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Instinctual Drift

24 October 2013

Todd Wilson
Sawtooth Agile Inc.

Stress is building

So you've assembled your teams and even hired coaches and ScrumMasters to facilitate a successful outcome. Now it's down to the wire. Your two-year project is coming to the end. You've hit a cadence that will take you across the finish line in winning fashion. You can feel the tension coming from your boss. You are told to deliver, and deliver you will!

You're drifting

You've trusted your assembled teams and coaches. Life is good! However, the stress of the project is getting to some of your team members. You notice that one ScrumMaster is starting to come unhinged. Yes, you are informed by your coach of the impending potential carnage due to stress. You want to know more, so you decide to visit every daily stand-up to support your teams. You've never done this before . . . but now that it's go-time . . . you’re interested. You begin to see things you're not comfortable with, so you assemble your senior development staff to dig into the problem yourself. Now you've discovered dysfunctions that you know you can fix . . . so you decide to get involved even more . . . and more . . . and more. . . .

Command and control

Sound familiar? It could, as this is a typical response of a command-and-control manager. It is also a disastrous response. If you've been around for a while you have likely experienced this for yourself, or you may have been "that" manager. The manager above has given into instinctual drift. People can learn new behaviors, like Agile principles and Agile frameworks. However, under stress these same well-intentioned people may begin to revert back to instinctual behaviors. If a manager has worked in a command-and-control environment for the past 15 years, he or she has command-and-control instincts.

Command-and-control responses destroy Agile teams much more quickly than the time it took to build an Agile culture. This manager has become an impediment to the team and the project. If the project is a success, they will undoubtedly think that the effort the manager put in during this last month or so was the reason for the success. Consequently the manager may believe they need to perform this way at the end of every project or, worse, may completely derail an effort toward Agile transformation and go back to the command-and-control methods that may have seemed to be so successful.

What’s the big deal?

When an authoritative figure attempts to coach or mentor a team during the final phases of a project (and he or she has not done so previously), it is more probable than not that the team will view this action as the authority not trusting the team. The team may begin to believe that they are doing something wrong and will second-guess what they have learned. Pressure will create stress and stress will drive team members to their past behaviors rather than to newly learned behavior. The project that was on track has a greater potential of unraveling instead of ending with a glorious rollout. The more the authority figure tries to pull the project together, the further out of reach the finish line will become. I have seen this scenario get the best of many managers -- however, there is an antidote.

The antidote

Resist the temptation to step in. Instead, rely on the talented team that you personally amassed to bring your project to an end. If you need updates or you feel detached from the project, focus on a solution to resolve your lack of understanding rather than the urge to take control. Avoid being the authoritative (stressor) figure in the room. Be active with your teams during the sprint, participate in reviews, and offer thoughtful input. If you're active during the sprint, the team will hardly notice you as you watch them glide in for a perfect landing.

Some stress is good; however, if stress is having a negative impact on your team, it is your responsibility to relieve the harmful stress. Reassure your teams that you believe in them and what they are doing. Most important, ask what you can do for them. Do they need help resolving an impediment? Could the team benefit from additional resources, hardware, software, or personnel?

The key concept is to resist the urge to take over -- don't give in to instinctual drift.

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.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.4 (5 ratings)


David Lowe, CSP,CSM, 10/26/2013 4:37:58 PM
Hopefully if your team has been using agile for a while, they will push back on this old way of management - or at least raise it to the ScrumMaster/coach to step in. I'd be a bit wary of adding resource at the end if the project as someone's got to work with them to "get them up to speed" which could easily result in less output from the team and therefore another cause of missing that deadline.

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