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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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.