Reducing Cultural Debt – An Element that Management & Scrum Master needs to understand

What is that we are discussing?

Some of the problems that multi-cultural virtual teams or even co-located teams experience include: time delays in replies, lack of synergy among cross-cultural team members, communications breakdowns, unresolved conflicts among members, limited hours allowed to be worked and different holidays (happens with virtual teams).  All of the above lead to bad productivity and finally a loss to the organization and the customer (eventually to the society at large).

What is a cultural debt?

Cross-cultural teams can have their fair share of problems once the novelty of interacting with new people fades. From simple issues like understanding language idioms to more complex work culture issues, there is scope of a varied set of unique problems. Global organizations are transferring people increasingly to other countries which creates cultural diversity within work teams. Though teams are now an accepted form of planning, strategizing and operation, team based management techniques are still evolving world over and when you introduce the additional element of cultural diversity, it throws a whole new spanner in the works!

Problems are further complicated by the Management

A major problem is the way the scrum team is structured and organized. We have seen in recent past that team members are spread across geographical location across the country / globe. Distributed teams have different needs and requirements, but somehow, all of us believe, think and apply the same approaches as we would do it with the local teams (can we agree that even local teams are badly managed)

Managing the virtual team is a task in itself. Scrum Masters must be aware of particular issues in order to avoid any potential problems / conflicts. In building the virtual teams, Scrum Master must be able to understand the diversity in international cultures so that understanding the trait is a success. If there is trust within a team, communication becomes simpler. Scrum Masters must ensure that all parties in the virtual team can participate and benefit from the interaction. Some individuals need guidance and direction while others are more independent. E.g. part of the development is from Japan (a country who believes in working in teams and don’t seem to mind being directed and pushed). And if the other part of the team is in US , then it will be common to go an extra mile alone and without seeking support from team. This is important to remember when managing virtual teams

Potential Problems Areas in Cross Cultural Teams:

Communication, Language and Expression

The quality of communication is a key concern in cross cultural teams. Everybody could be speaking English, but certain forms of slang or colloquialisms may not be clearly understood leading to misinterpretations. Teamwork is a collective effort and all the players must fully understand the direction that the discussion is taking. Misinterpretations can be kept to a minimum if everybody aims for clarity, otherwise team effectiveness is bound to suffer. To prevent problems associated with miscommunication, team members must be encouraged to check with each other for clarity either through paraphrasing or by asking questions. Paraphrasing basically involves restating a point and then asking – “Is that what you meant?”

Communication problems are particularly significant in cross cultural ‘virtual’ teams. Here is an example of two kinds of problems with virtual teams:

  1. The international virtual team that typically interacts across continents and countries, to collaborate on a common task. This is almost always a cross cultural team.
  2. Virtual teams within the same country or city when a part of the team opts for telecommuting – they use email and other forms of telecommunication technologies to coordinate work.

Both types of teams will work on a project without regular face-to-face interaction, and therefore have to make their written email communication and telephone conversations as clear as possible. They also have to develop a work ethic of prompt response to queries, if this is not forthcoming it can be a little unnerving and there is no chance of you dropping by the office of your team colleague to discuss the issue.

In the global virtual team with its cross cultural mix of people, it should be expected that some amount of ambiguity is bound to creep in. Care has to be taken with wordings especially when there is disagreement on an issue. Even mildly sarcastic comments meant as a joke can be misinterpreted by a team member in another country and cause a conflict.

Information gaps are another problem area for the virtual cross cultural team. Everybody must be on the same wave length as far as information and data goes. These teams can greatly benefit from ‘Groupware’ software, a relatively recent concept in networking using multi-user technology. This kind of software allows access to a shared database, provides email services, allows sharing of work files, allows online chats, scheduling, and tracking of joint projects. Companies are paying a lot of attention to the use of the right technology to make communication and collaboration among virtual teams effective.

The other issue with international virtual teams is decision making. Decision making is a team activity and given the time zone differences, the team has to find a mutually agreeable time band for direct communication through conference calls or video conferencing. If there is a great deal of divergence and disagreement on the right course of action to be adopted, then a stalemate may be reached. The team may need to follow up with lots of explanatory emails and calls before they reach a consensus.

Work Style

Work styles and approaches may also vary when a team has a cross-cultural mix of individuals. Some work cultures foster individual thinking and offer rewards for individual contributions– like the American’s for instance. In some work cultures people are uncomfortable with independence on the job and prefer to be tied to the apron strings of the boss in decision making! When your team has a mix of styles, the individualistic team members may prove to be aggressive team players while the not-so-individualistic ones may merge into the team and outwardly seem to contribute very little to the team process. It is important to draw out and get the best out of all the team members despite the differences in personality types. 

Dominating Influences

There are concerns that a section of the team that has a certain cultural similarity or homogeneity may attempt to dominate the team process and overrule the rest of the team. The dominant group within the team may try to swing decisions towards a direction that they are comfortable with. This can create a frustrating environment for the rest of the team.

Motivators and Expectations from the Job

Motivators are basically the factors that indicate the things that make a person tick in a business and team environment. Team leaders who handle cross-cultural teams usually find that the factors that motivate each team member vary. It is essential to make the effort to gauge individual motivators in order to encourage and motivate each team member to excel at their roles. In the absence of the right stimulus, the individuals may lack the enthusiasm and drive necessary to perform their role within the team

Making it Work

Cross cultural teamwork is going to increase as businesses expand on a more global scale meaning that people from diverse backgrounds interact on a regular basis as a team. Many large corporations have clients with whom they work across multiple countries and these clients look for integrated global solutions. In such a scenario the cross cultural team has a definite advantage in being able to understand the needs of their clients better.

The key to making the multi-cultural team work well, is focusing on the objectives of the team. The objective is the team output that a cross cultural team can potentially deliver. Team output is usually better when there is diversity of experience among the team players. This applies to any team output, whether or not multi-cultural. The chances of drawing out innovative thinking gets amplified when there is diversity. This is the factor that works in favor of cross cultural teams.

The problems and conflicts are certainly going to be there just as one would have conflicts and problems within teams who belong to the same market. Pre-emptive measures in areas like communication, information sharing, motivation drivers, and group dynamics are called for to assist in the cross-cultural team process. The goal should be to try and build on the strengths of such cross-cultural teams, minimize conflicts, and diffuse the occasional miscommunication that diversity creates.

DiSC – An approach to create the right team balance

Use DiSC profiling an approach to select the team and its members, It is an important element to understand that Agile / Scrum would work not on plans, but on “TEAM CHEMISTRY”. Organizations need to invest to reap the benefits.

Not having the right team and members with a right mind-set would not help the cause of the Agile or the organization trying to adopt / implement the new thought process.

DiSC profile is a non-judgmental tool used for discussion of people’s behavioral differences. The DiSC model provides a common language that people can use to better understand themselves and adapt their behaviors with others – within a work team

DiSC profiles help you and your team:

  • Increase one’s self-knowledge: how one responds to conflict, what motivates? what causes stress and how do we solve problems?
  • Improve working relationships by recognizing the communication needs of team members
  • Facilitate better teamwork and minimize team conflict
  • Develop stronger negotiating skills by identifying and responding to customer styles
  • Manage more effectively by understanding the dispositions and priorities of employees and team members
  • Become more self-knowledgeable, well-rounded and effective leaders

What does DiSC stand for? What do the letters mean

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Last but not the least …. If you want to win a lottery (read as … better agile adoption and transformation), you would have to buy a lottery ticket (read as … invest in team building, getting the right people, good infrastructure, education, awareness and Leadership aligned to the agile thought process)

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Stress Management – New Skill that a Scrum Master needs to learn and master

All of us experience stress to some degree regularly, but stress on a leader is comes from unique situations, limitations, demands of the system, environment, the behavior of the stakeholders, lack of control of the environment or just some personal insecurity.

Research has shown the Scrum Master experiences same level of stress from different sources e.g. Product Owner, Stakeholders, Development teams or other Scrum Masters, but reasons for the stress that they feel would differ, as this would typical depend on the source of the stress.

Why Scrum Master Role is full of Stress?

By definition, Scrum Master role requires you to be out in front of the people, rarely there would be a standard path or approach that one could follow. There are no readily available answers to the acute problems as faced by them. Scrum Masters often would be required to make critical decisions based on the limited information and just as often the customers, PO, Development team, sponsors or the management would hold them accountable for those decisions.

Lack of control – By definition the SM role does not have any authority or control on the people issues (meaning all the HR related matters). SM’s often have to negotiate with the stakeholders, directors or sponsors and try to use their own power of influence, all of these are recipes for stress.

Every good news or a achieved success is a source of stress, reason: expectations are set, Bar of performance has risen and the whole universe now expects day-in and day-out that you and your team would be delivering improved results every sprint – A new source for stress.

Building relationship, show the traits of Servant Leadership. Role of the SM requires them to coordinate and collaborate with different stakeholders, each of them brings unique challenges due to their individual characteristics. Managing conflicts takes different forms. No standard approach or technique can be applied. It again depends on the situation right personal disputes to political games (mind you organization have major politics) – All of these are sources of stress.

Scrum Masters must shoulder a high degree of expectations from various elements of the organization. Each of them expects results in the form of success since failure is not an Option (all of management forgets that Agile is all about FAIL FAST and INSPECT & ADAPT). Scrum Masters often feel the pressure of having to know all the answers and make all the right decisions and also be ready to face the consequences of the decisions that they make.

WHEN STRESS IS WHO and NOT WHAT

Scrum Master has to start recognizing that it is not important to define what is stress about, but to identify WHO is the source of stress? If you feel that your boss does not show his support to your decision or respect your authority, then this will contribute towards elevation of stress. So, BOSS could be a source of stress

One of most general source of stress is your peer community. A competitive environment and lack of cooperation from your peers is going to induce new levels of stress (quite different then ones you get from the Boss). Think about your relationships with your peers, do they:

  • Compete rather than collaborate?
  • Focus on their own individual outputs rather than the group’s achievements?
  • Act overly about who gets the credit for getting the job done?
  • Lack of inclusion and Trust

Your team would be the next in line. Think about your relationships with your team, do they:

  • Lack commitment?
  • Resist changes?
  • Expect you to solve all the problems / issues / impediments?
  • Fail to implement plans or complete their own tasks?

It may be worth noting that not all stress is bad. The problems associated with stress arise when demands put on you outweigh the resources and coping strategies you have to meet those demands. The key as Scrum Master is to know which stress is which, how to judge your reaction to situations and how to manage the negative type.

Handling the pressure in the job of Scrum Master is necessary. One needs to know what signs of stress to look for, and have a strategy for increasing your resources so that you can manage the leadership stress that comes your way.

Managing the stress is the new skill that Scrum Master would be required to acquire. Stress is now a part of everyday life, but consequences of stress can be serious. By understanding the nature of stress, once can find ways to adapt and thereby be more effective in their career. Things you can do to better manage your stress include knowing the signs / signals, taking breaks, setting boundaries between work and home, building a support system, organizing and streamlining your work, building in recovery time, exercising and creating positive eating habits.

Finally – Implementing Agile or Scrum or anything new, requires courage, that would require in turn learning to manage the “NEW STRESS”, that comes along with it.

Bye for now.

 

Influence – The only tool that a Scrum Team needs

Influence is an essential component in any project, organization or relationship. At times in Organization or in a project, your position in the system is not sufficient or adequate to motivate people to do what you need / ask or want. Influence is the key solution to this problem. Developing your influencing skills can help you gain commitment from people at all levels in the organization or a project.

Leaders are often challenged in learning this skill on how to influence different & diverse set of stakeholders. One cannot apply a single standard approach or technique, even with the same stakeholder, with different situations the techniques would be required to be changed or modified. Knowledge alone is insufficient, but it reminds leaders that positive results often depend on variety of different influence tactics.

By considering whom you want to influence, one can settle for a tactic that is likely to produce the best results. Reviewing the outcome of those events creates an opportunity to learn from experiences and to become a more influential leader and a more powerful contributor to your organization’s / projects on-going success.

People forget that Influence has more power than formal position in an organization or a project.

Speaking about Scrum teams and the 3 roles it has. Each of the role is a leader in their own rights and approaches, each role brings different flavors to the table, each of them requires to possess this skill of influencing to have the work completed.

For example, Product Owner would be required to influence the stakeholders, business users on which PBI’s to be prioritized, what business value it would bring as compared to the other items on the backlog, On the other hand the PO would also be required to influence the development team on adopting his / her strategy or agree on the order of development. In the entire contrast the development team would have to influence the PO why a particular item should not be prioritized for the current sprint (could be due to technical issues or dependencies with other PBI’s or dependencies with other Scrum teams), development team should also exercise the idea of influencing the Scrum Master to help understand which impediments requires more urgent attention of theirs as compared to the others or how a process should be adopted based on their teams requirements. Development team needs this tool most during estimations of various PBI’s (when the entire team is supposed to estimate and come to a consensus to a common ground or a bare minimum agreement that all of us can live with or atleast nobody is opposing it, though it may not be their 1st choice).

Coming to the last character of this play i.e. Scrum Master, well this one must influence the PO, the team, stakeholders, sponsors, business owners (where and when required), the strategy of influence would change depending on the role that needs to be influenced. SM should and must influence the PO to emphasis the idea on how to maximize the ROI from the development team, or Influence the development team on an approach, idea or a new concept to be experimented.

At times, due to business exigencies PO may be required in the middle of the current sprint to change a PBI item (yes, this goes against the Agile principles and values), this is a place where logical discussions (with the development team) take place and discussions have to be more of influencing (in nature) and selling the concept of why a particular PBI is more important and how would it hurt the business if not done now.

Sometimes during sprint planning meeting, when the development team has a little bit of spare capacity, it needs to influence the PO to not push for more PBIs but allow them to focus on technical excellence or reduction of technical debt or refactoring the code / design or spending a few available hours to learn a new feature or experiment something that can be of larger use to the system / project later.

What power cannot achieve, influence can. It is a tool that should be used instead of power, it also shows the influencer’s ability to motivate people / resources to act according to a given situation or the respond to an issue in desired manner (which otherwise would not be the case).

We all influence the other party (or a person) to act in your favor or bring them to the alignment of your thought process

There is no dearth of ideas / situations where this influence as a theory can be applied to get the desired results for the success of the project.

Influence as a strategy to be successful requires, the influencer to understand the psychology, social psychology and dynamics of human politics, Technical competency are no longer enough to succeed. It is important to note that you cannot influence what you do not understand.

Influencing as a strategy would work, when you start to identify your own personal values and that of others. Each situation of influence one faces is circumstantial and this is a dynamic process and which would require to judge the factors (on ground and as per situation).

The following are the recommended steps to be followed:

  • Preparation (Intelligence gathering, mental preparation)
  • Pleasantries (rapport building and management of impressions)
  • Position (reaching a common understanding of the current situation)
  • Problems (Coming to an agreement about the issues associated and build a case around it)
  • Possibilities (Not locking yourself to a single approach / solution, but negotiating around a range of possibilities, create a sense of joint decision-making process)
  • Preference (By explaining your thoughts and ideas, you seek you get agreement on specific action that should be taken)
  • Proposals (Skills of persuasion required, appealing to both logic and emotions, showing at times assertiveness in stating what you want and to build the proposal collaboratively)
  • Proactivity (leading the other person / party to take action and getting commitment to proactive positive action)

Finally; a word of caution: Influencing comes with a theory of adaptability.

As we say in Agile … Inspect and Adapt …