A Scrum Master is like an orchestra conductor, guiding a group of individuals to create something that no one of them could create alone.
SAFe Scrum Master/Team Coach
Note: For more on SAFe Scrum, please read the additional Framework articles in the Scrum series, including SAFe Scrum, Iterations, Iteration Planning, Iteration Goals, Iteration Review, and Iteration Retrospective
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The SAFe Scrum Master/Team Coach (SM/TC) is a servant leader and coach for an Agile team who facilitates team events and processes, and supports teams and ARTs in delivering value.
The SAFe Scrum Master/Team Coach (SM/TC) is a servant leader and coach for an Agile team who facilitates team events and processes, and supports teams and ARTs in delivering value.
They help educate the team in Scrum, Built-in-Quality, Kanban, and SAFe and ensure that the agreed Agile processes are followed. They also help remove impediments and foster an environment for high-performing team dynamics, continuous flow, and relentless improvement.
In SAFe, the Scrum Master/Team Coach (SM/TC) assists the team in meeting their delivery goals. They coach teams in self-organization and self-management and help them coordinate and participate in Agile Release Trains (ARTs) events, increasing the effectiveness of SAFe across the organization.
SAFe SM/TC are integral members of an Agile Team and share responsibilities with the team for their overall performance. The SM/TC has the specialty skills that support adopting SAFe Scrum practices, ensuring no substantial gaps, and the team knows how to plan, execute, review and retrospect. In addition, SM/TCs can actively coach SAFe Team Kanban teams and help each Agile Team achieve Team Flow.
Characteristics of a SAFe Scrum Master/Team Coach
The SM/TC role is a team member who has the responsibility to help the team achieve its goals. They do this by teaching and coaching SAFe Scrum and SAFe Team Kanban, and by supporting SAFe principles and practices. They also help identify and eliminate bottlenecks to flow.
SM/TCs come from various backgrounds and roles, and they are in high demand. Although they are not typically people managers, SM/TCs are influential members of an Agile Team, and they should have the following attributes:
- Empathetic – Support the team by displaying an authentic understanding and concern for a team member’s beliefs or feelings. In turn, the team is more likely to build relationships with others, resulting in higher levels of collaboration and performance. Empathy is a crucial ingredient of trust, which is essential for people to accept and welcome coaching.
- Conflict navigator – Supports team members in resolving interpersonal conflicts, problem-solving, and decision-making. Agile coach and author Lyssa Atkins opines, “Navigating conflict is our new mindset, in which we help teams move from conflict to constructive disagreement as a catapult to high performance.” 
- Servant leader – Persuades rather than uses authority. As servant leaders, SM/TCs focus on the needs of team members and those they serve, intending to achieve results aligned with the organization’s values, principles, and business objectives.  They have choices in how they collaborate with the team depending on the situation and their accountability for team performance. SM/TCs should have options for achieving their responsibilities. For example, when it comes to events– their accountability should be ‘ensuring that all team events take place and are positive, productive, and kept within the timebox.’ SM/TCs can facilitate the events or let the team self-manage and facilitate their own events. Rotating the responsibilities for facilitating events and meetings is essential to the team’s growth and its ability to self-manage.
- Mentor – Supports the personal development of team members, helping them gain a continuous learning mindset. They guide the team to find solutions to their problems independently instead of being given the answers.
- Transparent – Transparency is a Core Value of SAFe and one of the pillars of empiricism. The SM/TC is open to feedback and appreciates transparency from others. They help the team provide transparency by ensuring artifacts are inspected, identifying significant differences between expected and actual results, and detecting anti-patterns.
- Coach – The SM/TC understands and educates the team on methods beyond Scrum, such as SAFe, Kanban, Flow, Built-in Quality, and more. They often have advanced training and experience in one or more technical and business domains.
The SM/TC fulfills many critical responsibilities in performing the role, as illustrated in Figure 1. Each of these responsibilities is described in the sections that follow.
Facilitating PI Planning
SM/TCs play an essential role in PI Planning. They collaborate with other SM/TCs and the Release Train Engineer (RTE), working actively with the team during PI planning. An effective SM/TC is critical to a successful event, and they typically do the following activities to help facilitate PI planning:
- Prepare for PI Planning – Before the event, the SM/TC ensures the team is briefed on upcoming features by Product Managers, Business Owners, and other stakeholders, as illustrated in Figure 2. They help Agile Teams and the Product Owner identify local stories, maintenance, defects, tech debt, and other work the team needs to accomplish during the upcoming PI.
- Draft PI plans – The SM/TC facilitates the team in creating a draft PI plan for the PI’s iterations, writing draft PI Objectives, and identifying ART risks and issues. The SM/TC also helps the team set up their digital or physical planning areas, providing visual radiators that create transparency and collaboration. They help the team determine their capacity and keep within this constraint.
- Coordinate with other teams – SM/TCs help ensure cooperation and communication during the event. During PI planning, they usually secure subject matter experts (SMEs) and ART stakeholders and foster communication with other teams to determine how they will collaborate on feature development and resolve dependencies.
- Create team PI objectives – SM/TCs help teams create team PI objectives, the things they intend to accomplish in the upcoming PI. They ensure the objectives are written before the draft plan review and that a proper mix of committed and uncommitted goals is present.
- Review final plans and business value – Before the final review, SM/TCs help ensure PI objectives are Smart (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound) and are written in a way everyone can understand. The SM/TC often facilitates Business Owner and team collaboration during business value assignments.
Supporting Iteration Execution
SM/TCs support Agile Teams during the iteration, increasing the likelihood of achieving its iteration goals and PI objectives. For example they:
- Facilitate team events – Agile Teams use cadence-based events to coordinate and sync their efforts. While Scrum and Team Kanban operate somewhat differently, all teams need to plan, sync, review, inspect their work, and hold retrospectives. Figure 3 illustrates the events (or activities) that Agile Teams typically do during an iteration.
- Work within the ART’s cadence – SMs/TCs help teams apply Scrum or Kanban within the development cadence and synchronization requirements of the Agile Release Train (ART). This cadence and synchronization facilitate alignment, dependency management, Release on Demand, and fast integrated learning cycles (SAFe Principle #4).
- Collaborate with the PO – Since the Product Owner (PO) is accountable for maximizing the solution’s value resulting from the team’s work, an essential aspect of the SM/TC’s role is supporting the PO. They do this by:
- Helping the team understand and apply the tools and techniques for Customer-Centricity and Design Thinking to build the right thing at the right time
- Ensuring the team understands the need for clear and concise team backlog items and aligns to the ART’s capacity allocation for each work item type.
- Helping the team apply empirical planning and development where progress is evaluated based on observation and experimentation of working solutions in small increments
- Facilitating stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed
SM/TC can significantly improve the team’s flow of work, eliminating bottlenecks, delays, and waste. This coaching often includes the following activities:
- Establish the team Kanban board – SAFe teams use a Kanban board to visualize their work and enhance flow. Implementing an effective Kanban system adapted to meet the needs of a specific Agile Team is based on the type of work performed for example., marketing, software development, hardware), the team members’ skills, and their role in the ART. Creating the Kanban system is best done by involving the entire Agile Team with the guidance and facilitation of an experienced coach like the SM/TC. The SAFe extended guidance article, Applying Kanban in SAFe, describes how to establish a Kanban system and how the Kanban systems are connected in SAFe. Figure 4 illustrates an example of a Team Kanban board.
- Measure and optimize flow – SM/TCs help the team establish metrics to assess and improve its overall performance. Specific measures for flow, competency, and Outcomes are described in Measure and Grow. Flow Metrics help the SM/TC and the team evolve its process iteratively and continuously adapt to fit the team’s needs. After defining the initial process and WIP limits and executing for a while, bottlenecks should become visible. If not, the team refines the process or further reduces some WIP limits until it becomes evident that a workflow state is overloaded or starving. Other coaching opportunities for optimizing flow might include merging or splitting steps, adding buffers, swim lanes, and classes of service, or redefining workflow states.
- Build quality in – Agile Teams operate in a fast, flow-based system to develop and release high-quality business capabilities quickly. The SM/TC helps achieve this by coaching Built-in quality practices, which enable fast, reliable execution and helps ensure that needed and frequent changes are made efficiently and effectively.
Building High-Performing Teams
Creating healthy Agile Teams is essential to creating high-value increments of working solutions. Fortunately, many of the ingredients for high-performing teams are built into SAFe by design. For example, Agile Teams in SAFe are small, cross-functional, and self-organizing. They are empowered to define and execute the work needed to accomplish the team’s objectives and those of the ART. Everyone agrees that all increments should meet a shared, scalable definition of done. SM/TCs play a critical role in building high-performing teams and accomplish this through the following types of activities:
- Foster and support Agile Team attributes – While every team is different, there are common characteristics that high-performing teams share. SM/TCs are responsible for supporting and fostering the following Agile Team attributes:
- Self-management and taking ownership and accountability
- Aligned and collaborative
- Success focused on clear goals and purpose
- Influential decision-makers who understand their work’s impact on others
- Operate with open and transparent communication and trust
- Value diversity and healthy conflict
- Provide effective, timely feedback
- Highly engaged and have fun with work, and each other
- Encourage high-performing team dynamics – SM/TCs foster an environment for high-performing team dynamics, continuous flow, and relentless improvement. The SM/TC mentors the team and creates an atmosphere of mutual respect, helping resolve interpersonal conflicts, and identifying growth opportunities. They assist the team in focusing on creating increments of high value for each iteration.
- Become a more effective Scrum Master/Team Coach – Every servant leader knows that their growth comes from facilitating the development of others who deliver the results. SM/TCs serve the team and the larger organization. The SM/TC supports the overall adoption of SAFe across the enterprise by coaching stakeholders and non-agile teams on effective interactions with Agile Teams, participating in the SM/TC Community of Practice, and supporting the organization’s SAFe Practice Consultants (SPC).
- Serve as Lean-Agile Leaders – SM/TCs also advance the adoption of SAFe. They lead by example and incorporate the Lean-Agile Mindset and SAFe Lean-Agile Principles. They integrate these concepts into their responsibilities and serve as a role model for others to follow.
- Foster collaboration on the team – The SM/TC role fosters more effective and cohesive teams, enabling better business outcomes, solutions, and products. They offer observations, feedback, guidance, and advice based on what they know and have seen work.
- Coach with powerful questions – However, SM/TCs do not have all the answers. Instead, they can ask powerful questions to uncover what’s essential, then guide others to tap into their knowledge and expertise. Some examples of powerful questions include:
- What brings us to this inquiry?
- What other possibilities or options exist?
- What is it we’re not seeing?
- What do we need to do to reach a deeper level of understanding?
- If success was guaranteed, what actions would you take?
By asking powerful questions, SM/TCs help teams improve their performance, solve problems more independently, make better decisions, learn new skills, and better reach their goals.
- Resolve team conflicts – Teamwork is the ultimate competitive advantage. However, many teams are dysfunctional, according to Patrick Lencioni, consultant and author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In his book, Lencioni suggests that an absence of trust leads to the other four dysfunctions. SM/TCs helps address these five dysfunctions with the SAFe practices, as illustrated in Figure 5.
- Develop team skillsets – SM/TCs work with team members and their functional managers to help them acquire T-shaped skills. A T-shaped individual has broad, general expertise in many areas and is an expert in one of these disciplines. SM/TCs encourage team members to pair with others to expand their skills, take on tasks in another discipline and business domain, and participate in training courses and reading books to become continuous learners.
Improving ART Performance
SM/TCs help Agile Teams improve the overall ART performance through the following activities:
- Facilitate cross-team collaboration – Cross-team collaboration is a hallmark of high-performing teams. Agile Teams cooperate across departments to bring whole product solutions to market. SAFe SM/TCs nurture an environment where cross-team collaboration thrives and is supported by practices that offer opportunities for teams to work together, for example:
- Alignment to ART PI objectives, Vision, and Strategic Themes during PI planning and addressing dependencies using the ART board
- Representing the team in the Coach Sync, PO, and ART Syncs
- Attending other team’s events and demos with relevant team members
- Participating in the ART’s System Demos and Inspect & Adapt events
One of the significant benefits of working on and across teams is colleagues learn from one another. On an Agile Team, learning new skills makes everyone more valuable to the organization and better equipped to support each other’s work. It also guards against specialty skills becoming a bottleneck, which increases delays and reduces quality.
- Build trust with stakeholders – The SM/TC helps the team build trust. SAFe relies on a rolling wave of short-term commitments from Agile Teams and ARTs to assist with business planning and outcomes, resulting in improved alignment and trust between development and business stakeholders. While solution development is uncertain by its very nature, the business depends on teams for some amount of reliable, predictable forecasting. Too little predictability and the company can’t plan. Too much, and the organization has committed to longer-term plans, which are unreliable and limit agility. Business and technology stakeholders need something in between, which is the primary purpose of PI objectives.
- Coach the IP Iteration – SM/TCs help ensure the team does not schedule any work for the IP Iteration during PI planning. Instead, they coach teams to use this iteration as an estimating buffer for meeting PI objectives and providing dedicated time for innovation, continuing education, PI planning, and the Inspect and Adapt (I&A) events.
- Help the team inspect & adapt – Ensures the team is prepared for the Inspect & Adapt event, including the PI System Demo, quantitative and qualitative measurement, and the retrospective and problem-solving workshop. They help guide the team in the I&A activities and stay within the allotted timeboxes.
- Facilitate the problem-solving workshop – SM/TCs coach teams in root cause analysis, the ‘five why’s,’ and Pareto analysis. They ensure that the relevant work needed to deliver the identified improvements is planned and added to the Team Backlog.
Full or Part-Time Role?
The SM/TC can be a part-time or full-time role, depending on the size of the team, the context, and other responsibilities. However, it can be challenging for an Enterprise to justify the need for a full-time SM/TC for each Agile Team. SAFe takes a pragmatic approach, where sometimes a team member assumes the role along with other duties, or an accomplished SM/TC can support more than one team. However, during initial SAFe adoption, the job can be more intensive. It’s often beneficial to hire external SM/TC consultants to mentor the teams and help them become experienced in their roles and SAFe. These consultants will work with multiple teams and new SM/TCs. And, of course, adequate training and experience are required to be effective.
 Designing powerful questions. https://conversational-leadership.net/powerful-questions/
 Scrum Master as conflict navigator. https://medium.com/serious-scrum/scrum-master-as-conflict-navigator-de5c6a162fe
 The Scrum Master as a servant leader. https://www.scrum.org/resources/blog/scrum-master-servant-leader#_ftnref7
Last Update: 14 March 2023