Is there such a thing as a perfect Scrum Master? Likely not, because of course we are all human and not perfect beings. However, we can make a case for skills that contribute to becoming a perfect Scrum Master.
In 2017, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland updated the Scrum Values document, and in a video that same year discussed the changes they were making. They talked at length about the Scrum Master role. To quote Ken Schwaber, “It’s a very tough job”.
The 2018 new Scrum Guide states:“The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide”.
In short, the Scrum Master (SM) serves the Product Owner, the Development Team, and the Organization. This involves facilitating Scrum events, coaching and educating, removing impediments, and much more. It is safe to say that successfully undertaking those relational interactions requires good people-oriented behaviours, or soft skills.
We may not normally think of Scrum Mastering in the same breath as soft skills, but a discussion lead me to consider this. A colleague stated that a good Scrum Master must understand 4 things: the business s/he works in, the technology s/he works with, Agile and Scrum principles, and, most importantly, people! Based on his experience, he was adamant that Scrum Master certification is not enough – that soft skills should be part and parcel of their training.
How can some of these soft skills be taught?
The Certified Scrum Master Training
The first thing a CST can do is model soft skills in his/her training class: treat all the attendees with respect, be clear about the goals of training, listen and be attentive to questions and concerns, create a safe learning environment, demonstrate honesty and trustworthiness. Modelling these behaviours is one way a CST can teach without words.
But in two days, is role-modelling enough? Let’s look at the Scrum Guide for clues. “When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone.” http://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide
How much are these values discussed in training? What does “courage” or “openness” look like? In-depth discussion, with examples/activities of each of those values/ skills, could go a long way in teaching soft skills.
Scrum Masters can be guided through specific exercises that help them understand and practice the Scrum Values of courage, openness, respect, commitment, focus. As well, specialized skills can be taught, including leadership, negotiation, conflict resolution, compassion and more.
Summer 2014. The IT group of “Big Data Marketing” was in the full throws of an Agile transformation spearheaded by the new CTO. I was brought in as a Scrum Coach. My initial objective was to launch a couple of Scrum teams and serve as their Scrum Master. Around the same time, the firm’s head of PMO had been re-assigned as the Agile Practices Lead (APL) and he and I began working together on supporting the new Scrum Master community of practice, populated by his new reports. Our work gradually evolved into much more than what either of us could have imagined at the time. This 3-part series is my first attempt at putting down the story of that partnership.
In addition to serving as the initial Scrum Master for some of the teams, I was also trying to help existing team members transition into the Scrum Master role. I wanted to develop internal capacity so that I could focus on supporting a growing program of multiple teams. As the number of Scrum Masters and teams I was supporting increased, so too did the need for collaboration with the APL.
At the time, senior IT leadership was focussed on getting those doing the work of creating value (the teams) to fundamentally change the way they were working. That is, into self-organizing teams with Scrum Masters as “servant-leaders”. This included the reassignment of project managers as Scrum Masters and business analysts as Product Owners and staff into cross-siloed teams.
Chaos and confusion ensued. It was a deliberate strategy of senior leadership: Disrupt the culture of complacency. Force people to transform by throwing them into chaos. Throw everyone into the deep end and the right people will learn to swim.
A great deal of pressure was placed on the Scrum Masters to measure and improve team performance (based on pseudo-metrics such as story point velocity). They were essentially told to create a new identity for themselves and this was painful. Similarly, the APL was on the hook to support all these people in their new roles – to be a “servant-leader of the servant-leaders”. This concept of servant-leadership was front and centre in the conversation: “What is it, and how do we make it work here?” My role was to help create a shared understanding of the desired new culture.
I discovered months later that the day after I started the engagement, around 50 people had been fired. This had nothing to do with me, but naturally people thought that it did. Even years later, this day was commonly referred to by the survivors as “Bloody Monday”. Because of the timing of the mass-exit, unprecedented in the company’s 25-year history, staff understandably regarded me as the consultant who advised the cull. It’s not exaggerating to say that it instilled terror, was emotionally coupled with the transformation as a whole and implicated me as an individual. I thought of myself as one contributing help, but I was regarded as one contributing to harm. I saw myself as a Hippocrates but I was known as a Procrustes. I only learned about this months later, after I had finally managed to cultivate a bond of trust with some folks. A consequence of this fear was that I found myself in many one-on-one sessions with new Scrum Masters who were struggling to adapt and afraid of being the next victim to lose their jobs. Rather than providing Scrum Master therapy, I should have been helping the company to improve its delivery capabilities.
The theme of this first stage was the deep, broad and painful disruption of people’s lives caused by this deep Satir J-curve transformation model deployed by senior management. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time is that emotionally, people experience change the same way they experience pain. The human brain literally responds the same. Not only were these human beings experiencing deep, chaotic change, they were also experiencing deep pain. And I was complicit in this.
The other contract coaches and I attempted to bring the crisis to the attention of senior management. We believed that it was a leadership problem, they believed that it was a staff complacency problem. The standoff lead to the coaches losing access to the leaders we were trying to help. This was a deep crisis for the group of coaches and the staff. The staff were beginning to see us as their advocates and we failed. For many Agile coaches, their part in the story ends here. In fact, some of the coaches on our team soon decided to move on to other opportunities. Others were not asked to extend their services beyond their initial contract term. Fortunately for me, the story didn’t end here. I will share more about this in Parts II & III of this series.
A teaser: These days, I advise and coach senior management to take responsibility to deliver services to customers, to understand what makes their services fit for the purposes of their customers and to design and evolve service delivery systems the fitness criteria of which are transparent to all those involved in the work. Then, allow people to truly self-organize around how the work gets done. In other words, manage the work not the people.
Being Agile seems to be the rage these days and everyone has an opinion on what Agility means and how to do it “right”. This article doesn’t make process recommendations, but it does provide a quick, effective way to help your team and organization get on track with being Agile (primarily a mindset measurement) and not just doing Agile (primarily a practices measurement). Presented below is a simple and lightweight test that can be applied by almost anyone; it provides clear steps for improvement, and it is geared for alignment with the core Agile Principles and Values.
There are lots of Agile practitioners, coaches and trainers out there claiming to be experts. Some are genuinely skilled while others have a few key certification letters beside their name and yet little to no in depth, real-world experience. Although most have a genuine intent to help and they might actually succeed at it, others might inadvertently do more damage and provide harmful guidance. How can you help them help you?
There are also numerous frameworks, methodologies, and practices that claim they are well suited to help an organization become more Agile. Some of them are simplistic, process-based approaches that may not account for your environment, culture, or specific business needs, while others are more complex and pragmatic. Depending on your situation it can be tricky to know what will work best. How can you find a suitable fit?
There are also many tools and approaches to measure a team’s Agility, the leadership’s alignment with Agile, or the organizational maturity. Some of these simply measure the number of practices (i.e. are you doing Agile), others account for an in depth assessment of cultural factors (i.e are you being Agile), and some are based on scenarios that are idealistic given common real world business challenges.
Indeed there are a wide variety of indicators of varying complexity, so you might be challenged to determine if they are simply vanity measures, helpful health indicators, or suitable fitness criteria, and more specifically if they appropriately measure for the outcomes you are looking for. How can you ensure they are providing valuable insights and actionable results so you may make data driven decisions?
Keep it Simple and Focused
Given all these complexities, how do you know what it really means to be Agile, how can you align the effort, and how do you know how successful you are?
The answer is keep it simple and focused, and be outcome driven. Specifically, start with the foundations of Agile and then evaluate Agility from your perspective, your organization’s business needs, your employee’s needs, and most importantly from your customer’s needs. Then, use that information to measure and steer improvement towards your real desired outcomes of Agility.
In the spirit of keeping it simple and focused, I’m sharing a “quick” and lightweight Agility Litmus Test and Procedure below to measure how you are doing and to ensure you, your stakeholders and your approaches are all headed in the right direction.
A Straightforward Procedure
1) Align With The Agile Manifesto
Read the Agile Manifesto. I don’t mean gloss over it on the train on the way to work, or over lunch, or during your kid’s sports game. I mean READ it, focusing on the twelve guiding principles AND the four value statements.
If it helps, boil each of the twelve principles down to two or three key words to provide clarity. Then, when reviewing each principle ask yourself what you think it really means, and why you think it was important enough for the signatories to explicitly call it out in the Manifesto (what the intent was). To ensure everyone has a similar frame of reference you may find it useful to host a time boxed, focused discussion on each principle.
2) Choose Key Agile Measures
Of the twelve principles ask yourself which ones (pick 3 or 4 at most) are core, or most important to you and your stakeholders (your organization, your leadership, your customers and your team). Don’t just speculate or guess what the answers are; you will likely need to facilitate several workshops with the appropriate people to get to the truth to those questions.
This activity in itself is a test. If there is not close alignment on what the most important principles are then stop right here. Do not proceed until you align on what those key principles are. If you proceed without alignment you risk working against one another and not towards a common goal or outcome. Note that getting alignment might prove contentious so you may need a series of facilitated sessions to hash it out.
Once you align on several core principles they become your key indicators for the Litmus Test for Agility. These are also your defined Agile outcomes, because they encapsulate what it specifically means for you to be Agile (where you want to be).
3) Perform a Critical Assessment
Starting with your key indicators, honestly answer the question how close or how far away are we” for each one. Use a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 means “not close at all” and 7 means “we are totally nailing it”. I chose 1-7 because it gives just enough range to differentiate measures. That, and it is exactly 1/2 of the pH range for a proper Litmus test!
Be sure to seek fair and equal participation in this evaluation, as it is important to help reduce bias and ensure perspectives are accounted for. This means you should ensure you have adequate representation from as many groups as is practical.
Honesty and transparency are also extremely critical here so you may require a facilitated session. You may also need to provide a safe environment to encourage honesty in responses, so anonymous scoring and evaluations would be an appropriate technique to use.
4) Determine Actions
Critically review the summary of evaluative responses for your key indicators. If the average is less than 6 out of 7 then hold a strategic planning session to determine actions to get you closer to achieving those outcomes. Note also if there is a wide dispersal of the individual responses for a key indicator that would strongly suggest there is a large misalignment amongst the respondents, and you need to address that gap.
One question to ask would simply be “what would it take…”, or “what would we need to do to get us to a 6 or higher? When following this line of reasoning be sure to account for the coaches, practitioners and experts you are relying on by asking “What can or should they be doing to align with our key indicators and Agile outcomes?”
Also, look at the frameworks and approaches you are using and ask “How can we switch, change or improve our ways to improve Agility?”
Finally, look at the tools and measures you are leveraging and ask “Are these vanity measures or are they really meaningful?” and “How can we improve these measures (not just the values, but the metrics themselves) to provide more meaningful insights and help us better realize our defined Agile outcomes?”
As a group then choose at least one and no more than three specific actions that came out of the discussion above, implement them, hold one another accountable for them, and measure on the next round if your actions had the desired effect of improving the scores for your key indicators.
5) Learn and Refine
Repeat steps 3 and 4 of this procedure at frequent and regular intervals, being sure to not only measure but also define and take new action.
6) Reassess and Pivot as Needed
If time permits or if your key indicators all show consistent strength, consider switching to some of the other Agile Manifesto Guiding Principles. If it seems logical you may even want to go back and repeat the entire process as your needs and outcomes may have changed.
The core value this Litmus Test for Agility provides is a) in its simplicity, b) in it’s inherent alignment with the Agile Values and Principles, and c) in its focus on what matters most for you and your stakeholders. It uses the Manifesto as a foundation, and then allows you to focus on what is most important to you.
Like all tests and models this approach has some inherent strengths and weaknesses. For example, it is lightweight, cheap, easy to implement, and aligned with core Agility, however it is not an extravagant or in depth test so it may not account for complexities. As such it should never replace sound judgement.
Meanwhile, if you sense or feel there is something deeper going on that may be impeding your organization’s ability to become more Agile then be sure to investigate thoroughly, work with others to obtain nonpartisan assessment, and provide clarity along the way on intent, outcome, and learnings.
If you are practicing Scrum, using a more sophisticated tool such as Scrum Insight (a virtual “Coach-in-a-Box”) can provide much richer, deeper feedback and insights, including recommended actions. Even the free version of the tool provides keen insight.
Depending on circumstance you might also find it advantageous to call in expert facilitation, advisors or coaches to either conduct an Agility test such as this or even help your team or organization get to the heart of their issues and challenges. Organizations such as BERTEIG are not only Agile teachers but they are also hands-on practitioners that can coach your team and organization to reaching new levels of Agility, either with a lightweight touch or a fully immersive engagement.
Coincidentally, reflecting, collaborating, providing transparency, and adopting a continuous learning and improvement mindset are in and of themselves indicators of Agility. So identifying core values such as these and then making them part of your Agile Litmus Test (i.e. making them your new Agility outcomes) shows how simple it can be to improve, adapt and grow even this lightweight approach!
Your business is an ecosystem of interdependent services, a complex adaptive system.
A bunch of organizations I know started their journey of increasing their agility with Scrum. That didn’t solve all of their problems. Kanban enables organizations to evolve their service delivery systems towards mature business agility.
As addressed in How Kanban Saved Agile, pure Scrum is extremely rare. Scrumbut (the disparaging label that spawned from so many organizations reporting that they do Scrum, but…) on the other hand, is extremely common.
In order to not be Scrumbut, you need the following:
Cross-functional development team of 7 +/- 2 people—ALL skills needed to ship product is present on the team—there are no dependencies external to the team;
One source of demand with no capacity constraints—the Product Owner is the customer AND full-time member of the team;
Sprints are one month or less, begin with starting new demand from the Product Owner and end with the delivery of potentially shippable Product Increments, followed by a retrospective about how to do better next Sprint;
“Potentially Shippable” means that the decision about whether to actually ship is purely a business decision. All the technical work is done;
If all of the technical work required in order to ship isn’t done, then the Sprint is a failed Sprint;
The Scrum Master is a servant-leader and Scrum educator to the entire organization.
How many organizations do you know of with Scrum teams that meet all of the requirements above? I don’t know one.
So, what’s the solution? Give up on Scrum? Are we still getting benefits from Scrumbut? Alright, let’s stop it with the Scrumbut already. Let’s acknowledge what’s really going with real teams in the real world and call that Scrum. Let’s refer to the above checklist as “Ideal Scrum”.
Agile scaling methods have become a popular risk hedging tactic for all the loose ends dangling around the real teams in the real world.
Here are some of the reasons for adding layers of scaling around Agile teams:
Teams are not fully cross-functional;
Teams have external and opaque depencies;
Many of these dependencies are shared services with multiple sources of demand and constrained capacity—often overburdened;
External dependencies can be other teams—demand from other teams shows up in their backlogs, prioritized by their own Product Owners;
Many dependencies don’t play by the same rules at all—some reside in a different part of the organization, with different structures and political forces;
The Product Owners are proxies for multiple stakeholders and customers and the Product Backlogs represent an array of multiple sources of demand, with different service level expectations, strategic origins, degrees of clarity, urgency and political forces pushing them into the deliver organization;
The Product Backlogs are made up primarily of solutions defined by stakeholders and translated by the pseudo-Product Owners as pseudo-user stories—how they get there is opaque, the “fuzzy front end”—and somewhere in here a fuzzy delivery commitment was already made;
The work of a Sprint includes all of the work that the non-cross-functional teams can get done—then whatever the teams get “done” is “delivered” (handed-off) to a subsequent set of teams or process steps (usually fairly well defined at an organizational level but outside of the teams’ influence);
Delivery decisions are made based on constraints imposed by legacy technology, systems and their gatekeepers (for historically good reasons);
The teams are “done” at the end of each Sprint, yet much work is still to be done before their “done” work is potentially shippable;
The Scrum Master’s are held collectively accountable for the collective deliverables of the teams and their ability to cross-team coordinate and integrate—accountability by committee translates into no one is actually responsible.
Middle managers are scrambling to pick up the pieces because they are actually accountable for delivered results.
Generally speaking, the aim of Agile scaling methods is to apply larger Agile wrappers around clusters of Agile teams in order to re-establish some kind of hierarchical structure needed to manage the interdependencies described above. Whether its a Release Train or a Nexus, or whatever else, the idea is that there is an “Agile Team of Teams” managing the interdependencies of multiple, smaller teams. As long as the total number of people doesn’t grow beyond the Dunbar number (~150), the Dunbar-sized group is dedicated and cross-functional, there is a team managing the interdependencies within the Dunbar, there are no dependencies outside of the Dunbar and there is some cadence (1-3 months) of integrated delivery—it’s still “Agile”. All of this scaling out as far as a Dunbar (and only that far) allows the enterprise to still “be Agile”—Scaled Agile.
This is all supposed to be somehow more realistic than Ideal Scrum (with perhaps am overlay of Scrum of Scrums and a Scrum of Scrum of Scrums). It’s not. How many organizations do you know of that can afford to have ~150 people 100% dedicated to a single product? Perhaps today there is enough cash lying around, but soon enough the economic impact will be untenable, if not unsustainable.
How does Kanban address this problem? Your business is a complex adaptive system. You introduce a Kanban system into it such that it is likely that the complex adaptive system is stimulated to improve. The Systems Thinking Approach to Introducing Kanban—STATIK—is how you can make such a transition more successful (@az1):
Understand the purpose of the system—explicitly identify the services you provide, to whom you provide them and why;
Understand the things about the delivery of the service that people are not happy about today—both those whose needs are addressed by the service and those doing the work of delivering the service;
Define the sources of demand—what your customers care about and why;
Describe the capability of your system to satisfy these demands;
Map the workflow of items of customer-recognizable value(@fer_cuenca), beginning with a known customer need and ending with the need being met through stages of primary knowledge discovery (Scrum teams somewhere in the middle, towards the end)—focus on activities, not looping value streams;
Discover classes of service—there are patterns to how different kinds of work flow through your system (they are not arbitrarily decided by pseudo-Product Owners), what are they? Group them, they are classes of service and knowing them enables powerful risk management;
With all of the above as an input, design the Kanban system for the service;
Learn how to do steps 2-7 and start applying it directly to your own context in a Kanban System Design class;
Repeat with all of the interdependent services in your organization—every “dependency” is a service—Kanban all of them with STATIK and begin implementing the Cadences.
Don’t get hung up on teams, roles, your latest reorg, how people will
respond to another “change”, who’s in, who’s out, etc. These are all part of the service as it is now—your current capability. Initially, no changes are required at this level. The kanban system will operate at a higher level of scale. Through feedback-loop cadences, it will evolve to be fit for the purpose of your customers without a traumatic and expensive reorg. Who is responsible for this? Identify this person. If you are the one thinking about this problem, there is a good chance that it’s you. Whoever it is, this is the manager of the service; take responsibility, do the work and make life better for everyone.
Our IT group started with Scrum. Scores of people got trained. Most of our Project Managers became “Certified” Scrum Masters. Most of our Business Analysts became “Certified” Product Owners. We purged some people who we knew would never make the transition. We reorganized everyone else into cross-functional teams – mostly developers and testers. But now they are Scrum Developers. We tried to send them for “Certified” Scrum Developer training but hardly anyone of them signed up. So they are Just Scrum Developers. But we still call them developers and testers. Because that’s still how they mostly function—silos within “cross functional teams”, many tales of two cities rather than just one.
After the Scrum teams had been up and running for a while and we were able to establish some metrics to show the business how Agile we were (since they didn’t believe us based on business results), we had a really great dashboard showing us how many Scrum teams we had, how many Kanban teams, how many DevOps, how many people had been trained. We even knew the average story point velocity of each team.
The business didn’t get it. They were worried that Agile wasn’t going to solve their problem of making commitments to customers and looking bad because we still weren’t able to deliver “on time”.
As IT leadership, we were really in the hot seat. We started to talk about why the transformation wasn’t going as it should. We knew better than to bring the Agile coaches into the boardroom. They were part of the problem and needed to be kept at arms length from those of us who were making important decisions. Besides, their Zen talk about “why?” was really getting old fast. Some thought it was because we didn’t have the right technology. Others were convinced it was because we didn’t have the right people. After all, we didn’t go out and higher experienced (above-average) Scrum Masters and Product Owners, instead we just retrained our own people. Clearly that wasn’t working.
We started with improving the Scrum Masters. We went out and hired a few with impressive resumes. We developed some Scrum Master KPIs (HR jumped all over this one). Then one day we had a collective flash of brilliance—since the ScrumMasters are the servant leaders of teams, we will make them responsible for collecting and reporting team metrics and this will tell us how well the teams are doing and how they need to improve. This surely would be the key to improving the performance of IT and get us on a better footing with the business.
But we didn’t get the response we were hoping for. The ScrumMasters soon complained that the metrics of the teams were impacted by dependencies that they had no influence over. When we pushed harder and shamed them publicly for failing to produce meaningful metrics, they tried harder, but they weren’t able to do it. Some began disengage. “This is not the job I signed up for” became their new mantra. This was puzzling. We were empowering them and they were recoiling. Maybe we didn’t get the right Scrum Masters after all. Maybe we needed to go out and find people who could think and act effectively beyond the confines of their own teams. Or…
You want to be practicing Scrum! You’ve taken Scrum training, received your industry certification, and perhaps even experienced being a Scrum team member. In your heart you believe Scrum is the right tool and approach for you, and you believe your current organization and your customers could really benefit from Scrum practices.
However, for whatever reason your organization is either hesitant to consider Scrum or believes it’s a bad idea. Perhaps there was an experience with a poorly executed pilot. Perhaps your leadership see it as being too risky.
What do you do?
This article explores how you could subversively practice ScrumMaster-ing in your workplace without getting into trouble or breaking the rules. (Ssh…we won’t tell!)
Before you even begin strategizing, you need to ensure that what you do aligns with the Scrum values, namely:
Doing Scrum subversively will certainly take considerable courage, focus and commitment on your part. Be aware you will be challenged to respect the existing organizational culture and norms, and your organization may push back on your efforts.
You also need to acknowledge that the very act of being subversive means you are not being completely open or transparent that you are trying to practice Scrum.
Or you could tell your workmates, “I’ve had this terrific training in Scrum and could we try a few of the techniques to see how they work?” Then introduce something as simple as time-boxing or holding retrospectives with your colleagues.
You will also want to ensure what you do is harmonious with Scrum Theory and the pillars of empirical process, which are:
1. Transparency 2. Inspection 3. Adaptation
Normally, one could say there’s a direct conflict between being transparent and being subversive. Keeping this in mind, it is imperative you be absolutely transparent on the actions you are taking and what the specific goals, outcomes or learnings are that you hope to achieve.
However, given the circumstances you’ll likely choose to not use Scrum terminology to describe what you are doing. In other words, describe the practices and activities that you are implementing or recommending, express their benefits and what you hope to accomplish, but don’t explicitly call them by their Scrum name.
As for Inspection and Adaptation, those approaches should be perfectly aligned with your intent to try to help your company become a learning organization. That means you will need to park your ego at the door and accept the results. If your learning shows your subversive Scrum activities do not provide the benefit you’re aiming for, you will need to stop them regardless of whether you think they should work.
Let’s explore some activities and practices you may want to tactfully consider to help your organization benefit from Scrum (without actually “doing” Scrum).
1. Lead by Example
As someone that appreciates the values of Scrum, you should aim to educate others and provide them with a similar understanding. That means practicing these values in how you show up and in everything you do, even explicitly calling out certain actions when they are a prime example (whenever it is appropriate).
This does not mean preaching! Instead, it could be sharing your thoughts about something when contributing to a decision, or simply pointing out when and how something that aligns with the values contributes to a better team, a better experience, or a better solution.
Leading by example also means being human and honest when mistakes are made or when failures occur. This can be particularly risky in an organization that has not embraced Agility, or where failure is frowned upon. That is where you need courage, and a commitment on your part to hold improvement of the work above your own individual career needs.
2. Communicate More
Make a concerted, conscious effort to communicate with your team and partners more. For example, get up out of your seat and spend more time in informal face-to-face discussions rather than sending e-mails or chat messages.
Perhaps you can have short, informal meetings with just the team either daily or several times a week to see what’s been done, what needs to be done, and what challenges the team is facing. The key here is to keep it short, focus on what is needed to move work forward, and define actions to address issues. Then always follow up and make sure the actions are being pursued and that progress is shared with the team.
3. Be Open And Transparent
Although you may consciously choose to not use the proper terminology and language of Scrum, the key is to always be honest about what it is you are trying to do, why it’s important, and what the desired outcomes are.
To this end the goal should be to become an organization that “learns about learning”, constantly tries to improve, delivers value faster, and applies new knowledge in the best possible way. Scrum may be a fantastic catalyst for that, but there are many other approaches that will achieve similar results.
4. Use Better Meeting Practices
Another approach to consider is improve meeting experiences by time-boxing and defining a specific scope for each meeting. Setting a time limit and outcomes for a discussion helps create a sense of urgency, manage expectations and focus the conversation on the most important topics. The facilitator will need to enforce these constraints, otherwise you lose the effectiveness of the practice.
5. Have One or More Key Stakeholders Empowered to Make Product Decisions
This may be a considerable challenge in organizations where there is little appetite or understanding about Scrum practices, but do what you can given your authority and influence. If possible, try to have a single voice (key stakeholder) defined as the person with the final authority on the product or service that your team is delivering. Work with that individual to set them up for success by connecting them with the other stakeholders, perhaps facilitating discussions with them, and showing the key person(s) effective techniques for prioritizing the work that is being asked for.
6. Limit Efforts to What Matters Most
One practice that is important to apply, but often difficult to master, is focus. Limit work and discussions to the most important tasks and activities, and request that other discussions on lesser-important work be delayed. Always try to focus the conversation back to what is currently the most important work.
On occasion you may even want to point out times when plans were well-defined in advance but ultimately changed a lot when the actual work was in progress. This indicates the waste in planning too much up front and in constant task-switching. When done in conjunction with time-boxing this practice becomes a little easier.
On a macro scale, try to limit development to smaller chunks of end-to-end deliverables. In other words, deliver small things often all the way to completion as much as possible (e.g. to a staging environment). Then show the outcome and deliverable to stakeholders and customers, explaining that although the final product may not be done, this is to get them something fast and gather feedback.
7. Reflect on Learning
When possible, ensure that reviews of completed work happen frequently. Ensure the outcomes, functionality and value is shown and that learning (for the product as well as the methods) are part of the discussion.
Without becoming intrusive, seek stakeholder feedback frequently and informally. Be willing to demonstrate an ability to pivot plans based on that feedback.
As a team, hold informal retrospectives of how you worked together. If the term “retrospective” is contentious, consider calling them something else, such as a debriefing.
8. Visualize and Display Work
Have your own personal backlog and list of current activities visible at your desk. Use post-its to represent all work that you have on your plate, and ensure it is always up-to-date. Prioritize the work items you have coming up, and visually represent this as a rank-ordered list of things that you have to do.
It won’t take long for people around you to notice what you are doing and ask about it. Use this as a great opportunity to educate others on the values of transparency and focus.
9. Keep Your Team Size Appropriate
If you are on a particularly large team, see if it is possible to split that large team in to smaller groups. The benefit is more face-to-face time and interaction across the new team, an increased sense of belonging and commitment to the new team’s purpose, and it should also be easier (in theory anyway) to get decisions made and increase alignment.
The challenge will be finding a logical way to split the teams to mitigate dependencies of people, skills and products, and ensuring the new teams can still collaborate with one another. Geography might be a good way to split the team if you are distributed, but you would need to ensure all the skills to deliver the solution exist on all new teams.
10. Push for Automation
If you are in a development environment where tools, automation and engineering practices are not currently being used, and they could be of value to your organization, then start investigating whether it is possible. Tools and automation aren’t cheap or easy to implement, but they dramatically encourage you and your teams to collaborate better and they enable the adoption of Scrum practices such as fast delivery of value.
Be confident that your own creativity may help you unlock ways of practicing Scrum methodology without disrupting your organization’s practices.
You may or may not be able to implement all of the above actions but, as one Agile coach says, “it’s all about how YOU show up, how YOU are.” In the final analysis, your example, your enthusiasm, your courage will be the best you can offer.
Hi Everyone, I don’t do announcements on here too often, but I wanted to let everyone know about the official launch of our new product: the Scrum Team Assessment – an online tool for your team to get a report on how well they are using the Scrum framework… and most importantly, helpful recommendations on how to improve! This is a fully automated Scrum maturity assessment tool!
The Scrum Team Assessment is based on the years that I and two other coaches (Paul Heidema and Travis Birch) have been working with Scrum and Agile teams to improve business and technical results. The Scrum Team Assessment is a joint effort that has resulted in a fully automated virtual coach for your team.
The analysis is both statistical and expert-system based. This means that the report has basic information about how the team is following Scrum, and, more importantly, clear how-to advice to get your team to make improvements. There are “quick wins” which are easy but will have a significant impact as well as long-term recommendations that are often harder, but will drive your team to a high-performance state.
Every team member fills in the survey to help us generate a valid set of recommendations.
The Scrum Team Assessment is $496/team/use (that’s Canadian dollars). If you have several teams or wish to obtain an enterprise license, please contact us at email@example.com or +1-905-868-9995.
Scrum team members should be allocated to as few different initiatives as realistically possible. The more projects you are allocated to, the more task switching you may have to perform, the longer it will take to complete any one item, the thinner you will be spread and the less effective you will be. In other words, people (and teams) should limit their work in progress as much as possible and focus on completing those things that truly matter most. This is true for any framework, but it is particularly emphasized with Agile ones. Note there is a slight but fundamental difference between being allocatedto a team and being dedicated to a team – that is a topic for a future article.
Under the right conditions Scrum can be a tremendous success story, but it often requires hard work to get there. For new Scrum teams it means learning to fundamentally work very differently than they are used to, such as relying on a lot more collaboration, making and delivering on shared commitments and building a high degree of trust. For existing Scrum teams it means constantly renewing the team commitment to each other, the cause, and to the Scrum framework. This includes the rather painful practice of revisiting the fundamentals and ensuring any deviations from accepted processes or practices were for the right reasons and had the right results.
To have a chance at achieving high performance a new-to-Scrum team will not only need to just change their processes, but fundamentally change the culture and behaviour of the team and all of the supporting roles (that includes their leadership). Meanwhile, a mature or well-established team should never assume they are high performance; they should always be checking (and rechecking) that they are still living the Agile values.
Needless to say this can become an extremely complex challenge! To be absolutely clear, I’m not proposing there is a single formula or recipe that works, but I do believe certain criteria can dramatically improve your Scrum team’s chances of success. To that end here are 10 tips (plus a bonus) that may help you focus your efforts towards building a successful Scrum team and experience.
1. Right Number of Team Members
Currently the Scrum Guide recommends that Scrum teams will work best with three to nine people (not including the Scrum Master and Product Owner). Too few people on the team and you risk not having enough technical expertise and coverage of critical skills. Too many people on the team and you may become challenged to truly collaborate effectively. Remember, this is just a guideline and you may be successful with different numbers, you just need to be aware of the impacts and make sure the gaps are covered.
2. Appropriate Balance of Skills
Scrum teams really should be balanced and cross-functional. Having all of the necessary skills on the team for delivering a complete solution (not roles, but skills) will encourage and support end-to-end thinking all the way from design to implementation. This approach will result in a better solution and a superior customer experience, but it relies on whole team collaboration. Note this does not mean individual team members need to be fully cross-functional, but what is important is that all the critical skills are represented on the team and each team member contributes their domain expertise towards the collective strength.
3. Propensity for Engineering Technical Ability
For increased chances of success, a Scrum team should leverage technology and engineering practices whenever possible. Techniques, skills and tools that facilitate Agile approaches such as Continuous Integration, Automated Testing and Test Driven Development all make technical excellence, continuous improvement and truly being “Done” every Sprint a possible reality for a Scrum team.
4. High Team Member Allocation
Scrum team members should be allocated to as few different initiatives as realistically possible. The more projects you are allocated to, the more task switching you may have to perform, the longer it will take to complete any one item, the thinner you will be spread and the less effective you will be. In other words, people (and teams) should limit their work in progress as much as possible and focus on completing those things that truly matter most. This is true for any framework, but it is particularly emphasized with Agile ones. Note there is a slight but fundamental difference between being allocated to a team and being dedicated to a team – that is a topic for a future article.
5. Empowered and Knowledgeable Product Owner
Your Product Owner needs to be informed, available, business-savvy, knowledgeable, collaborative, and empowered to make decisions about what to build and what order to do it in. They also need to be a strong negotiator and very capable at conducting business driven trade-offs. In the end, a Product Owner needs to effectively communicate, convey and deliver on a clear vision to the Team and Stakeholders to ensure a useful solution is created. Without empowerment, knowledge, and vision in a Product Owner the team will struggle.
6. Equitable Scrum Master
Having a good process is only part of the equation. A good Scrum Master will champion and enforce that process, protect the team, encourage collaboration, highlight (escalate when necessary) and encourage the removal of obstacles, facilitate discussions, provide fair and constructive feedback, cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and learning, and work to help the team live the Agile values.
Remember that the Scrum Master has authority over the process but not over the team. As the process champion the Scrum Master may sometimes even find themselves in a conflict between maintaining the Scrum rules and guiding the team as they discover the need to adapt practices to better align with their own needs and ways of working. In that regard a Scrum Master should understand and embrace the servant leader role. In the end, a Scrum Master needs to be the person that helps the team make decisions, but not the person that makes decisions for them.
7. Strong Executive Support
Leadership is the key to driving change and progress. Executives and managers of Scrum teams need to nurture the environment, let go of the “how”, allow the team to learn from mistakes, and encourage and coach the growth of the collective team knowledge and overall experience.
Understanding the dramatic impact leadership has on a transitioning team is also very critical, as a single word or direction from the executive level can single-handedly affect (either positively or negatively) the team’s future behaviours and resulting successes or failures. And without a true environment of trust built by the leadership, team members will often shy away from taking a risk to try something new or unknown.
8. Solid Partnership Commitment
There must be a consistent commitment and engagement from all parties in the organization towards adopting the Scrum framework, Agile methods, and thinking. The initiative must be an open, collaborative experience and there must be complete understanding and alignment by all parties in assuming the risks and rewards as well as sharing in the effort. This includes not only business partners and their IT counterparts, but their leadership as well as all of the people and teams supporting an Agile initiative.
9. Reduced Team Dispersion
Co-located teams are more effective communicators and can sometimes experience increased productivity by up to 60% if situated together in the same room. More simply stated, the greater the dispersion factor, the greater the challenge of collaboration. Note that time zones are often considered the largest dispersion factor and can have a greater impact than geography.
Although it is strongly recommended that teams be co-located, it is not mandatory to success. In fact, certain Agile practices have factors, tools and techniques inherent to them to help bridge some of the shortcomings of increased dispersion, such as a higher reliance on frequent collaboration and communication. But to be clear, they do not replace the value of face-to-face conversation, they are merely a crutch to not having it.
10. Consistent Education and Coaching
To ensure consistency and a shared understanding, whole teams (including the business, IT, and their leadership of executives and managers) should receive a common skills development and education experience in proper Agile Thinking, the Scrum Framework, aligned practices and mindset training. Coaching should then reinforce this new knowledge and encourage appropriate behaviours to turn these new practices into habits. Indeed, learning should be a continuous cycle and endless journey towards excellence, and Scrum leverages this through frequent retrospection and continuous improvement.
11. The Right Attitude!
Mutual respect and caring are the cornerstone to the team’s success and it needs to be integral to their culture and beliefs. Not just saying but living the belief there are no heroes or scapegoats. Everyone, including the business, executives, team members and leadership must collaborate and share in celebrating the successes as well as accepting responsibility for setbacks and failures.
Everyone must have the right attitude and commit to not only DOING as needed by attending the ceremonies or following the process and practices but truly wanting to BE part of the solution by willingly changing the way they think, work and collaborate.
At the end of the day your goal should not be to become Agile or Scrum savvy. Instead your real goals and outcomes should align with achieving the key benefits of Agility, and with what Scrum offers. These should include (but are not limited to) increased customer satisfaction, faster delivery of value, improved feedback loops, adopting a continuous improvement mindset, improved employee morale and increased employee retention. Scrum is just one of the many tools or approaches you may choose to get there, but it is certainly an important one to consider if these outcomes align with your goals.
For Scrum to be truly successful at your organization, you must dramatically transform your very culture and business approach. To be clear, this is not easy to do but the rewards are well worth the effort. By embracing such a transformation, the adopted change in behaviour, beliefs and practices should result in a more successful Scrum experience and a higher degree of satisfaction for both your customers and employees.
Can you think of other success factors that might help your Scrum team succeed? There are lots, so feel free to reach out and share them below.
Thanks to Photographer: Chris Potter for this awesome photo.
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”.
When my Scrum team first proposed trying mobbing I wasn’t sure what to expect. No one on the team (including myself) was an expert. I reserved judgment and watched a few sprints. I stayed silent when the same team decided to skip the tasking out portion of planning and simply pulled in enough stories to fulfill their Sprint goal.
After a couple of sprints it became obvious that there were a number of pros; the team was engaged and aligned. They responded as a consistent, unified voice at Sprint Review and Retro. Planning went a lot faster as the team no longer wrote out all their tasks and didn’t have to copy all of them into Jira.
In particular, the Daily Standup’s usual agenda of “what did you do yesterday? what are you doing today? what are you doing tomorrow?” became redundant. And this had me thinking; ‘maybe the team didn’t need a stand up anymore? What’s the point?”
Then, one of the team members introduced me to the concept of the daily goal and I watched as he walked the team thru it. I thought this made a lot of sense and so did the team. We kept up the practice. Some days the team would forget about it or be too tired to bother. I noticed on those days the team wouldn’t be as clear on what they were working on or how to align on a particular challenge. I also noticed that the Stand Up the next day would be more fragmented and meander a bit. They would forget to communicate to one another and look at me as their Scrum Master expectedly, wanting me to drive it.
I started to coach the team back to their daily goal practice and reminded them this Stand Up was for them to align on the work ahead for the day. This became more important as the team divided up into mini mobs or pairs and were no longer one big mob.
I find the Daily Goal useful for a number of reasons. Instead of tasking out the work a week in advance, they decide how to approach the work on a daily basis that takes into account any day to day changes that have happened. Planning goes a lot faster now that we’re not tasking out all the work in advance. The team stays focused on a daily basis as opposed to at just Planning. They write their daily goal on their Scrum Board making it visible to anyone on the floor what their focus is for the day. Even better, the daily stand up as renewed purpose and the dialogue is more interactive.
Here are some examples of our Daily Goals:
Refactor Story 1
Coordinate with outside team members to align on test strategy
Complete happy path for Story 3
And sometimes it is as simple as “Complete story 4”
I hope to continue the practice and frankly, it’s fun! Achieving short time goals is motivating and brings a sense of accomplishment. I highly recommend it. Let me know your thoughts and if you’re trying this technique let me know how it’s working out for your team.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Alexandra Dragon is a first-time contributor to Agile Advice – please welcome her in the comments. And let us know if you are interested in contributing.]
On many occasions, I have observed “Scrum Masters” and even “Product Owners” attempting to drive what they understand to be the Daily Scrum. Just this morning, I witnessed a “Daily Scrum” in which a “Product Owner” gave the team a bunch of program updates and made sure that each team member had tasks to work on for the day. Then, the PO “wrapped up” the meeting and left the team to get to the work. I then stayed and observed what the team did next. They actually stayed together to discuss the work and figure out how they were going to organize themselves for the day. I then went over to the Product Owner and whispered in her ear that the team was now doing the real Daily Scrum. She said “Oh,” and promptly walked over to find out what was going on. I then observed her from a distance nodding her head several times while appearing to understand what the team was talking about. I’m not sure if she understood or not, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that the Daily Scrum is for the Development Team to inspect and adapt its progress towards the Sprint Goal and decide how it will self-organize for the coming day. If the Development Team decides as a result of the Daily Scrum that it needs to re-negotiate any previously forcasted functionality with the Product Owner, then that conversation can certainly happen at that time.
The ScrumMaster is like a fire-fighter: it’s okay for them to be idle – just watching the team – waiting for an emergency obstacle. Taking on tasks tends to distract the ScrumMaster from the job of helping the team follow the rules of Scrum, from the job of vigorously removing obstacles, and from the job of protecting the team from interruptions. Let’s look at each of these aspects of the ScrumMaster role in turn:
The ScrumMaster Helps the Team Follow the Rules of Scrum
The ScrumMaster is a process facilitator. The Scrum process, while simple to describe, is not easy to do. As the Scrum Guide says:
Simple to understand
Difficult to master
The ScrumMaster helps the Scrum Team and the organization to master the Scrum framework. Helping everyone understand Scrum and respect its rules is a first step. Some of the rules are particularly challenging. In some companies, being on time for meetings and ending them on time is hard. Scrum requires this. The ScrumMaster helps the team do this. In some companies, meeting deadlines, even short ones, is difficult. Scrum requires this every Sprint. The ScrumMaster helps the team do this. In some companies, giving time to improving things is hard. Scrum Teams do retrospectives. The ScrumMaster ensures that the team takes the time for this.
Of course, following the rules is hard for people. Even just the concept of “rules” is hard for some people. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want. Well, if you aren’t following the rules of Scrum you aren’t doing Scrum. So for some teams, just getting to the point of being willing to follow the rules of Scrum is a big step. The ScrumMaster needs to help with motivation.
The ScrumMaster is Vigorously Removing Obstacles
The Scrum Team is going to be working hard to meet a goal for the Sprint. As they work, they are going to work through many challenges and problems on their own. However, the team will start to encounter obstacles as well. These obstacles or impediments come from a few sources:
Dependencies on other people or parts of the organization outside the Scrum Team.
Skill gaps within the team.
Burdensome bureaucracy imposed by the organization.
Lack of resources such as tools, equipment, licenses, or even access to funds.
The ScrumMaster needs to work through these.
On a panel talk on Saturday one person said “the scrum master is an administrator, moving cards, updating the burn down. It is an easy job, I think my son could do it.” I then rebutted his remarks….
The ScrumMaster will tackle enterprise operations for their slow error prone deployment process, tackle Sarbox [Sarbanes-Oxley] compliance policy that has been way over-engineered to the point of slowing dev to a crawl, telling the PMO that 3 sets of reports is waste, exhorting the team to try to do unit tests in ABAP (SAP cobol), etc.
Robin Dymond, CST – (Scrum Training and Coaching Community Google Group, Sep. 23, 2009)
The ScrumMaster is Protecting the Team from Interruptions
Every organization seems to have more work than their staff have the capacity to deliver. Staff are often asked to task switch repeatedly over the course of a day or even in a single hour. Sometimes people are “allocated” to multiple projects simultaneously. This breaks the Scrum value of focus. The ScrumMaster needs to protect the team from interruptions or anything else that would break their focus.
But what should the Scrum Team members be focused on? Simply: the goal of a single Sprint. And a single Scrum Team is focused on a single product. The Product Owner should be the point of contact for any and all requests for the time and effort of a Scrum Team. The ScrumMaster needs to re-direct any interruptions to the Product Owner. The Product Owner decides if:
the interruption results in a new Product Backlog Item, OR
the interruption is irrelevant to the product and simply discarded, OR
the interruption is important enough to cancel the current Sprint.
There are no other options in Scrum for handling requests for work from the Scrum Team (or any member of the Scrum Team).
Contribution as Distraction for the ScrumMaster
Any time the ScrumMaster starts to contribute to the product development effort directly, the ScrumMaster is distracted from the other three duties. Although simple, following the rules of Scrum is not easy. Getting distracted from the duty of helping the team follow the rules of Scrum means that the team is likely to develop bad habits or regress to non-Scrum behaviour. Vigorously removing obstacles is usually a huge job all on its own. Most Scrum Teams have huge organizational obstacle that must be worked on. Some of these obstacles will take years of persistent effort to deal with. The ScrumMaster cannot become distracted by tactical details of product development. Protecting the team from interruptions means the ScrumMaster must have broad awareness, at all times, of what is happening with the team. If a team member is interrupted by a phone call, an email, or someone walking into the Scrum team room, the ScrumMaster needs to notice it immediately.
Whenever a ScrumMaster takes on a product development task, focus on the role is lost and a condition of a simple conflict-of-interest is created. If the team has “committed” to deliver certain Product Backlog Items at the end of a Sprint, then that feeling of commitment may lead a ScrumMaster to focusing on the wrong things.
The time of a ScrumMaster is an investment in continuous improvement. Letting a ScrumMaster contribute to the work of the team dilutes that investment.
Even though the concept of self-organizing teams has been around for a long time, still some people think that a project manager or team lead should be assigning tasks to team members. Don’t do this!!! It is better to wait for someone to step up than to “take over” and start assigning tasks.
Assigning tasks can be overt or subtle. Therefore, avoid even suggestions that could be taken as assigning tasks. For example, no one should ever tell a Scrum Team member “hey! You’re not doing any work – go take a task!” (overt) or “This task really needs to get done – why don’t you do it?” (semi-overt) or “Would you consider working on this with me?” (subtle). Instead, any reference to tasks should be to the team at large. For example it would be okay for a team member to say “I’m working on this and I would like some help – would anyone help me?”
In the Scrum Guide, a partial definition of self-organizing is given:
Scrum Teams are self-organizing….. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.
A more formal definition of the concept of “self-organizing” can be found here:
Self-organisation is a process where some form of global order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between the components of an initially disordered system. This process is spontaneous: it is not directed or controlled by any agent or subsystem inside or outside of the system; however, the laws followed by the process and its initial conditions may have been chosen or caused by an agent.
The key here is that there is no single point of authority, even temporarily, in a self-organizing team. Every individual member of the team volunteers for tasks within the framework of “the laws followed by the process” – namely Scrum. Scrum does define some constraints on individual behaviour, particularly for the Product Owner and the ScrumMaster. People in those two roles have specific duties which usually prevent them from being able to volunteer for any task. But all the other team members (the Development Team) have complete freedom to individually and collectively figure out how they will do the work at hand.
What If One Person Isn’t Working?
People who are managers are often worried about this. What if there is one person on the team who just doesn’t seem to be doing any work? Isn’t assigning tasks to this person a good thing? Scrum will usually make this bad behaviour really obvious. Let’s say that Alice hasn’t completed any tasks in the last four days (but she does have a task that she volunteered for at the start of the Sprint). Raj notices that Alice hasn’t finished that initial task. An acceptable solution to this problem is for Raj to volunteer to help Alice. Alice can’t refuse the help since Raj is self-organizing too. They might sit together to work on it.
Of course, that might not solve the problem. So another technique to use that respects self-organization is to bring it up in the Sprint Retrospective. The ScrumMaster of the team, Sylvie, chooses a retrospective technique that is designed to help the team address the problem. In a retrospective, it is perfectly acceptable for people on the team to be direct with each other. Retrospectives need to be safe so that this kind of discussion doesn’t lead to animosity between team members.
Remember: everyone goes through ups and downs in productivity. Sometimes a person is overwhelmed by other aspects of life. Sometimes a person is de-motivated temporarily. On the other hand, sometimes people become extremely engaged and deliver exceptional results. Make sure that in your team, you give people a little bit of space for these ups and downs. Assigning tasks doesn’t make a person more productive.
What If There is One Task No One Wants to Do?
Dig deep and find out why no one wants to do it. This problem is usually because the task itself is worthless, frustrating, repetitive, or imposed from outside without a clear reason. If no one wants to do a task, the first question should always be: what happens if it doesn’t get done? And if the answer is “nothing bad”… then don’t do it!!!
There are, unfortunately, tasks that are important that still are not exciting or pleasant to do. In this situation, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the team “how can we solve this problem creatively?” Often these kinds of tasks can be addressed in new ways that make them more interesting. Maybe your team can automate something. Maybe a team member can learn new skills to address the task. Maybe there is a way to do the task so it never has to be done again. A self-organizing Scrum Team can use innovation, problem-solving and creativity skills to try to over come this type of problem.
And, of course, there’s always the Sprint Retrospective!
Why Self-Organize – Why Is Assigning Tasks Bad?
Autonomy is one of the greatest motivators there is for people doing creative and problem-solving types of work. The ability to choose your own direction instead of being treated like a mushy, weak, unreliable robot. Motivation, in turn, is one of the keys to creating a high-performance state in individuals and teams. The greatest outcome of good self-organization is a high-performance team that delivers great work results and where everyone loves the work environment.
Assigning tasks to people is an implicit claim that you (the assigner) know better than them (the assignees). Even if this is true, it is still easy for a person to take offence. However, most of the time it is not true. People know themselves best. People are best at assigning tasks to themselves. And therefore, having one person assigning tasks to other people almost always leads to sub-optimal work distribution among the members of a team.
The ScrumMaster and Assigning Tasks
The ScrumMaster plays an important role in Scrum. Part of this role is to encourage self-organization on a team. The ScrumMaster should never be assigning tasks to team members under any circumstances. And, the ScrumMaster should be protecting the team from anyone else who is assigning tasks. If someone within the team is assigning tasks to another team member, the ScrumMaster should be intervening. The ScrumMaster needs to be constantly aware of the activity on his or her team.
I have added a video to YouTube that you might consider sharing with ScrumMasters you know about this topic:
Although subtle, having a public retrospective can do terrible damage to a Scrum team. In this video I explain what I mean by “public”, why it is so bad, and what you should do instead. This is part of a video series on the Myths of Scrum that is meant to respond to some of the most common mis-information (myths) about Scrum and Scrum practices. I will follow-up this video in several weeks with a written article complimentary to this video. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you have any topics that you would like me to cover in my video series!