ScrumMaster or Armchair Psychologist? – Notes from a Webinar by Angela Johnson

Valerie Senyk

March 9, 2016, I took advantage of a free webinar offered by the Scrum Alliance, with the above title. We were told 5,000 people were attending! Angela Johnson’s presentation was based on information from both the Scrum and psychology communities.

First, she reiterated many ideas that are commonly understood about the role of a ScrumMaster (SM): an internal coach, a servant leader, an active facilitator. The SM makes sure that the rules of Scrum are followed by a team, but focuses on interactions and outcomes. As in football, the SM is truly a coach.

She described how new SM’s often latch onto the mechanics of Scrum, but most important are the personal interactions of a team. When difficulties arise, it is important to ask: “Do we have a Scrum problem, or is it a people problem?”

Ms. Johnson cited two resources available to SM’s to understand people interactions and problems better. One is the previous publication by Dale Carnegie called “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The other is a newer resource by Michael James available online as scrummasterchecklist.org. In it James covers ideas like “How is my team doing?…How is the product owner doing?…etc”

She also cited a fascinating book by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley called “’The New’ Why Teams Don’t Work.” She spoke about the importance of goals and objectives for a team. Bad Teams have vague goals and objectives. Good Teams may have clearer goals and engage in barrier identification. But the Best Teams have clear, short-term goals with continuous high-priority goals and objectives in segments of 30 days or less; they also identify barriers to people and processes. Best Teams ultimately value differences among team members, and develop something she called “versatility plans in interpersonal relationships.” (I wanted to learn more about this idea and posed a question in the webinar which unfortunately went unanswered.)

She then turned to psychology to discuss behavioral style differences in people. Four distinct personality types were explored: the Analytical (asks how?), the Driver (asks what?), the Amiable (asks who?) and the Expressive (asks why?). She believes a SM might help team members identify which personality quadrant they belong in so as to better understand each other. As well, in knowing the type of people who are in his/her team, a SM could adjust his/her communication and behavior to better reach each type.

I think it would be an interesting exercise for a team to go through personality types at least once. The exercise itself, besides creating deeper understanding, could also lead to some “aha” moments and laughter.

Johnson went through a checklist of Harvey Robbins’ rules for building trust in a team or group of people, and I will list them here:

  • have clear, consistent goals

  • be open, fair, and willing to listen

  • be decisive (meet the definition of Done)

  • support all other team members

  • give credit to team members when due

  • be sensitive to the needs of members

  • respect others’ opinions

  • empower team members to act

  • adopt a “we” mentality

  • take responsibility for team actions

She then added tips about supporting versatility: a)  you can only create an environment that encourages self-motivation rather than motivate others directly; b) assist people  to interpret what you say, i.e. “What I’m about to say is to help…etc;” c)  don’t overlook a variety of orientations, whether they are cultural, or gender-based. She advised that we need to be aware that orientation is very important to consider as the teams we work with have a greater number of people whose first language is not English.

She spoke about Scrum teams working within larger organizations. If the goal of Scrum is to produce greater value more quickly, then a SM should never have his/her attention split between more than one team. The SM has to be a teacher inside of an organization, to help management understand best practices – the SM is really the coach for a team, the Product Owner and the organization. Old habits die hard, so educating takes time.

Don’t allow language to get in the way of this process. Don’t say: “That’s not Agile! That’s not Scrum! You’re doing it wrong!” Instead say, “When you say Agile, what do you mean?” or, “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” A SM can always point out that we have a choice to work in the old way, or to try something new. We have an opportunity to improve the way we work.

Agile and Scrum, she emphasized, are not destinations – they are about continuous improvement.

This summarizes just some of the valuable ideas Angela Johnson presented.


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