There are many great books that talk about Agile theory and principles and these are important to building a theoretical foundation for any new Scrum Master (or any new Agile leader for that matter). However, in order to be an effective Scrum Master and Servant Leader, it is essential to learn how to provide coaching and build up high performing, self organizing teams. This is always listed as skills that Scrum Masters can provide, but most training courses and Agile books focus more on tactics and don't often provide guidance to new Scrum Masters on how to develop the more nuanced skills that the position will require for success. Below is a list of the books that I have found most helpful in improving these skills and that I wish I would have read before I started building out my first Agile teams.
1. Extreme Ownership - Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
At first the title might seem a little off putting, especially in the context of a servant leader. Extreme Ownership sounds like it would produce the most intense of micromanagers. However, as I was reading through the principles that make up extreme ownership and that the authors have successfully applied on the battlefield in Iraq and in a variety of business environments, I was surprised how closely they adhered to Agile principles. Where the book really shined for me was in providing practical tips and examples for how to help a team become "self-organizing". This is such an important part of finding success in an Agile landscape, and yet, when I first became a Scrum Master I had no idea how to start implementing that in a brand new team with talented developers, that had never managed themselves. This book offers incredible insights on how to develop leadership within a team and how to walk that fine line between not letting your team figure things out for themselves and just sitting back and letting things devolve into chaos.
2. The Coaching Habit - Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford
As a Scrum Master or Servant Leader, one of your primary duties will be to help coach your team. Simple right? Well when I first started, I didn't really have a good idea of how exactly to coach a variety of individuals. It seems simple on the surface: providing training classes, offering advice, directing when necessary, and enabling teams to solve their own problems. The problem is all that is still very vague. Coaching will be different for any environment, but this book offers a very simple and reproducible system to get inexperienced coaches started with asking the right questions, identifying the underlying issues team members are facing and, most importantly, learning to listen and not offering easy answers.
3. The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
I can't emphasize how important it is for Agile teams to read and re-read this book and put the principles into practice. The build, measure, learn cycle is a key component in a team's ability to deliver the right value to their users and understanding how to really develop an MVP will help the team truly build features that can be released in shorter and shorter time boxes. I feel that this book is particularly helpful for Scrum Masters who are working with newer Product Owners as helping them adopt the lean startup mindset will really enable them learn how to prioritize features and focus on the things that will have the most impact.
4. The Phoenix Project
I have read this book multiple times and I am sure I will read it many more. After working in various enterprise environments it is crazy to see how applicable this book is. The book is told in an easy to read story format that can be quite the page turner once you become invested in the story. While you are reading the story and seeing how the characters will overcome the challenges they run into, you will be introduced to core principles of Lean, Agile, and DevOps and the book cleverly illustrates how they can be applied in a huge company that is very set in its old ways of working. If you have ever been skeptical that Agile and Lean techniques would work in your organization, this book will definitely give you a lot to think about.
5. Kanban - David Anderson
I'm cheating a little bit with this one as I would say it's more in the realm of traditional Agile / Lean books than the rest of the books in this list. However, I have been surprised how common it is for Agile leaders to focus on only one specific framework. When working with Scrum teams, for example, many of the Scrum Masters I have interacted with only seem to be familiar with Scrum. Even if Scrum is the method of choice for the team or organization, it is still helpful for the Scrum Master to encourage the team to experiment with techniques from different frameworks, and Kanban offers many that blend in easily into a variety of environments.
6. The Power of a Positive No - William Ury
One of the most important skills for any Agile team to develop is the ability to say "no". Every work environment will get hectic and teams will get pulled in many directions, but at the end of the day the team will only be successful if they are able to maintain focus. However, saying "no" can be very hard. Teams don't want to disappoint anyone or burn bridges and there will be requests that will seem very legitimate. The great thing about this book is it understands the psychological barriers of saying no and provides a set of tools and examples to help illustrate how teams can say no in a way that will allow them to accomplish their goals, while maintaining a positive relationship with the people they have to turn down.
7. Ego is the Enemy - Ryan Holiday
If you are stepping into a servant leadership role, there is a good chance you have experienced some success in life. This is great, but it can also lead to a belief that you know best. As you allow the team to take more and more control of its destiny there will be times when you will be resistant to some of the changes and directions they want to go. It will always be good to ask questions and help the team think through its choices, but it is important to also remember your ego and to question if your objections to their decisions are justified or if it is just your ego talking. Even though we are meant to be coaches and provide mentorship to the team, our suggestions can be wrong. Learning to be humble, will help you work better with your team and will allow you to continuously adjust course if needed.
Although the books above have been immensely helpful with some of the softer skills required to be an effective Scrum Master, I still recommend reading through as many books on various Agile topics as possible to find new techniques to try with your teams. Some of the practical books I have found most useful have been:
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