Holding space, a Scrum Master guide with links and tips

As a Scrum Master that studies, and constantly tries to improve your craft, you’ve probably heard (and even used) the phrase “hold the space”.
For (some) native English speakers, this phrase may be easy to grasp, but as a non-native speaker, I can vouch for the difficulty of understanding what this means in practice.
As a Scrum Master myself, however, this phrase is too important to dismiss as “insider talk”, so I want to share some links and tips about “holding the space” as a Scrum Master.
First, let me refer to a blog post at Stanford’s site by Linnea Ann Williams called “Holding Space: A Scrum Master Overview”. The blog post is about the role of the Scrum Master, but it is also about what it means to “hold the space”. My key takeaway from this blog post: As a Scrum Master I must help the team and the stakeholders create the conditions the team needs to perform (hold the space).

The basics of the Scrum Master role and the meaning of “holding space” 

But there’s a lot more about the meaning of “holding space”. Many of the aspects of that approach are in the Scrum Guide (PDF version from the year 2020 here), and some are well described in this blog post by Aditya Chourasiya, titled “Scrum Master – Roles and Responsibilities”. Aditya describes “holding space” as a set of responsibilities that include:
  • Shield teams from interruptions to optimize the outcome
  • Facilitate effective Scrum ceremonies
  • Help Product Owners develop a positive rapport with their team and accept him/her as a part of the family
  • Step back and let the team learn from its own experience – successes, and mistakes.
Aditya’s article gets into the very practical aspects of the role, and I find that approach very useful when defining my own approach to “holding space”.

Taking Holding Space all the way up to “11”: Open Space Technology as a school for Scrum Masters

Open Space Technology, is an approach that helps people find solutions to difficult problems by working together, collaborating on possible answers to those problems.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what we expect Scrum Masters to do when it comes to the teams and their search for a solution. We want Scrum Masters to help the team find a solution (or more) for a difficult problem, by collaborating inside the team, and with outside contributors, other teams, or stakeholders.
That brings me to another resource (WARNING: this is a book, not a blog post!): The Tao of Holding Space, a book by Chris Corrigan. This is a long read, and I don’t expect everyone to read it. So let me review some key takeaways from the book.
Chris is a seasoned Open Space Technology facilitator and often writes about facilitation at all levels and all kinds of organizations. Therefore he has a lot of experience to share on “holding the space” and what that means in practice.
One of the inspiring phrases from his book is right there in chapter 1, and I think it describes perfectly what the Scrum Master role is about: “Harrison Owen wrote that “holding space” is an act that is at once totally present and totally invisible”.
And the book goes on with inspiring phrases. In chapter 2, Chris writes: “Sitting in stillness invites [other] people to move.” This reminds us that when we don’t take action – as Scrum Masters – we are helping others “find the space” to express their own ability to lead and help the team.
In chapter 10, we are reminded of one of the key aspects of Open Space Technology: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have”. This encourages us to work with what happens in the team, instead of trying to direct the team towards what we think is “the right thing”. Accepting what happens in the team, at every turn, is also part of “holding the space”

Conclusion

This is a short blog post about what “holding the space” is for Scrum Masters.
It has some very practical blog posts and a resource that inspires us to look at the activity of “holding space” from a different perspective: the Open Space Technology perspective.
“Holding the Space” is not just a phrase, it’s a very practical and pragmatic thing we do as Scrum Masters.
What is your approach to “holding the space”? Share your thoughts below!

Gunther Verheyen: “Don’t limit the role of the Scrum Master to the team”

Is Scrum a team framework? Gunther disagrees, and explains why he thinks that Scrum is fundamentally a framework for the whole organization. Maybe starting from the team (check out the upcoming BONUS episode with Gunther on this topic), but then it goes beyond. If we limit the role of the Scrum Master to the team, we are missing one of the largest contributions of Scrum to Agile organizations.

About Gunther Verheyen

Gunther left consulting in 2013 to partner with Ken Schwaber, Scrum co-creator, at Scrum.org. He represented Ken and Scrum.org in Europe. Gunther left Scrum.org in 2016 to continue his journey of Scrum as an independent Scrum Caretaker.

He calls himself a connector, writer, speaker, humaniser. Gunther assists, serves, advices teams, individuals and executives.

Gunther believes that Scrum – the most applied software development framework – will not only increase the value that software delivers to organizations but is also a way to re-humanise the workplace for people. Gunther likes to inspire individuals, teams, departments, and organizations to realize their potential.

Beyond Scrum, Gunther is all about his family, life, books, and music. He communicates in Dutch and in English. Gunther is co-creator to Agility Path and the Nexus framework for Scaled Professional Scrum.

You can link with Gunther Verheyen on LinkedIn and connect with Gunther Verheyen on Twitter.