Scrum Master in the Passenger Seat
Picture this: driver and instructor are speeding down a winding racetrack. They’re passing 100 mph and still accelerating on the main straight but the first turn is coming up FAST. The scrum master in the passenger seat turns to the driver and calmly but firmly says, “Brake. Now.”
Many parallels exist between being a Scrum Master/Project Manager and being an Instructor for High Performance Driver Education (HPDE). First and foremost, one needs to be an influencer—listening and observing but never touching the wheel. The SM/PM works with everyone involved to identify and achieve the common goal, acting as servant leader to influence the effort, but never allowing the situation to become dire. The goal is an exhilarating showing of smoothness, speed, and results.
High Performance Driver Education has been around a long time but is still not well known. I began in 1990 as a student in the sport and have been instructing for the last ten years. Here’s how it works. Student uses their own cars (so long as they pass safety inspection) on a road course racetrack and learn how to drive it at speed. Some time is spent in the classroom, but the exciting part is driving on the track with an instructor in the passenger seat. There are rules, of course, and practices designed to keep everyone safe. Far from being a race situation, this is instead a course on racetrack driving and a test of the car’s (and the student’s) capability limits.
Working as a Scrum Master while also being a Project Manager is much like instructing a student on the racetrack. The Scrum Master part of the job is akin to sitting in the passenger seat, physically NOT in control of the vehicle, with a driver who is either new to the sport or a seasoned veteran. My job is to help the driver achieve his or her goals but to do so in a way that is safe for everyone, including other drivers sharing the track. I work to maximize the performance of this car, driver, and track. The Project Manager’s job, meanwhile, is to monitor the larger picture (the condition of the track and the other cars), to anticipate the turns, and to offer corrections when we are not on the best path. Above all, the PM works hard to ensure we don’t go off track.
At work, I don’t visualize and define the architecture. I don’t write the code. I don’t design the UI/UX, I don’t execute the tests. Instead, I sit in the passenger seat and observe. I pay attention to as many details as I can. But more importantly, I monitor the overall situation to make sure all moving parts are on track and synchronized. To the best of my abilities, I help to prevent a dramatic incident. The last thing I want to happen is a crash!
On the track, if a student approaches a hairpin turn with too much speed, I need to catch this and suggest a correction as quickly as possible. I can’t reach the brake pedal and I don’t want to touch the steering wheel (too dangerous!). So I pay attention to the car’s position and speed. I’ve already observed the car’s capabilities in prior laps and have gotten some sense of the driver’s skills. So I assess the situation and suggest an adjustment. If all goes well, the driver handles the turn with ease. Alternately, we may go a little too deep before a correction is made. We might put two wheels in the dirt, but eventually we’ll recover and make our way to the pits for a breather. While in the pits, we’ll discuss what happened and how we might avoid it in the future (think Retrospective).
As a Scrum Master and Project Manager it’s important to notice when a project is drifting off course. Just as on the racetrack, the earlier any project-drift is identified, the more time there is for adjustment. But my job is not to grab the wheel and make the correction. Instead, my job is to ask probing questions so the team can reevaluate the situation—is it in line with our goals and schedule? Is the highest priority focus to get to a feature-complete build? What’s blocking your progress? The SM/PM influences the team through observation, targeted questions, and direct suggestions only when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, the team is still in control—they own the project and work together to keep the effort smooth and efficient.
Further parallels exist between the role of Scrum Master/Project Manager and that of HPDE Instructor, e.g. “accelerating” with control, reaching “maximum velocity” without incurring risk, understanding a team’s (car, driver and track’s) limits. And my favorite: going “sideways.” The key is that we work as a team, communicate constantly, identify risks early-on and finish the sprint (or track session) having met our goals and grown from the experience.