectives.

Having the beginner’s mind makes us less judgmental and makes us focus on people’s needs rather than our own personal agenda. Having the beginner’s mind improves our mastery. Continuing to pursue having the beginner’s mind so that I can serve the organisation I work with even more effectively is one of my New Year’s resolutions for next year.

II. To Master Scrum is to Detach Ourselves From Control

To master Zen is to let go of control. I was told that to master Zen is to not be attached to anything. When we are attached to something, we will have the tendency to bring our biases and preconceived ideas.

I have learned as a Scrum Master to be less attached to what I already know. And I have realised I have become a disservice to the organisation in the past. When we are less attached to the knowledge we already know, we are more curious and more open to learning and new ideas. Even though those new ideas may bring us out of our comfort zone.

Not only we should not be attached to our bias we should not be attached to the control we used to have because it will be a disservice to our people. Throughout this year I am quite fascinated to see in an organisation transformation how many managers have the fear to detach themselves from the control they used to have from the past. I have also seen project managers who were converted by the organisation to be a Scrum Master still bring the old habit of controlling the team, the scope, the timeline and the budget. When people follow us because they’re being controlled, that means people follow us because they have to rather than because they want to.

People come to the Zen Master not because he/she has the power or the authority, in reality the Zen Master don’t have any authority to control someone. The Zen master realised that as a human being, people have options and choices. People follow and listen to the Zen master because they want to and because the Zen master is inspiring for them.

As written on the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master is a servant leader. As a servant leader, the Scrum Master does not use any authority to move people. The Scrum Master use the authority he/she has to bring awesomeness to the people rather than to control people. This is important to remember for us as a Scrum Master who are working inside an organisation who is transitioning towards agility because I’ve seen many Scrum Masters are lacking patience to see change inside the organisation and start command & controlling people when the Scrum Master do not see change happen at the speed rate he/she wants.

Just like the Zen Master, people are motivated to be lead by the Scrum Master because there is so much wisdom to learn from the Scrum Master. As a Scrum Master we should be motivated to continuously develop ourselves so people are inspired to move because they want to learn from us not because we have the power to control them.

It is much easier to control people than to inspire people. Because inspiring others requires us to work and develop ourselves rather than focusing on changing people. Command and controlling people is considered as a shortcut in many organisation but it is not healthy for the people as it does not offer learning for them and it is also not good for the Scrum Master because it doesn’t push the Scrum Master to develop him/herself harder so that people become inspired.

Detaching ourselves from control and giving that control to people makes the Scrum Master a better servant leader. My resolution for next year is to push myself harder to lead by being an example and not tempted to move people by using control.

III. To Master Scrum is to Actively Listen and to be Fully Present

The Zen Master often times have many mentees around him/her to hear his/her wisdom. But from my observation, the master listen more than speak. Only by listening more he/she is able to speak wisdom from his/her mouth. Being comfortable listening to silence is one of the key to mastering Zen.

In the corporate life, many people want to be heard but only a few who wants to listen to others. People are busy and want to rush to the next meeting hence do not find enough time to listen to others. People want to be recognised as the one who is knowledgable and deserve for that position hence they speak more than they listen. In some cultures, silence is found to be less valuable than noise so people try to fill every silence. But it takes mastery to appreciate and understand the meaning of silence.

To move others without using authority, the Scrum Master should listen more. To be heard is a great gift for many people at our workplace. When we listen, we are bringing empathy and compassion to the workplace. It’s much easier to move people after they’re being heard.

As written on the Scrum Guide, coaching is one of the services that the Scrum Master provide to the organisation. Many organisations feel that coaching as something less valuable because it is to wishy-washy for a professional context. But if we value every single individuals at our workplace as human being then coaching is actually a great gift we can give to our people.

This year, as a Scrum Master I try to make myself more available for a coaching session to anyone who requested it and apply active listening during coaching sessions. From my personal experience, active listening is draining energy as we need to be fully present and stay focus with the person we are with and not thinking about our next todo list.

It requires humility to listen more than to speak. When we listen, we gain more knowledge & wisdom and as a result we will improve our mastery. Active listening is one of my struggle this year knowing I have got so many todo list going on in my head and do not always being fully present when I am coaching people. Coaching and active listening is a skill and stance that I want to continue to master next year so that I can provide better service to the organisation and the people within the organisation.

IV. To Master Scrum is to Be Selfless

The Zen Master exists not to take credit of his/her mentee’s success. When someone is successful in their life, it’s not because of the Zen Master. It takes humility not to take credit from anyone’s success.

One of the common questions that I get from people is, “how do we evaluate the Scrum Master performance?”. I have found this is one of the most challenging questions to answer. People’s behaviour is driven by the measurement that is imposed upon them. If our answer to this question is wrong, the Scrum Master in the organisation may demonstrate the undesired behaviours within the company and will be a disservice to the company. One of the undesired behaviours that is commonly seen in the market is how the Scrum Master still push their personal agenda, still controlling the time, scope and budget and also command controlling the team.

I have been asked to interview Scrum Masters candidate as part of the organisation transformation this year and what is interesting to hear from the Scrum Masters candidate how they take credit for the team’s or organisation’s success. Project Managers performance is evaluated by how they’re able to ensure the project to be delivered on-time, on-scope and on-budget. Unfortunately, I have seen many Scrum Masters during interview boast themselves how they’re able to deliver the project on-time, on-scope and on-budget. Rather than removing impediments, many Scrum Masters became an impediment to the team and to the organisation.

I have to acknowledge that we do not live in an ideal world where roles like Scrum Master are still expected by the management to display what they have contributed to the company in form of metrics. This year, I have made a video on the Scrum Master accountability and how to evaluate the Scrum Master performance to show my contribution to the organisation who have paid for my service. But personally it is still challenging for me as a Scrum Master not to take credit about how the company has become more agile because of the work that I have done because as human being we naturally want to be seen and recognised for our success and achievements. I have learned from my personal trainer how he would not take credit for the weight that I’ve lost because it is not him who is doing the hard work to lose my weight.

My resolution for next year is to continue exercising being genuine to improve organisation agility without bringing my personal agenda and not taking any credit for the improvement that happen within the company. And I do realised that whenever I seek for recognition, I tend to focus on my personal agenda rather than being a servant leader. I know this will be a challenging resolution, I know I will continuously stumble in this department as we do not live in an ideal world.

V. To Master Scrum is to Accept that We May be Rejected and Forgotten

The Zen Master may be forgotten despite the many seeds he/she has planted in the individuals who learned from him/her. On the other side, the Zen Master may not try to remember all the good things he/she has done in other people’s lives. The Zen Master may also be rejected and forgotten as he/she may be telling something that is unpopular and made people feel uncomfortable.

Starting from this year I have learnt and have started to practice asking permission from the team to be their Scrum Master even though the management already chose me as the Scrum Master for the whole company. There are two things that can happen as the result of asking permission from the team, the team may accept me or they may reject me to be their Scrum Master. Being rejected is quite scary for me because I have been rejected and told to walked out of the door multiple times by the management for speaking the “brutal” truth. It is humane to be scared of feeling rejected. Courage is one of the Scrum values and as a Scrum Master I’ve learned this year that to be a better Scrum Master I have to overcome my fear of being rejected after asking permission from the team. Scrum Master should not think they will always be accepted. When there is acceptance, there is rejection. That is what I’ve learned from Zen, balance. And asking permission is how it should be done if we want to see the whole company sustaining in agility.

When we ask permission from the team, we are respecting them as individuals and as a Scrum Master we are displaying humility to the team rather than an authoritative leader. As a Scrum Master we respect the team as a human being who has options and choices. The traditional way of management pushing ideas to the team without giving them options and choices is no longer relevant in 21st century. People will be more accountable and have more ownership when they consciously select the options and choices they have laid out. As a Scrum Master we are communicating to the team that we do not have control, the team have control. When we ask permission from the team, we are displaying humility to them, how we as a Scrum Masters do not have any authority and in the future we will not push anything to them without their permission. As a Scrum Master we are displaying to them that we exist not to control them and make their work life more miserable but we exist to make them more awesome. That’s what empowerment means. Not just a nice quote on the office walls.

Not only asking permission from the team or group of people will bring greater accountability and ownership to people doing the work, it will make the Scrum Master become a better individual and as a result of that it will improve his/her mastery. It takes courage and humility to ask for permission to enter a team or group of people or to ask permission when we want to apply an idea (process, policy, tools, technology, etc) that may be affecting people’s way of working at the workplace because there is a chance that we may be rejected. My next year’s resolution is to overcome my fear of rejection by taking courage to always ask permission before entering a team and before I want to apply an idea within the team. I know it will be hard and it will be scary but also improve my mastery.


Now I understand why Scrum Guide says that Scrum is easy to understand but hard to master. Because mastery is a lifelong learning. Scrum Mastery requires us to focus on working on our “being” than focus on doing Scrum mechanics. The Scrum framework itself is simple to understand but Scrum is more about empiricism than the mechanical. And mastering empiricism requires us to be genuine, to continuously be open to invalidate and become less attached to what we already know. Mastering empiricism requires us to have the beginner’s mind.

2019 definitely has been a great roller coaster ride for me where I have learned so many things and experienced many AHA moments at the time I least expect it. I hope your 2019 is awesome too. Starting from this year onwards I want to serve more people who may not have the opportunity to interact with me within an organisation or in my classes through this blog and also my youtube channel. Follow my journey and consider to subscribe to my Youtube channel if you already haven’t.

Happy New Year 2020 everyone. Looking forward to seeing you continuously improve your mastery to influence our workplace in how people collaborate together in a humane way delivering awesome things for human beings in our society. Stay awesome.

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