Enterprise Agile Coach, Business Agility Leader & US Navy Veteran

I detangle chaotic delivery cycles and accelerate the development of agile based capabilities

Powerful Questions: The best tool in a scrum master’s toolbox

Improving a teams agile performance can be like changing a tire while driving a car.
Trying to facilitate your team's improvement while they're in the middle of delivering value can often feel like you're trying to change a tire while you're driving the race!

As a scrum master, you’re responsible for helping your team to rapidly deliver high quality value to it’s end users and business stake holders—yet at the same time, help the team to make incremental improvements that improve quality, value, innovation, and reduce time to market.

It’s akin to helping your team to change the tires on their car while they’re still driving the race!  But what can you do when your team needs more motivation or ideas? Should you just tell them what to do? That might work in some cases, but it’s not always going to be ideal. Instead, we recommend asking powerful questions that will help your team discover on their own what needs to be done and how they can achieve it. Here are seven examples of such questions (and many more):

A scrum master is not a manager, they’re an agile team coach

Often people think of a scrum master as a team’s manager who’s job is to give instructions to their teams, and drive them to deliver faster. In reality, the role of an agile coach is to facilitate their team’s ability to incrementally grow and develop their agile capabilities. Whereas the role of a scrum master is to be the agile coach for their team. Becoming an excellent scrum master requires a deep understanding of coaching skills. A great scrum master knows how to help their team gain a greater awareness of the things that are holding them back from hitting their potential. A great scrum master leverages the art of asking powerful questions and listen to what people say. Asking the right questions, and actively listening will ensure they continue inspect adapt learn new ways working together being great at it means helping people discover on own what needs doing how doing it

What are powerful questions?

Powerful questions are open-ended questions, and asked with genuine sense of curiosity. They create a sense of psychological safety enabling teams to discuss difficult topics. They enable a team to become more introspective and allows them to discover the topics of conversation that are most important for the team. Powerful questions supports critical thinking and helps the team to get to the root of a problem.  They help to gentle set direction, and shift the focus from what’s wrong to what is possible. Asking questions in this manner helps establish a learning mindset and enables teams to generate ideas and frame options for action. By leveraging powerful questions as part of scrum events, scrum masters are able to help their teams become more self aware and leads them towards higher levels of performance innovation, and customer value.

What’s the difference between a powerful question and a generic question?

  • Asking generic questions often stifles a team’s ability to gain a greater awareness of the problem they are facing as they often have specific agendas.
  • Generic questions often are asked in such a way that limits to answers to a specific set of given options.
  • Powerful questions are intended to set the stage for critical thinking and paves way for a broader set of answers whereas generic questions often limit responses to yes or no (“are you sure that’s the best choice?” vs. “what aspects of this plan would you like to continue to refine?).
  • Powerful questions meet the team where they are in their current understanding whereas generic questions are often asked from a point of opposition (i.e., “how will that solve the problem…?” vs. “what risks do you feel might get in your way?”).
  • A powerful question is neutral towards judgement whereas generic questions can often suggest right or wrong answers depending on how they’re framed (i.e., “don’t you think it would be better if…?” vs. “what other options have you considered?”).
Asking powerful coaching questions is not about getting an answer but rather gaining greater awareness for yourself and others so that everyone has more information at hand when making decisions moving forward!

When a scrum master coaches their teams with questions, they help the team to discover on their own what needs to be done and self solution the best way to do it.

Coaching is a powerful tool in your scrum master toolbox. When used correctly, coaching can help a team discover on their own what needs to be done and how to do it. Let me explain: Far too many scrum masters have an fall into the trap of worry about their team’s decision making and as a result they overburden them with telling them that they’re doing it wrong when this isn’t true—they just need more information or coaching from you! If you find yourself constantly pointing out areas where your teams are falling short, perhaps consider spending more time listening instead? Many times all they need is someone who will listen attentively and hold the space for them, enabling them the time to think and talk through their situation out loud.  Responding with powerful questions in these instances will help you to intrude into their thought space and help you to respectfully guide them towards the answers. Remember, the role of the scrum master is to help the team think without any shackles and decide for themselves what to do. Your team can’t fully own the problem unless they can develop a shared understanding of it.

Coaching with powerful questions helps you to psychologically condition your scrum team to become more innovative, creative, and agile.

The brain is a social organ. It’s also a learning, reward and punishment, pattern recognition, and emotional organ. The act of collaborating with others on a scrum team activates the same reward centers in our brains that are activated by social bonding, love, or eating a bar of chocolate.  In other words, working with others on a scrum team lights up your brain in pretty much the same way as any other psychological reward.  The researchers say this effect explains why people experience such strong positive emotions while they’re working on a creative project with others.

When asking powerful questions, you’re conditioning a culture of curiosity that encourages the team collaborate.  It reserves the space for healthy debate, engagement, creative thinking and innovation.  It’s through this shared culture of curiosity that team members are able to exercise, stretch and develop new neural pathways that may not have been previously obvious to the them.  Each new cycle of success feeds and conditions the next one, releasing serotonin and dopamine into the brain.  By asking powerful questions, you’re activating team member reward centers and solidifying the collaborative process for associative thinking. 

Three ideas for how you can get started and learn to trust leveraging powerful questions

To get started, try reframing your fear into a fun and iterative game of growing towards mastering your agile coaching capabilities. Start small, and create experiments to see how it feels to ask questions instead of telling your team what they should do. Here’s a few examples of experiments you can setup for yourself.
Mini Experiment #1: Powerful Questions In Scrum Events
In the next scrum team event, you might try asking someone a question instead of providing the answer. Then when the person responds to your answer, don’t respond with your own answer; instead ask someone else what they think about the first person’s response. See how long you can keep this going!
Mini Experiment #2: The Retrospective Long Game
Another experiment I like to play is to think of a topic that I’d like to help the team discuss in the next retrospective (e.g., “What are some ways we could improve our sprint planning?”). The experiment is considered a success if you are able to influence any member of your team (even yourself!) into adding this topic as an item on their retro board via only using powerful questions as part of their discussion beforehand (e.g., “What would be some good points we could include in our sprint review?”). The challenge here is that only questions may be used during those discussions; no other words or phrases should be uttered during this exercise! Award yourself bonus points for every additional person who adds this topic as an item on their retro board during these exercises!
Mini Experiment #3: Executive Leadership Psy Ops
For this one, you need to pretend that you’re a foreign intelligence agent with the mission to influence positive change upstream while leveraging the highest degree of subterfuge.  Your mission should you choose to accept it is to generate a list of 3 improvement items or impediments that require leadership to unblock. Identify your targets, and see if you through the use of powerful questions you are able to gain their interest, and influence them to take action to resolve the impediment, or support the improvement activity.  These could be things like a influencing a business stakeholder to participate in sprint reviews, persuading a product manager to allocate capacity for CI/CD pipeline enhancements, or influencing an executive to enable your team to have a Q&A session with a customer group.

But wait, what happens if the team responds to questions with solutions that won’t work well for them?

If you find yourself in a situation where your team is coming up with solutions that will be counter helpful, keep asking powerful questions. It’s important that you trust your position as a supportive coach, and not flip-flop back into telling them they’re wrong. If you’re seeing something that they’re not seeing, then ask them a question that might help them to see what you’re seeing. When in doubt, try leveraging a “five-whys” approach to help them to see the full picture. In the end though, you’re job is the scrum master. You’re an agile coach who’s job it is to help the team to incur fast cycles of failure as a way to help them grow.  If they’re choosing a path that you don’t agree with, help them to reframe the decision as an experiment by establish acceptance criteria and regular cycles to review.

Seven examples of powerful questions to ask yourself

  1. What are some attributes of powerful mentor coaches that you’ve worked with, or took training from in the past?
  2. What was it about those coaches approach to agile coaching that made them successful?
  3. How will adopting a powerful questions only mindset help you to grow as an agilist?
  4. How will adopting a powerful question only mindset help your team, and company to improve their way of working?
  5. If you had a magic wand, what type of scrum master would you like to become?
  6. If you had a magic wand, what behaviors would you be able to cultivate within your scrum team?
  7. What will your teams thank you for when you’re able to help them to improve their ability to innovate, and deliver value to customers at higher levels of performance and quality?
  8. How will it feel to become the scrum master that you’ve always wanted to become?


A scrum master’s job is to help teams succeed. But when you ask a question, it’s not about giving an answer. It’s about helping your team examine their situation and get creative about solutions that will work for them. That’s why coaching with powerful questions is so effective; it helps people find the right answers on their own—ones that will make sense for the situation at hand, as well as the future of your organization!
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