The monkey in the middle

Marital therapists earn their living, in large part, by creating a neutral space within which 2 “challenged” or possibly even antagonistic parties come together to explore issues, find harmony, or seek common ground.

Ten years ago, as an agile coach working on a Fortune 500 Financial Services Company’s Lean-Agile initiative, I found myself “holding space” for two distrustful and distant partners — the product group and the development team for the Pre-activation Marketing initiative. The dev group had a history of slipped deliveries and the two parties lived in separate buildings of their campus.

Establishing the shared vision, building the backlog, and sizing the release was the “therapy” in which these partners engaged. And all the while, I (as scrum master and agile coach) was neutral and facilitative, allowing the Product Owner to be vocal and present as the development team self-organized into a powerful unit.

The scrum master being the neutral, facilitating force between these two historically challenged parties (in this case the PO and the development team) made sense to me back in 2005. And in many ways it still does today.

What seems to have changed over the past decade is how people refer to and think of “the Team”.

The scrum guide published July 2013 talks of two distinct “teams”:


“The Development Team consists of professionals who do the work of delivering a potentially releasable Increment of “Done” product at the end of each Sprint. Only members of the Development Team create the Increment.”

“They [development team] are self-organizing. No one (not even the Scrum Master) tells the Development Team how to turn Product Backlog into Increments of potentially releasable functionality;”


“The Scrum Team consists of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.”


So when you (the reader) say “the team”, who are you referring to? Dev Team? Scrum Team? Something entirely different?

And what does self-organization look like within these two very different groups (scrum team and dev team)? Can self-organization occur at both of these levels?

Asking the Scrum Team to self-organize by itself (no neutral party but instead a “monkey in the middle” of the action — that would be the SM) feels very much like the marital therapist inserting him or herself in the middle of the couple — kinda weird!

Can a Scrum Team self-organize if nobody is watching? Nobody is listening? Nobody is facilitating? I’d like to know!!!

One thought on “The monkey in the middle

  1. I think there’s some benefit to describing a “development team” and a “whole team,” where the former is a subset of the latter. I hope that doesn’t feel like a cop-out on the question!! It’s better that everyone feel a part of what moves the ball downfield (rugby) rather than feeling there are greater and lesser players (American football, quarterback = product owner, for instance).

    And I definitely believe a team can self-organize without a facilitator “by title” … it is sort of a trivial truth that a self-organizing team doesn’t need an organizer from without. But it is a fairly rare team that really does self organize. Si Alhir has described that as the dirty secret of scrum, that teams are really actually not very good at self-organization. It depends on the maturity of the individuals and the culture of the company. Sadly, the project manager-centric project management culture tends to under-appreciate self-initiative, no matter how many 360 degree reviews are used.

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