Why IT people often fail to cope with the role of scrum master? And how can a mentor help with this?

Why IT people often fail to cope with the role of scrum master? And how can a mentor help with this?

It is one thing to introduce agile practices in a startup to several development teams, quite another to bring it to one of the largest banks. At VTB, we have more than two thousand development teams. This means that we need two thousand scrum masters — new practices will not bring themselves to the developers. Some time ago, we organized a school for scrum masters and faced the fact that more than half of the graduates do not settle in a new role. We decided to fight this with the help of mentors for scrum masters, and this led to the creation of a mentoring program. It’s brand new, but we really like what we see.

My name is Eduard, I coach teams at VTB. In this article, I will tell you how we have organized this program for several years and what it has given us today, what surprises we encountered, how we overcame them, and what we are going to do next.

We started training scrum masters in 2020, when the active digital transformation of the bank began, and during this time we tested different training formats. Initially, they reached the level of 500 program graduates per year. But that wasn’t enough for us: we changed the program several times, eventually reaching an online school — it allows us to improve the qualifications of thousands of employees a year. But the problem is that only 45% of Scrum Master (SCM) graduates who were certified in 2022 are actually fulfilling this role on teams. And there are those who have never tried themselves in this capacity.


At the beginning, people were often appointed to this position one after the other. You have to be a scrum master in the team – you will be… you.

The problem is that a scrum master is not only certain knowledge and skills, but also a philosophy. A person’s mentality and character play a big role. Later, they began to approach the choice carefully and thoughtfully. As a result, the vast majority of students in the teams are guys who really want to become scrum masters, and not just decided to expand their horizons. We need them.

But no matter how strong a beginner’s desire is, he will face such problems:

  • Does not know how to apply knowledge practically. For most, this is their first experience in such a role.

  • His team and leaders resist change. Newbies can’t handle it.

  • Burns out – because he does not see a clear result and benefit from his contribution.

We realized that newly minted scrum masters cannot be immediately left with the team face to face. New scrum masters need to be accompanied on the path of formation: help make meetings; give feedback on past meetings; it is possible to conduct additional clarification of some theory. That’s how we came up with the idea of ​​mentoring.

Who can become a mentor?

A mentor for us is a person who has experience that far exceeds the experience of a mentee, with advanced mentoring skills, ready to give his expertise and time to his wards. This is a person who can patiently and carefully listen, focus on other people’s problems.

Where to take mentors was not the main issue. Many coaches from our team, beyond any doubt, could become ideal mentors. Scrum masters who were able to stand up in this capacity, too.

What remained was to figure out how to distribute mentors to scrum masters in an organized manner—and make sure it actually worked.

Pilot. What were the goals?

First, we ran a two-month pilot. We selected 14 mentors from the graduates of our school of scrum masters and 12 mentors from among the coaches.

They were supposed to mentor students of the scrum master school according to a certain cycle:

  • Diagnose the competencies of the scrum master and the maturity of his team (the master’s checklist, viewing the events of his team).

  • Set goals. Make a plan for the development of the ment and the team.

  • Accompany and develop mentees – meetings at least once per sprint or per request, monitoring, assistance in the preparation and holding of events, etc.

  • Discuss results and collect feedback.

The pilot had to answer the following questions: how much time do mentors spend on mentees; how effective the system is; whether it is possible to save time by conducting groups with mentees, rather than mentoring in an individual format.

It was determined that the main criterion for the success of the pilot is that at least 50% of the mentees will complete the full cycle of mentoring. We also expected to see the dynamics of growth in the quality of scrum events in the team.

What happened

The results did not disappoint us. In some teams, scrum events – retro and PBR – were held for the first time. Scrum masters prepared and guided them with the help of a mentor.

Going back to the beginning of the text and thinking about why new masters leave Scrum: many people break down when faced with resistance from the team. A simple example of how Mentor can help. In one of the teams, the scrum master held a retro. People did not understand why this was necessary and sabotaged it. They analyzed the situation with the mentor, determined that the developers in the team are serious guys, and he conducts the game format, and they don’t like it. We developed and conducted a new format — without games. The team was pleasantly surprised: “Oh, it’s retro, we understand it, we’ve achieved some goals here…”

The mentees began to apply their knowledge more boldly in practice, and according to the results of the survey, we received positive feedback from them. Here, perhaps, we will give the word to the scrum masters – graduates of the program:

Iryna, analyst, scrum master of the team:

I liked the idea of ​​mentoring. When you can talk about a topic, discussing it with a mentor is much more helpful. When Zamira, my mentor, asked me a question on a topic, sometimes I understood only at that moment that I could not answer. Either I missed something, or I didn’t understand. Working with the Mentor helped to identify points that need to be studied more deeply or repeated. I liked that you could ask a question to the mentor at any time: sometimes it is important to get an answer quickly. I am a new person in IT and could not immediately catch some points that are the norm for an experienced specialist. In many ways, thanks to the mentor, my information was organized in a correct and logical order.

Alina, developer, scrum master of the team:

I received a lot of useful information from the mentor on scrum events: how to diversify the retro, how to properly facilitate the daily to invest in the timing.

What didn’t go as we planned

Mentors were expected to work with small groups of mentees and this would save time. The hypothesis was not confirmed – at the stage of diagnosis and construction of the flow of events in the group, it turned out to be extremely uncomfortable.

Mentoring labor costs in general turned out to be higher than expected — by an average of 20%. In general, it is difficult to measure them. Labor costs for the first stage ranged from 7 to 20 hours – depending on the team. If the team events were held for the first time, the help of a mentor was needed in their preparation, which is an additional 1–1.5 hours. Different time should be set aside for preparation for various events.

Some Scrum Masters were not able to be mentored. It turned out that not everyone can allocate time for classes with a mentor. Most of the masters are active developers in the company. They really have enough responsibilities.

Other limitations and obstacles to mentoring:

  • the scrum master does not have a team (cannot apply theory in practice);

  • the team is not ready to work according to scrum methods;

  • team leaders are not ready to transfer part of the authority to the scrum master;

  • the team is not ready to show their events to the mentor

We still encountered difficulties at the stage of selecting scrum masters for mentors. A stream opens in the school of scrum masters. At the initial stage, 90% of students want to get into the mentoring program. But at the end of the training, 25–30% of those willing remain — many understand that they lack time and motivation. And we selected scrum masters for mentoring at the beginning of the course. Having understood this feature, they moved the selection at the end of training. And we take candidates who still have serious intentions. We conclude a mentoring contract with them.

Not all of those who remain can devote time to a full cycle with a mentor. We have divided the mentoring program into two parts. A system of multi-level certificates was introduced:

  • the first level – the scrum master just listens/views the course and passes the final test;

  • the second level is for those who have successfully passed the mentoring program, i.e. for practicing scrum masters.

Some organizational points have been changed:

  • introduced an assessment of the quality of mentoring based on the degree of contract fulfillment (we use the checklist of the quality of scrum events in the team to assess the effectiveness of mentoring);

  • increased the duration of the program to 100 days – two months is not enough;

  • limited distribution – one mentee per mentor;

  • did not abandon group formats at all: they introduced additional group mentoring sessions – interviews and QA. It is effective there.

What we want to improve

This year, we plan to release about 800 first-level scrum masters. And there are currently only 36 mentors in the mentoring program. For now, let’s build a queue. We need 4-5 times more mentors, even taking into account the fact that no more than a third of the initial number goes to the second level of training at the school of scrum masters. And we have already figured out how to scale this story.

We are going to test two approaches.

The first approach. We launched a school of mentors. It trains scrum masters who have at least six months of experience working with teams. We teach them mentoring techniques. 10 hours are allocated to theory. After that, practice and mentoring by a more experienced mentor for 1 term.

And the second approach. We are developing group mentoring, in which our newly graduated scrum masters will be able to develop and conduct scrum events in study groups and think together how they can bring it to their teams.

It is too early to talk about the results, but I will definitely do it in the next article. And for now – please leave a comment. I am ready to answer all the questions that I may have missed in the article.

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