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Beware of the Meltdown

A CSP Shares Her Meltdown Stories and Tips for Avoiding Your Own

10 September 2010

Carrie Schonhoff
QBE Insurance

It happens when you least expect it. At some point when a Scrum team is just forming (despite training, agreeing on team rules, and doing some team building), most teams experience a meltdown. The good news is that once the meltdown has passed, these same teams really start to understand the Scrum framework.  

From Fear to Trust

This phenomenon is not unique to Scrum. I think it happens to all of us when faced with a change that we are not prepared for. I remember when my company changed its health insurance coverage and doubled the premium. I had a meltdown!  I started thinking, “How could this happen?” “I had no idea!” “Why do we have to pay that much?” Once I talked to a couple of people and commiserated with them, I began to accept the fact that I had no choice and this was the way it was going to be from now on. I moved on. After I got over the initial shock, the changes from Human Resources didn’t seem as harsh – I understood that changes to benefits were a given.

This is how it is with Scrum. We often react defensively as a kneejerk reaction to the changes Scrum brings. It challenges the way we’ve thought about not only projects, but how we have worked in the past as well. We're forced to confront the big picture we’ve been sheltered from, yet we find it hard to see it clearly. We aren't sure how to problem-solve. And now that no one is feeding us our tasks, we are supposed to think of what to do on our own. It can be overwhelming.  

But once we get past our initial fear, we began to feel the energy and the possibilities that Scrum brings. With Scrum, we not only get used to the idea of constant change but we actually begin to enjoy it. Scrum is a chance to do something new, to think about things in a different way than we have in the past. It’s like moving to a new city—a fresh start. It’s challenging to be sure. But instead of wasting time thinking about why we don’t like the change, we can think about how we can make the change be a positive one. We own the change; we take charge of what needs to get done. We work together to accomplish the stories and projects. It’s powerful. It can take a team to the next level of efficiency and productivity. Self-organizing, empowered team members make the project a success. 

To get team members to that powerful stage, however, we need to help them embrace the Scrum methodology and dump the fears they have. The most explosive meltdowns I have seen happened because the team members felt threatened. They react with cries of “You’re not my boss!" "You can’t tell me what to do!"  "Why did they take the project that I’ve been working on?" "That's my job.”  I can’t tell you how many times I have had to say, “It’s not about me. It's not about you. It's about the work.” 

Job one, then, is to build trust and respect. Until those elements are in place, Scrum doesn't truly resonate with teams. It’s not always easy to achieve, but it’s worth the effort.

Tips for Success

From my experience working with new teams, I've compiled a list of tips on how to get through (and possibly avoid) the meltdowns:

  1. Stop to talk. Have face-to-face “drive by” chats with team members on a regular basis. Sometimes team members wouldn’t conform to the structure we had in place to setup stories. Rather than try to force them, I came to realize that they would respond much better to a phone call or chat. I had a piece of humble pie, talked to them about the work and the reasons we were doing things in a certain way, and asked if I could help put their stories on the wall. Once they felt heard, they were able to buy in to our process. 
  2. Encourage honesty. Team members to have the courage to speak frankly and respectfully in meetings. I’d rather have someone yell at me because she is upset than to sit in resolute silence. Without feedback, the team will perish.
  3. Make it fun. Show that you can have fun and so can the team. Put little toys in the Scrum room; bring color and light into the room. Have a short team-building session once in a while. Even if you think it’s cheesy, it can really bring the team closer.
  4. Be a steady ScrumMaster. This is easier said than done sometimes. Keep your cool, be humble, ask questions – especially follow-up questions. Smile, be upbeat, facilitate the meetings without it feeling like roll call. The team members need to know it’s their meeting, not your micro-managing meeting.
  5. Listen. This is the hardest one of all.  Just listen to what they are saying. What is it that is creating the angst?  Is it you or the way you say or present things? Is it a former boss? Is it a teammate? Is it a combo-platter? Once the team member knows that you understand where they are coming from, they can move on.

One thing I’ve learned is that this change to Scrum is worth it. There are challenges, yes, but the rewards are great.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Alan Shalloway, CSM, 10/8/2010 8:13:03 AM
Perhaps the way is to avoid the meltdown altogether. Here's an extract from a blog of mine called the Real Differences Between Kanban and Scrum ( ).

...And the Biggest Difference: Controlled Change Management

All of these differences allow Kanban to do something Scrum cannot: Manage the rate of change of your transition. This is the biggest difference between Scrum and Kanban. With Kanban you can start where you are and slowly tune up the rate of process change by managing your work in progress limits. Scrum, on the other hand, often requires dramatic changes to an organization. If cross-functional teams don't exist, creating them may be traumatic or virtually impossible. Even if they can be created, the level of change required often leaves an organization in chaos and the members of the team wondering what to do.

Using Kanban to start Scrum is a way to make a smooth transition when the team can't handle a big one. The two are not incompatible with each other.

Alan Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives

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