They’re NOT Overhead!

GAH!  Do you ever hear that statement in relation to stand-up, planning, retro and demo?  I do.  I hear it far more often than I would like to.  Often I hear it’s because the Scrum Master isn’t good.  It’s not just a Scrum Master responsibility though and, generally, that’s not the case.  Sure, for a new team, there’s a need for the Scrum Master to facilitate and teach.  No doubt about it but, when a team is knowledgeable about Agile and Scrum AND has been together for a while, the team can own the solutions too.  However, sometimes, you hear other reasons why I think a team member would feel this way:

1.  The ceremonies (I really can’t stand that word) aren’t useful to the team members and take WAY too much time prepare for and conduct.

2.  The team wasn’t listening during all that training about what they’re for, who they’re for and who owns making them useful and productive.

Too often, I also hear people blame training for the reason things aren’t working or say training is THE answer to the problem.  Since I disagree with this more often than not, I’m going to focus on number 1.

Stand Up – It’s for THE TEAM.  It should take no more than 15 minutes and you answer the 3 questions (when you’re just starting out).  If it’s taking longer and it feels statusy, then, you’re doing it wrong.  It’s not just the Scrum Masters job to point this out and keep the team on track.  Come to stand up prepared.  Don’t just look at the board once a day.  Listen to what your team mates are saying and get in the practice of holding each other accountable.

Planning – It’s for THE TEAM.  It’s when you decide what items to pull off the product backlog and how you will as a team execute.  It takes a while when a team is starting out.   If it’s still taking an inordinate amount of time and feels like overhead, get to the heart of WHY it is that way.  Maybe the team isn’t focusing.  Maybe the stories aren’t written well.  Grumbling about it being overhead won’t fix it though.  It WILL make it worse.  Discuss, investigate and experiment but don’t continue to complain about it.

Retro – It’s for THE TEAM.  It’s where the team takes time for themselves to reflect on how they’re working as a team.  It’s to identify ways to improve – AS A TEAM.  To me, it’s the most important of the ceremonies (there’s that word again).  If it’s not useful, read Esther Derby and Diana Larsen’s book on the topic: Agile Retrospectives:  Making Good Teams Great.  Continuous improvement is a Hallmark of a high performing team.  If you’re complaining it’s overhead, you’re not on one and you should do something about it.  By doing something about it I do not mean you should leave the team.  I do mean you should step up, learn and apply it.

Demo – It’s for THE TEAM to demo to their Stakeholders how they delivered on their commitment.  It’s to get feedback and show off how awesome the team is.  If it feels like overhead b/c you’re prepping for three days for it.  STOP prepping for three days for it.  It shouldn’t be onerous.  It should be demonstrative.  As a team, decide how you will conduct demos going forward and start experimenting.

Teams are empowered.  Team members are empowered.  You don’t need to wait for someone else to fix it.  As a team member, you can and should fix it.  Your Scrum Master can help.  If you really, really want to lose the “pain” associated with the ceremonies (dang it!) learn how to make them effective as they’re described and, as you mature, modify them to suit the needs of your team.   Also, you need to want to be a part of a team and a solid, if not high-performing one, at that.  Teams need to start somewhere and complaining isn’t starting.  It’s just complaining. Teams succeed or fail as a TEAM.  That applies to how they work together as much as the product(s) they deliver.

There Is More Than One “RIGHT” Way

After Scrum Mastering many teams, I have seen all kinds of approaches used to resolve a team issue or challenge.  When I observe Coaches or Scrum Masters advice being offered with some insistence thrown in, I cringe a little. The reason why I cringe is because I used to be the person giving the “advice” with insistence.  And, let’s be honest,  it wasn’t advice.  It was direction.  Rather than advising, I have tried to learn offering.

Offering recognizes the teams status as an empowered, self-organizing unit.  They can choose to accept your offer in whole or in part.  They can also reject it and that’s OK.  Teams need to chart their own course, try their own way and experiment.  When they’re successful, it’s all theirs.  When they’re not the learning is all theirs too and they will incorporate it into their next adventure.  However…..

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different results. – Albert Einstein

Sometimes, you have to put your foot down.  For example, when a team is constantly committing (but not really) to too many story points in a sprint and can’t understand WHY they’re not able to complete them, putting a cap on points in the next sprint is a good thing to do (IMHO). That said, a lot will depend on the team.  Are they honest with each other? Are they honest with themselves?  Are you willing to have your advice followed, be unsuccessful and mess with the teams’ sense of empowerment? What is it you want them to learn?  Really ask yourself tough questions before putting your foot down and identify other avenues to help return sanity to the team.  Make sure your motivation and intention is pure.

No two teams are alike.  What worked for one may or may not work for another.  Google, offers multiple routes to get us from point A to point B but, the selection is in our own hands.  The same should be true for teams.  There is more than one “right” way and you’re not a traffic cop.

Be a Virus

Through this transformation journey, I have had the opportunity to interact with and train many teams.  Some team members are brand-new to Agile.  Others have “been there and done that”.  My main goal with any audience is to be a virus.  I want to infect them with the enthusiasm I have for Agile and hope they infect others in turn.  I hammer on the concepts of self-managing and empowered.  I give examples.  They ask me how to solve problems and I put the control and the solution creation right back into their hands.

At the end of my time with these folks, invariably, I’m asked “I hear you.  I believe you.  Do others?  Do my managers?  Do their managers?”  I have to be honest in my response and the answer is:  Not Yet.

I then go on to encourage them to challenge the status quo.  Walk the walk.  And all kinds of other optimistic yammering.  If self-managing, self-organizing and empowered teams are a foundation of a highly-performing Agile team why, then, is it so difficult to allow it?

I can think of a couple reasons:

1.  Managers don’t know what their place is if this concept should become reality.

2.  Teams had tried, multiple times, and been beaten down.

3.  Not enough has changed around them to lead them to believe anything is really and truly different.

I’m sure some of this goes back to the culture shift and not paying enough attention to it but, not every organization can get it right with culture off the bat.  So, I’m back to the grass-roots effort of training and being viral.

In every class, I can spot the people who really get it.  I can see their understanding.  They nod.  They challenge.  They ask questions.  They begin answering the questions of others.  Ah, my little lovely germs.  You will help spread this, first, in your own team and others will soon be infected.

If you have a few brave souls willing to “walk the walk”, the team will be a degree closer and so will the organization.  I’m realizing that small, little degrees of change are so much better than no change at all.  It’s like change requests in a waterfall project.  Individually, they’re no big deal.  Collectively, they’re overwhelming and will crush your best-laid plan.

As a Scrum Master, I should add ground zero to my resume.  All Scrum Masters should.  Infect your team members.  Protect them and make it safe for them to “walk the walk”.  Make it so no vaccine can possibly crush an empowered team member.