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Self-Directed Teams: Finding Your Seat on the Scrum Bus

22 February 2016

Alex DiPasquale

When you ride a bus, nobody assigns you a seat. You find your own way, sit where you like, and generally everything works out for the best. Think of building a team that way, and letting everyone find the place that's right for them.

As a leader and a parent, the very idea of a self-organizing team is attractive to me. I enjoy the challenge of nurturing a team and guiding it to its maturity. Business schools teach Tuckman's Stages of Group Development: storming, forming, norming, and performing.

Tuckman's work has been distilled to catch phrases like, "Get the right people on the bus" and the follow-up, "Get the right people in the right seats on the bus." It wasn't until I became a project team leader and a ScrumMaster (or "bus driver") that I learned to "let people find their own seats on the bus."

A team is born

Last May, I got a call from my managers telling me we were putting together a team to support our websites. Many assigned to the team had little experience in this area, and I knew I was in for a challenge.

I promised my manager that we would have the best Scrum team in the company. I was disappointed that our first sprint was unproductive in the sense that we did not deliver anything of value to our product owner. The intrinsic value in the early sprints is that we learned valuable lessons, and team members began "finding their seats on the bus."

Where's my seat?

One developer in particular began working a little harder than the others. He studied and learned the website's functionality from a code perspective. He was willing to test, and by doing so, he learned the site from a user's perspective. He graciously shared his newfound knowledge with other team members.

This began his personal growth as a leader and a mentor. Today he continues to thirst for new projects responsibly and to help others. He is still the first one to say, "I can take that," whether it is a new website, leading a conversion to a new code repository, or testing. He found his seat on the bus.

Along those lines, some testers wanted to lead test plan reviews, others were happy staying in the background and handling heads-down testing. Keeping the bus metaphor, they found their seats too.

A bus has an entire front row

As the ScrumMaster, I want to fill the front row, but I struggle with how much involvement I should have in a self-directed team. I know which developers will naturally gravitate to certain tasks and which developers have not worked on certain tasks. As we go through the task breakdown, and Jack (who has done this many times) gives the team an estimate, I suggest, "If you take this task, please include Jill (who has never done this) so that she can get some experience in it, too. "

My reasoning is twofold. For one, I want a cross-trained team that can take any work at any time. Most importantly, I want Jack to take a leadership role by training and learning to delegate. Metaphorically, I want Jack to take a seat in the front row, too.

A view from the driver's seat

It is unrealistic to think that we will have a team full of leaders; some people are happy following. It is realistic to have a team of highly engaged, positively motivated members. Not only is it realistic, it is key to having a high-producing team. As ScrumMasters, we must create an atmosphere in which our team members feel safe trying different things, taking the lead on some things and following on others; one in which we can sit in the front row, or not. Remember, there's a seat for everyone. Let your team members figure out where they fit best.

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: 4.8 (4 ratings)


Diane Murphy, CSM, 2/22/2016 11:13:59 AM
This a great article Alex! You have found your seat!
Terri Riegel, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 2/22/2016 11:17:14 AM
I like the way you used the metaphor of getting people on the bus and now letting them find their seats. I think a good scrum master will let the team find their places, yet along the way, they may suggest a different seat, maybe closer to the front, so that that person might get a better advantage or find new scenery along the journey. Thanks for this insight Alex!!
Oscar Correia Junior, CSM, 12/4/2016 10:36:22 AM
Great article Alex, will help me.!!!

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