Tag Archives: questions

The Scrum Master and Product Owner as leadership partners

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After a recent large organizational change that resulted in a number of new teams formed, a product owner (PO) approached me looking for some help. He said, “I don’t think my new Scrum Master is doing their job and I’m now carrying the entire team, do we have a job description we can look at?”

I can already imagine how a version of me from a previous life would have responded, “yes of course let’s look at the job description and see where the SM is falling short of their roles and responsibilities”. But as I considered my response, my first thought was that focusing our attention on roles and job descriptions was a doomed route to failure. Pouring our energy there would likely just extend the pain the PO, and likely SM, were going through.

Sure we have an SM job description in our organization, and it clearly documents how the SM provides service to the organization, team and PO. But reviewing this with the seasoned SM didn’t really make sense to me; they were very well aware of the content of the job description and what was expected of them.

At the same time that this was happening, another newly paired Scrum Master asked for my help regarding their PO. From their perspective the PO was “suffocating” the team. The PO was directing the team in many aspects of the sprint that they felt was stepping beyond their role. “I don’t think the PO knows their role, maybe you can help me get them some training?” was the SMs concluding comment.

Over the course of the next few weeks this scenario played out again through more POs and SMs sharing similar challenges. Surely this was not a sudden epidemic of previously performing individuals who now needed to be reminded of what their job was?

Recognizing the impact of change

A common pattern was emerging from all of this, change was occurring and each individual was relying on, and to some degree expecting, old patterns to continue to work with their new situation. Their old way of working in Scrum seemed to work very well; so it was everyone else around them that was not meeting expectations.

The core issue however was that change was not being fully confronted: the product was different, the team competencies were different, the stakeholders were different, the expectations were different and finally the team dynamic was different all the way down to the relationship between the SM and PO.

Scrum as a form of Change Management

I looked for the solution from Scrum itself, at its heart a method for teams to use to adapt to and thrive with change. Was there enough transparency, inspection and adaptation going on between the SMs and POs in these situations? I would argue, not enough.

A pattern was becoming clear: nobody was fully disclosing their challenges to the other, they hadn’t fully confronted and understood their new situation and hadn’t come up with new approaches that would improve things. Said another way, they hadn’t inspected their new circumstances sufficiently and transparently enough so that they could adapt their role to fit the new need.

One thing that many successful SMs and POs recognize is that they are both leaders dependent on each other, and for their teams to be successful they need to figure out how they will work together in partnership. It doesn’t matter whether the terms of that partnership gets hashed out over a few chats over coffee or through a facilitated chartering workshop. What matters is clarity around how you agree to work together as partners meeting some shared goal.

As an SM or PO, here are some sample questions whose answers you may wish to understand and align on:

  • Do we both understand and support the team’s mission and goals?
  • What are the product goals?
  • How can we best help the team achieve those goals?
  • Are there any conflicts between the team and product goals?
  • When our goals or methods are in conflict, how will we resolve them?
  • In what ways will I be supporting your success as an SM/PO?
  • How will we keep each other informed and engaged?
  • Should we have a peer/subordinate/other relationship?

So if you are an SM or PO, and it’s unclear to you on the answers to some of these questions, you may just want to tap your leadership partner on the shoulder and say “let’s talk”.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Martin Aziz is a first-time contributor to Agile Advice – please welcome him in the comments.  And let us know if you are interested in contributing.]

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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner has the bandwidth and capacity to respond within minutes to the team’s questions

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The Product Owner needs to be highly available to the Scrum Team. If the Scrum Team has a question about a Product Backlog Item, then the Product Owner should be able to respond within minutes to that question. Responding this quickly ensures that the Team is building the Product in a way that best satisfies the Product Owner. In particular, it helps to avoid surprises about basic aspects of the Product during the Sprint Review Meeting that then lead to wasteful changes or re-work. If the Product Owner does not have this level of availability, it may not cause any immediate problems, particularly if there are other team members who know the business and the product well. However, since Scrum holds the Product Owner accountable for what is built, it is often better for the Team to check its assumptions with the Product Owner.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Rules of Scrum: Your ScrumMaster has the bandwidth and capacity to respond within minutes to the team’s questions

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The ScrumMaster is a full Team Member of the Scrum Team and is required to be focused on helping the team achieve its goals. However, he does not do the work of the Sprint Backlog. Instead he focuses his energies on removing obstacles and helping use Scrum as best as possible. One way to achieve these goals is to be able to respond to questions by the team within minutes. If the ScrumMaster is able to do, the team will move faster, solve problems easier, and cut through obstacles much sooner. If the ScrumMaster is not able to do this, the team will become stalled, frustrated and likely lose trust in the ScrumMaster and the Scrum process.

To learn more about your ScrumMaster, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Importance of Questions

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I’m currently doing some coaching work with Regina, a new project manager working with a small team of web developers at a community development organization in Toronto.  We had our first session last week. Regina was having trouble getting started on a particular project and I shared with her some of the Agile methods of creating a prioritized Cycle Plan, breaking it down into small tasks, etc.

Regina seems to be finding Agile methods helpful in general, but there was a special kind of interaction that we had around removing an obstacle that was particularly interesting for me.  It had to do with an email she received from Peter, a developer working on one of the websites she’s managing. Regina shared a concern that she didn’t know some of the technical terms Peter was using.  So I had her read through the email and form questions around the points she wasn’t clear about – i.e., “what are buttons?” and I wrote them down as she was speaking.

I then suggested that she compose a reply email containing the same set of questions.  Regina’s eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, “Oh yeah – that’s so obvious!”  I went on to mention that another option would be to go and do some research on her own but that there were some valuable advantages in asking Peter directly, particularly in terms of team-building, that may not be as immediately apparent as asking the questions solely for the purpose of having them answered.  Here are a few:

First, it’s a way forRegina to remind Peter that she does not have a technical background and that he should not assume that she is familiar with web-lingo.  Second, it also reminds him that she is a different person from the last manager he was working with and subtly reinforces that it’s important that they get to know each other as two individual human beings and learn to work together effectively.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives Peter an opportunity to help someone else on the team learn something new, and by doing so, contribute to the culture of learning on the team.  Fourth, and perhaps most obviously, it promotes open lines of clear communication on the team.

(Of course, if the team was colocated, which it is not, lack of communication would be much less of an obstacle!)

Asking questions in the interest of learning makes it visible to others that you don’t know everything.  For some people, this presents a dilemma.  What makes it a dilemma is that asking meaningful questions is something that many people aren’t able to do well.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is a learnable skill requiring the capabilities of truthfulness, humility and courage.  Such capabilities – let’s call them moral capabilities – can themselves be developed through conscious, focused effort.

Someone in the position of a newly hired manager, or a veteran manager with a new team, who lacks these capabilities may feel that it is important to present to a team a persona of all-knowingness.  But, of course, this is false and the truth of one’s degree of knowledge and capability, or lack thereof, soon becomes apparent anyway.  Clearly, this person needs to do some honest hard work to develop some humility, but truthfulness and courage are still often major factors.

Or maybe you’re the kind of person (like Regina) who just doesn’t want to bother anyone.  In this case, humility is not necessarily lacking, but truthfulness – and perhaps most of all courage – may need some attention.  Concepts around moral capabilities deserve much more elaboration, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

To sum it up, if you are open and clear in the way you ask questions, people will tend to appreciate it and will trust you more in the end.  Moreover, it can have a transformative effect on the environment of the team.  When your team members realize that you are not afraid to ask questions and be truthful about your lack of knowledge in a certain area, it will encourage them to be more truthful about their own capabilities.  Not to mention that most people feel good when they are able to help others.  When your team members feel safe to ask for help and free to help each other, it is empowering for everyone.

Asking meaningful questions, therefore, is an essential aspect of learning together, and nothing is a more powerful contributor to the success of an organization than a team that learns as a team.

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