How to manage sensitive issues in a team – What is the magic recipe?

Have we ever wondered how to handle and deal with a sensitive issue with our teams? How do we bring our observations that certain set of folks always like to dominate the discussions in all teams? How do we talk about the teleconferences always scheduled at the time which is most convenient to the Onsite team or where the management of the team is positioned? How do we mention that the team is caught in the group thinking mode and agreeing to poorly conceived decisions for the sake of team harmony?

In your role as a team member or the leader of the group, there are times when you need to bring up sensitive issues within the team, you should always begin with the self-awareness that something of relevance to the team’s functioning is occurring. You need watch and assess what you noticed and observe its impact on yourself, the other team members and team at large. You need to decide whether you should intervene or not, whether it should be dynamic? Will that be more helpful or harmful or not relevant at all.

Let’s assume you have decided to raise a sensitive, touchy issue in your team. To review how you arrived at this point, you need to pick the functioning of the team, the pattern observed. Your goal should be to get the team to explore the issue for its impact and decide what to do based on this exploration. How can we raise this issue in a way that is most likely to accomplish the goal?

Some interesting fundamentals are necessary for basic human relationship:

First talk about yourself, your feelings, your behavior, Make statements with ”I”: “I am thinking”, “I am feeling” … something on similar lines. Self-disclosing your own reaction to what’s happening is always the safest way to begin wading into potentially troubled waters.

Second, avoid using words that are pejorative, inflammatory terms, judgmental labels and generalizations, such things trigger words or phrases that flare the team members defensiveness and make it hard to respond for them to your comments.

There are 2 strategies, that I have experienced for making a decision on the level of focus and intervention. One is the “Deep end of the pool” approach. Intervene where you think the action is the hottest, if the whole team is caught in the groupthink act – supporting, agreeing and reinforcing with each other at the cost of in-depth investigating the issue on hand – jump into the deep end of the pool and say things like: “I think we are sacrificing the quality of our decisions for the sake of getting along and it makes me uncomfortable”. If you find one person dominating the discussion, it is just fine to say “Ash – it seems to me that we have been hearing mostly about your ideas on this issue, I would like to hear some of the thinking from the rest of the team”. This type of direct approach is likely to get the issue recognized and discussions going but it can’t be carried off comfortably by everyone, nor in every situation by anyone.

A different approach would be to focus where the action is less hot, the “shallow end of the pool”, once you have the team in the waters with you, you can begin to navigate them into the deeper side of the pool. You might like to create an individual focus like “Sam, I have seen you have started to something couple of times, but stopped and I am wondering if you have a different view or perspective on the issue that we are talking about”, Or the approach could be focusing on the team level directly and say “I think we need to revisit our team working agreements about how we handle conflicts between us”

Another factor to consider about raising the sensitive issue is the degree of intensity you want to build into your intervention.

Low intensity usually takes the form of carefully worded statements. This style helps to understand how an issue is dealt by the team and how they respond.

A moderate intensity usually consists of an observation followed up with a question, such intervention declares an issue and press the team to respond to it.

High intensity intervention really put pressure on the team, they usually consist of an observation and interpretation of the cause of the pattern observed. They are high intensity because they label the action with an interpretation of the underlying dynamics, their directness at times can be shocking to the team.

The point is that regardless of the type of intervention you are most comfortable with, you need to be able to effectively use all combinations, so you can match your choices to the contextual demands in the team at the time you are intervening

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Leading Dispersed Team – An Art or Science or a piece of Luck in your journey of excellence

Dispersed teams have members who are not in the same place, they come from different countries, cultures and time zones. Simply out, a dispersed team brings out elements where human-technology interactions, teamwork and communication among people separated by time, culture and distance. Dispersed teams have started to gain importance in organizations because of influence of international markets.

Coordinating the efforts of team members across differences and at the same time maintaining and boosting team effectiveness make up the challenge of leading a dispersed team
By default all successful teams need to be well designed, that would include purpose of the team, building project management expertise, defining clear roles, setting clear and crisp direction towards completing the work as planned or assigned.

Team work and trust both are important facets of building a great team and dispersed team is no alien to this concept.

Some elements to be taken into account would include:

  1. Keep the team informed of long-term organizational changes
  2. Ask the team for input on critical organizational issues
  3. Encourage personal contact and communication among all team members
  4. Hold face to face meetings (as much as possible and where required – Not do compromise

 

Dispersed teams require more direct and careful maintenance than local teams to reach their potential, for example one advantage of dispersed team would be working around the clock and thereby serve the customer with a greater degree of efficiency and effectiveness. Dispersed teams can be a richer source of innovation than a local team, Insights from team members / colleagues around the globe brings new dimensions to the work, influence how the product would be developed and delivered to the client.

Dispersed team should be encourages to:

  • Learn new communication approaches and technologies
  • Get exposed to new ideas and learning methods
  • Learn about different cultures
  • Develop capability to resolve problems in a 24 x 7 model

 

There is decent amount of challenges in managing a dispersed team:

  • Becomes more difficult to schedule common meetings
  • Identify overlapping hours
  • Robust infrastructure problems in effective communication
  • Members do not feel aligned to Org goals
  • Members feel or have not authority for decision making, too much politicking with internal stakeholders
  • Overall project management would be difficult

When launching a dispersed team, take care of the following:

  1. Assess the readiness of the organization to work with dispersed teams
  2. Create a goal / vision – communicate the vision
  3. Kick off with a face to face meeting (a take photograph and share it with the team)
  4. Plan how communication and Information sharing would happen
  5. Usage of standard tools and techniques
  6. Define cadence for meetings and other schedules
  7. Are there HR policies in place to deal with dispersed teams
  8. Kind of infrastructure required for effective communications
  9. Plan PTOs
  10. Identify local holidays and events and plan for them in the cadence
  11. Give authority for local decision making
  12. Are lower level employees empowered for decision making?
  13. Define approaches for conflict resolution
  14. Regularly recommend a get together of the whole team
  15. Approach to introduce new member to the team? – The How part?
  16. Develop guidelines for conflict management – Remember it is not one size that fits all
  17. Make space for cultural differences, respect all local rules of the game (still keeping the big picture in mind and view)
  18. Ensure you appoint a team member across location for logistics coordination / technology coordinator

Identification of team members to work in dispersed teams:

  • Team member would be willing work in a team environment
  • Are good self-starters and are self-directed
  • Are highly motivated
  • Have tolerance for the unexpected
  • Are open to experimentation
  • Are curious and exploratory
  • Seek out relevant information
  • Are willing to learn and un-learn
  • Are willing to play multiple roles (when the demand arises)
  • Are careful listeners
  • Are risk takers
  • Can build upon ideas of others
  • Enjoy working collaboratively

There is no standard recipe for a successful dispersed team, one would have to inspect and adapt, Issues will be there, it is how you respond to these issues, that will make or break a dispersed team concept successful or …

Teamwork – The ultimate approach to succeed

I am writing this blog, as I watch the World Hockey League Finals (India vs. Australia). It is a classic game, where the coordination, anticipation of the team members is required, one needs to know, when to pass the ball, whom to pass the ball, which would result in team work that is of utmost importance, it is a game of 11 team members (how cool, even Scrum team’s maximum size is also 11, 9 development team members, supported by Scrum Master and Product Owner).

No vision or strategy or technology can help an organization meet their operational goals and business objectives, if teamwork is not in place. Team work remains the ultimate competitive advantage for any organization to succeed and delight their customers. With this fact known to one and all, not sure, why it is the most neglected element of the system, we are all focused on productivity, velocity (oh this can be gamed). If you could have all the employees of the organization align and work towards the achievement of the vision and move forward in the same direction, one could rule / dominate any industry, in any geography, any market against any competition at any time.

For all the attention that this topic has received over the years from Guru’s of various industries and from the Agile Guru’s since last 2 decades, it is still one of the rarest commodities in any company. The fact remains that teams, because they are made up of imperfect human beings are inherently dysfunctional. It is not to say that is a doomed concept, but building an effective team with synergy and ethics in place requires patience, trust, empowerment and time. Building great teamwork is both possible and simple, but is painfully difficult.

Team members should remember that they would get respect or recognition not because of their individual brilliance or degrees each member would carry, but because they would have performed well as a team and delivered the desired results.

Managers and organizations should realize that building a team is like building a delicate eco-system of powerful force. It needs to be crafted with strategy and care and every piece counts as it brings you closer to the vision of your company. I believe that people join an organization and its journey to do their best and perform at their own peak. So as a Scrum Master your role is to trust them, provide them with safety net and be their cheer leader as they grow. A motivated work force can do wonders.

Effective teams don’t originate randomly. They are the result of Scrum Masters who lead by example and build healthy habits into the team’s dynamics. But sometimes things happen outside of the Scrum Master’s control, and some problems are harder to spot than others — a lack of diverse perspectives on a team, for example, means a team may be too comfortable to innovate.

All teams, even the great ones, often face challenges, periods of time when everyone finds it harder to work together effectively to create splendid work. There are several ways a team might become dysfunctional and usually, there are multiple reasons. Contributing factors might include burnout, personnel changes, a loss of key people, or unexpected changes in the market.

Let’s be clear, dysfunction refers to a deterioration of performance, inability to perform effectively as a team.

What are some signs your team could be nearing dysfunction? If you can recognize the symptoms of the problem, you can take steps to get your team back on track.

A Communication Breakdown 

A breakdown in communication is a clear sign of team dysfunction. It can manifest itself in sidebar conversations, low morale, decreased engagement, and even workplace bullying. The first step of a Scrum Master is take to the correct course to gain a clear understanding of the challenges — and its team members.

Absence of Trust 

Trust is the foundation of all successful teams and the absence of trust is a roadmap to dysfunction. Teams that don’t trust each other assume negative intentions, dread spending time together, and don’t ask for help from each other. Scrum Master should start cultivating trust by creating a culture of vulnerability, rewarding honesty, and most importantly, leading by example.

Unresolved Conflict 

People working together on teams will have conflict. However, if they don’t seem to be working it through and are holding on to resentments, it will lead to a failure to perform. Some signs to watch for: missing deadlines, gossiping, forming of cliques, complaining, and sub-par work products. Scrum Masters need to be watching for early warning signs and intervening as necessary.

A Mass Exodus of Talent 

If your turnover is very high, something is dysfunctional within the team. It could mean there is a lack of trust, the culture is oppressive, or the pay is not competitive. Create a formalized exit interview process to capture the sentiments of exiting employees and use this data to create change within the organization. Schedule regular employee meetings to assess needs and build engagement.

Withdrawal 

As teams turn dysfunctional, members start to withdraw — often before they’re even aware they’re doing it. They’re just not as invested in the process or the outcome. Scrum Master who sees less creativity, enthusiasm and communication needs to re-engage the team. Share project ownership. Help team members see how they each strengthen the team. Be generous with positive feedback.

Becoming Too Comfortable 

Teams become comfortable. Instead of diverse ideas, they “Groupthink.” This is ineffective. Productive teams need multiple perspectives. Team members must understand distinct roles, and respectfully challenge others. When teams “Groupthink” they avoid debate to the detriment of the team. Scrum Masters  can remind the team of their roles, review why the team is in place, and explain how it can best operate.

Lack of Decision-Making 

The inability to make decisions reflects the lack of cohesion and trust within a team. Conflict over decisions builds cohesion and transparency. When teams are stuck, they fail to move forward. Decisions are delayed, accountability is reduced due to lack of buy-in, which leads to delays, low productivity, and low morale. Lack of decision-making is a symptom of dysfunction and impedes all team progress.

The role of the Scrum Master – In Team building

One of the most difficult challenges for a Scrum Master would be to instill the concept of accountability in a team. At times strong Scrum Masters naturally create an accountability vacuum within the team, leaving themselves as the only source of discipline, this creates an environment where team members assume that the Scrum Master is holding others accountable, and so they hold back even they see something is not right.

Once a Scrum Master has created a culture of accountability on the team, however, he or she must be willing to serve as the ultimate arbiter of discipline when the team itself fails, though this should be a rare occurrence. It must be made clear to the team that accountability has not been relegated to a consensus approach, but merely to shared team responsibility, and that the Scrum Master would not hesitate to step in when it is necessary.

Perhaps more than with any of the other dysfunctions, Scrum Master should set the tone for a focus and result oriented approach. When the team members start to sense that the Scrum Master values anything other than the results, they will take that as permission to do the same for themselves. Scrum Masters must be selfless and with goal oriented mindset with success as the only target.

Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, highly bookish theory, but rather embrace common-sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.

Interestingly, teams succeed because they are human, by acknowledging their imperfections, members of the team overcome natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitments, accountability and a focus on results so elusive.

I am yet trying to understand as to why organizations find it difficult to create an atmosphere where teamwork can flourish.

 

 

 

 

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.

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).

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)

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.