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 …

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.

My grand daughter, who is 5 year old, operates my Samsung note better than me. Contemplating on why is it so – I spend almost couple of hours on note everyday myself – I realized that what makes her better is her childlike curiosity.

This curiosity to learn something new, day after day, every day.   When was the last time you learnt something new?  When was the last time you took a conscious step towards self-development? Curiosity to learn something must be backed by an innate desire to improve oneself, to become the best version of ourselves. It is the only way to remain relevant in the hyper-competitive markets today.

The same concept should be applied in the Agile projects, we are always running after getting the user stories done and churned out for the product owner. Yes, this is required, but one should step back and take a different view, are we learning anything new, have we added value to our existing knowledge base, are we much better skilled as compared to the start of the sprint, can we proclaim that we now know a trick or two.

When speak of adding value to our customers, shouldn’t we not add value to ourselves, as we are the first customers to ourselves

We always talk and speak about the improvement in velocity and team work, that cannot happen automatically, the organization needs to invest in this area, by providing and allowing a time-box element to each and every member of the team, I recommend a time-box of 5-10% of the sprint time allocated to each team member of the development team (on a different thought, it should include the scrum master and the product owner also). If the sprint cycle is 2 weeks (10 days = 80 hrs.), then the minimum time-box would be 4 hrs. / sprint to a maximum of 8 hrs. / sprint.

Organization should be aware that providing this time to learning and development will reduce the velocity in near term, but there would be major impact in terms of quality, knowledge gain, productivity improvements, team collaboration.

This time allocation should be used by the team members to improve their skills in any area of their interest, which would ultimately help the product to develop and grow better and thereby improve the required velocity. It should be the task allocated to the Scrum Master to ensure that all the team members are using this time-boxed element in the most productive way. One also needs to understand that a Scrum master would also be required to improve and master the skills that are important to the role that he / she is playing to.

Each sprint , the team should have a dedicated time and name it as – ‘Learning with Agility’.
• Define a dedicated time slot. It would be a good idea to have a time slot of 4 hrs planned in the early part of the sprint cycle in week 2
• This week, every sprint, learn a new thing – pick up a functional skill from a colleague, or improve the product knowledge, master an automation tool, learn new elements of coding (do a little unsaid spike)
• learn about a behavioural skill

Learning is not about mastering the hard skills, it includes all those elements that make you a better team member, a team player and more so a better person

Your learning is in your hands and you are the product owner of the product that is you. Take advantage of the fact that you spend 8 hours every day most of the week in an organization that promises you learning opportunities. You have, at your fingertips, access to a whole host of behavioural learning through social media , hundreds of thousands of articles in web, , ride the huge wave of Massive Online Open Courses with the many courses that are available online freely – make use of all these resources to better yourself today.

The above mentioned are but a few of the avenues for learning. Such platforms are present everywhere – the internet, libraries, even in day-to-day interactions with colleagues, it’s you who has to take the first step.

At the risk of re-iterating, I’d say again – that the onus of your learning lies with you. No one can help develop you but you yourself. This week and for the ones to come, promise yourself a week full of rich learning.

The day you stop learning, is the day you stop practising Agile ….. So Learn each day and be agile every moment