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ScrumMastering by Clarity of Distance

26 September 2013

In my experience as ScrumMaster, I'm learning  that the less I'm involved in details and technical tasks, like a team member, the better able I am to see what is really going on in the team dynamics and how to navigate the conflicts. When I have distance from all detailed technical issues, I can recognize, as coach, the patterns more easily.

David Rock, in my favorite book, Quiet Leadership, talks about the Clarity of Distance, summarized by details, filters, agendas, and hot spots.

This model helps us identify what's getting in the way of our natural intelligence, so we can go back to listening for potential. This model has broad applications and can make a big difference to our self-awareness and therefore our ability to impact people on our teams.

In the Clarity of Distance model, there are four mental frames we can be stuck in, where we lose our mental clarity. When we are stuck in one of these frames, we're too close -- we've lost our distance, we are no longer observers.

Let's take a look at the elements of Clarity of Distance.

Lost in the details
Every workday is full of massive amounts of information, and with everything moving so quickly we have little time to reflect. As a result, the ScrumMaster risks spending a lot of time during the day lost in the details, unclear about which direction he should be going at any moment.

I'm sure you have experienced being lost in the details yourself. (You will know how to answer all skeptical people who think that being ScrumMaster or Agile coach is not a 100 percent job.)

It can be usual to find a ScrumMaster who is also a programmer, tester, or something else on the same team. In Mike Cohn’s book Succeding with Agile, he notes that having a ScrumMaster who is also an individual contributor on the team carries many risks.

One risk is that the person may not have adequate time to devote to both roles. Another is that someone in a combined role will probably need to stay away from the critical path, because the person could be interrupted with ScrumMaster duties at any time. A more subtle risk is that other team members will not easily know whether they are talking to their ScrumMaster or to another individual contributor. Yet another risk is that the ScrumMaster may have less credibility when protecting the team from outsiders.

Usually just realizing we are lost in the details is enough to help us to get back on track.

Misled by our filters
Filters are the unconscious mental frames through which we see the sum of our assumptions, expectations, predictions, and decisions about anything. There's nothing wrong with having filters, since they help us predict situations without having to process enormous amount of data. The challenge with filters is we tend to be unconscious of them; we then do our best to make the world fit into the way we think it is.

Being misled by our filters is the second most common trap when we listen to others. When we listen through filters, we are fitting people in our team into our predetermined boxes, rather than helping them be all they could be, in particular during our one-on-one coaching sessions.

As with the other elements of the Clarity of Distance model, the faster way to step back into more effective listening is to identify the filters you have, and actively listen in a new way.

Having an agenda
When you coach a Scrum team, you naturally have lots of agendas going on. You want people on your team to perform and to deliver. All of these agendas can cloud your ability to bring out the best in people on your team.

Identifying an agenda is the key to being able to put it to one side. Sometimes declaring your agenda out loud can help.

Hot spots
A hot spot is a charged issue for us, one that gets us lost in emotions. When we have a hot spot we tend to be engaged emotionally. Once our emotions are engaged, it takes several hours to settle down and be able to think straight again.

Broaching a charged issue another time may be a better use of resources. Having clarity of distance means having a state of mind where nothing is in the way of improving people's performance.

It's easy to get lost in the details on a typical ScrumMaster day, misled by our filters and agendas or sidetracked by our hot spots. It's a matter of understanding these frames and being aware of where you are coming from when you are listening to others. Once we become aware of what is clouding our natural clarity, we are on the way to listening and providing real help, in a whole new way, to the people on our team.

References and suggested resources
Attanasio F. "Coaching Scrum Teams Through Conflict Navigation and Effective Communication Strategies."

Attanasio F. "CREATE New Thinking with One-on-One Coaching."

Cohn M. Succeeding with Agile. Addison-Wesley. 2010.

Rock D. Quiet Leadership. New York: HarperBusiness. 2007.


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: 5 (7 ratings)


Catia Oliveira, CSM,CSPO, 9/26/2013 7:36:44 AM
Excellent Article Francesco! :) Thanks for sharing

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