Chicken or Egg – Who came first? Who chooses the Scrum Master for a Scrum Team (Define the MVP for the SM)?

For all those who have been to the gymnasium, let me present to you a concept, somewhat similar to catch 22 situations – of who chooses whom? Do you choose the gym and the personal trainer or the gym chooses you and allocates the trainer for you?

Will your gym trainer/coach refuse to train you on Day 1? Does the trainer say that you are not qualified to be his/her student? Or is it the other way around where you go and enroll in the gym and identify a trainer and figure out the way things work? If you are not happy with the coaching or advice you receive at the gym, are you allowed to change the trainer/coach or switch the gym? How does it work? I am sure, the customer always calls the shots. It is the service provider who is at the receiving end of the system and this I believe is the default rule in the game (whether it is right or wrong, it’s a matter of different debate for some other day.)

This leads me to think about the industry practices that have been nurtured over the period of years by pseudo Agilest and the so-called sponsors of the transformation game from traditional project management to Agile way of doing the job. Have we achieved success? Do expending millions of dollars justify? How do organizations measure ROI in their balance sheets? Nobody has a clue; the consulting organizations are making merry and laughing all the way to the bank.

Come to think about it, when I ponder on the reasons of failures. (Oh yes, Agile says “Fail Fast,” but not at the cost of losing millions down the drain.) One of the failure points could be the SCRUM MASTER (read the pun as SM is written in caps). Especially on how we appoint the Scrum Master.

  • How is the scrum master selected?
  • Who selects them?
  • Who should get involved in selecting the Scrum Master?
  • What consideration should be applied when identifying a Scrum Master for the role?
  • What characteristics & traits should one look for when selecting a Scrum Master?

Let’s explore how it is done today in our industry as compared to how should this happen?

Most of the times (9 out of 10), it would be the management who would appoint a person, whom they feel qualified for the job. However, the irony is that the Management would have little or no idea what that role entails. Experience has suggested that we find the job for the person rather than find the right person for the job.

At times, the selection process of appointing the Scrum Master has been dictated by the person who is on the bench and we are trying to find a project to make the person billable or the other approach as seen is to nominate a person close to the management.

In fact, according to Scrum co-founder Dr. Jeff Sutherland, great Scrum Masters can come from virtually any background or discipline (i.e., engineering, design, testing, product management, journalism, academia, social work, etc.), and their role is relatively simple:

  • Remove impediments
  • Guide the team in Scrum practices
  • Protect against outside interference

In a way, a Scrum Master closely resembles a personal gym trainer, where the trainer would not have any direct control over what you eat and how hard you work out. All they can do is inspire you through effective coaching, enablement and guidance, but the implementation of the same is in your hands.

Who should be or become the Scrum Master for your new team? Is it your current project manager, Tech Lead, or the functional manager? I would have to argue against the current industry practices and say, anyone but one of these above-mentioned roles.

During my past few interviews, I have discovered that potential candidates are highlighting achievements; such as managing and controlling more than 2-3 teams at the same time.  This reminds me of something that happened a few months ago, wherein I was asked, how many teams should a Scrum Master handle? For 2 minutes it made me think, of my past experiences as Project leader / manager, where in one was managing (or should I say was accountable) for multiple projects and we did not do justice to the projects (any one of them). My response to the person was very diplomatic. I responded, “A good Scrum Master manages two teams whereas an Excellent Scrum Master manages one team”

Although, understandably, the management usually wants a standard answer for who they should select to be the Scrum Master in this new work approach called “Agile,” it is not a one-size-fits-all answer. And the reason is because it depends on the person, the team and the environment. There are multiple factors that would impact the selection of the person for the role. It cannot be a cookie cutter approach, which is pretty much standardized, even in the same organization across 2 teams, the selections could vary (and they should vary, if the circumstances vary)

I think it’s a good question to ask, “Who decides the Scrum Master?” We often see that it is the management who decides, but they make the decision without knowing what Scrum is and more importantly, how it works. If possible, take this crucial decision to the team to see what they think. There needs some prudence in this, certainly, but we should rather lean toward making this statement of empowerment and trust of the team from the very start of adopting Scrum.

We commonly see Project Managers being given the role of Scrum Master. What makes a great Project Manager may not make a great Scrum Master. Often, the management wants Project Managers who can “get things done.” They drive performance and push the team. They may even micro-manage for results and visibility by tracking every task, status, risk, change and deviation from the plan. Management loves this (or, more truthfully, love the results). On the other hand, I’ve also seen Project Managers who provide management what they want (helping get more productivity and more visibility to progress, issues and options) by serving, empowering and trusting the team. If you are currently a Project Manager, which type are you? Experience over the years have identified that about 50% of project managers are on each side of the coin.

The industry has seen experienced managers taking the Scrum Master role. This, more often than Project Managers, has negative consequences, only the consequences are not so obvious, but these can be corrected more often and more easily than I’ve seen with Project Managers.

Some managers, due to their company’s culture and expectations, carry the responsibility of getting results from their people (for the projects their people are on). For these managers, even if they wanted to embrace the trans-formative qualities of the Scrum Master, the company culture will push back, and most often win. For managers in these tough positions, one would rather see them find someone else to be the Scrum Master, and then the manager can focus more time and energy towards the bigger need of being a heat shield, organizational impediment remover and management mindset and organizational cultural change agent.

The problem is much larger than we imagine or can think of; many questions are unanswered and the answer that are correct or atleast deemed right, the industry does not want to embrace them:

  • So what traits do we expect a Scrum Master to have?
  • How do we select a Scrum Master?
  • What skills do we want a Scrum Master to have?

Look for these ideas and thoughts @ selection of Scrum Master:

  • A person who understands and can practice servant leadership and facilitation
  • Always in pursuit of continuous improvement
  • A relationship person and can create a certain degree of influence with team members and other stakeholders
  • You need a person who is Humble, Ego-less, Collaborative in nature, Knowledgeable on Scrum (should kind of Google of Scrum / Agile Practices)

Getting all of the traits in a single person could be a near to impossible task, in case we do see that happening, find from above items, which are your critical success factors and what are things that are type of MVP (Minimum Viable Personality) for the Scrum Master role in your organization.

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Reverse Mentoring … Time for the Old Dog to learn some new tricks of the game

I own a new Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone which was recently purchased. It is a struggle to understand and get used to the  new settings and features. Where do I go to solve my issue, where can I seek the answers to my questions? I had no clue until my daughter came to my rescue to solve the current issues on hand and explained me how to use the gadget. This led me to thinking that over the years I have been coaching / teaching / explaining her different things and now she is becoming my coach / mentor / problem resolution person. She is my go-to person for the phone at-least.

Do we all face or have similar kinds of situations / problem at our own work place / organization? To larger degree Yes, but we all fail to recognize the issue and its relevant impact. We do not want to acknowledge our own short comings as they would show us in bad light and put our own experience to shame.

What are the current market demands? What is the organizations expectation from myself … well we all need to understand ……

  • Larger and more global organizations function
  • Impact of changing global economy is relevant to our work
  • Leaner organizational structures, less is more
  • More dynamic labor markets
  • Increased importance of human capital (well that is the only raw material one needs in the system)
  • Enhanced leader pipeline to offset demographic trends
  • Growing leadership capacity
  • Developing strong leaders

Organization have a decent budget for their L&D department, who are in turn tasked to upgrade skills of their current employees or make them more deploy-able. Many companies try to increase diversity with earnest training sessions. Has this ever-going experiment yielded results? What is the ROI that the L&D team can show? Is the budget really justified? No, I am not against the training’s / workshops conducted (well that’s my own bread & butter), but I am questioning the method and the way the money has been spent.

If one see’s the trends and graphs of the L&D, there is hardly any sessions / workshops planned for the Leadership team. At times, the argument is that LT does not have time available to attend these sessions, if they do not have time for improving their own productivity, which in turn impacts the whole organization, I always wonder, how could they improve their own business unit or the organization and take it to the next level.

How do we overcome this issue?

Well the solution is “Reverse Mentoring”.

Reverse Mentoring is a novel concept that is gaining popularity in today’s fast-paced, tech-savvy world. Have you ever wondered what reverse mentoring is all about? Here are some answers to a few frequently asked questions on reverse mentoring.

Reverse mentoring is an approach that acknowledges everyone in the organization brings something to the table. Reverse mentoring partnerships generally include an older, more experienced executive with a younger, less-experienced newcomer. As the name suggests, the younger employee serves as the mentor. Yet, reverse mentoring is indeed a two-way street (at times this can be hard to digest for the senior folks in the organization, how can a junior coach me … well this is the mindset that needs to change)

On one hand, reverse mentoring gives Senior folks an opportunity to stay up-to-date with the latest business technologies and workplace trends. On the other, it helps junior employees see the larger picture and gives them a glimpse of macro-level management issues. Reverse mentoring also increases retention of millennial employees and gives senior executives the satisfaction of sharing their knowledge with the next generation. It increases multi-generational engagement and reduces conflicts between generations in the work place. More importantly, it is not a one-way traffic.

At one of my own customer, they started a reverse mentoring program, the aim was to train CXO in the tools and culture of social media. With entry-level employees in their twenties as mentors, the business leaders soon began to appreciate the power of “searching” for answers on the spot, and they wanted others in the company to benefit from the same flexibility. As a result, social networks that were previously off-limits to company employees were now unlocked. It also helped boost morale and retention of younger employees at the firm

How do we implement Reverse Mentoring @ our work Place?

Well here some ideas and thoughts to start with …

Identify / Find a perfect match

Reverse mentoring involves two people with extremely different experiences, backgrounds and cultures; therefore, creating the ideal mentoring partnership is vital. Choose mentors who possess good social skills and have the confidence to interact with and teach senior management.

Set a level playing field

Start the reverse mentoring program with a fun and informal orientation. The orientation should give the mentors and mentees an opportunity to interact with each other as individuals – not as the boss or as the newbie who is fresh out of grad school. This will set the stage for the entire program and in time help erase traditional hierarchies.

Set specific formal goals but allow space for individual innovation

It is important to list out what the reverse mentoring program aims to achieve in general, for all participants. However, each mentoring partnership is unique. Mentors and mentees may also enjoy and benefit from helping each other in ways not defined by the program. A young mentor might help a C-suite Exec on how to use the gadget or a CEO might share tips on how a new entrant can advance his / her career. So, factor in the need for informal goals to be met as well.

Consider program automation

If your program has many participants, consider using software to help run your program. It can help you make mentor matches, track progress, and report on results to help you measure program ROI.

Track and Measure Mentoring Outcomes

We always say, measure, measure, measure! It’s the only way to determine what your results might be and prove to senior folks that the program is working. The key to this is determining what you’ll be measuring. Something like employee satisfaction, while nice to have, probably won’t be enough to prove the importance of your program. I suggest focusing on tracking metrics like retention of employees who participated in the program as compared with those who didn’t. Of course, it’s also important to track other information too, such as changes that are happening because of the program and positive feedback, especially from the higher-ups who may be getting mentored for the first time in years.

Reverse Mentoring – A Key Component of Cultivating a Talent Strategy

Remember, reverse mentoring is just one aspect of a comprehensive talent strategy and it’s important to build that out. Comprehensive talent strategies are imperative for refining and retaining employees. They are beneficial in providing both a clear path to success for employees, as well as cultivating successful long-term employees. Research finds that organizations that perform well on business outcomes have a talent strategy and we do hope that you’ll implement reverse mentoring as part of that.

Concluding thoughts …

Reverse mentoring is an innovative use of mentoring. It emphasizes the idea that learning never stops while supporting the idea that the young have something to teach, which is why we see so much interest around it. Consider implementing at your organization to support your talent development goals.

Reverse mentoring puts a face to a concept—it’s easier to ignore a slide show than the compelling young person in front of you.

Now come to think of it, can this be applied in Scrum Teams? Why not, can the Scrum Master learn innovative ideas, thoughts and concepts from a fresher in the team?

Will the Old Dog (Scrum Master) be ready to take a leap of faith and trust the team members to move its own career ahead?

Should I remind that it is needless to, that we need to inspect and adapt (Agile should be a part of our DNA by now).