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Overcoming Scrum Team Challenges

29 June 2016

Abhijeet Verma
Softcell Technologies Ltd.

By their very nature, Scrum teams generate unique challenges. I've highlighted a few major challenges for both team and ScrumMaster, and I offer ways that a ScrumMaster can face them.

Embracing the Agile mindset

A shift in mindset is a big challenge. A team can be trained and coached, but it takes a while for members to get into the groove and change their mindset. The ScrumMaster (SM) plays a pivotal role. The SM can help the team get into an Agile mindset and accept the changes willingly.

He must listen to the team's problems and ask team members to offer solutions rather than proposing solutions himself. In some scenarios, he might give solutions when the team is indecisive or unable to take a call, but the team should never be forced to adhere to the proposed changes. Rather, the SM should work with the members (individually and collectively) to bring about the positive transformation.

Bringing cross-functionality to the team

It's easier to utter the phrase "cross-functional" than implement its meaning. Some developers are married to their technology, and convincing them to deliver business-valuable results with another technology is not easy. The SM and the technical architect/advisor can help team members decide which technology they can pick that would strike the right balance between the business value and technical gratification. Give developers time to immerse themselves in the new technology and gain confidence. A good way to achieve confidence is by delivering small user stories (typically of fewer than 5 story points) at regular intervals. This would mean that developers are learning and performing at the same time.

We often neglect the fact that testers also need to contribute as cross-functional members. One of the ways for them to achieve cross-functionality is to train on automation and build. In an ideal cross-functional team, everyone does everything, but in reality, the SM must use the knowledge areas of individual team members to bring about cross-functionality.

Creating an environment in which team members open up

Team members who speak up are great, as they do not keep things to themselves. Members who don't speak up can be like dormant volcanoes waiting to erupt. For these members, it is important to open up from time to time. The SM should talk to such members to understand their areas of concern and work with them to build a relationship of frankness and openness.

Empowering the team to take ownership

Scrum teams often do not realize that they "own" the sprint and that they are accountable for its successful delivery. It is important to make them understand that they have ownership of a piece of software increment, and they can find the best way to deliver the features/increment expected.

In the quest for excellence, they can seek help from the technical architect/advisor to get things done faster and more effectively. If they need training, the SM should make sure that training is conducted well in advance, not during the sprint when the real work must be delivered.

Establishing an atmosphere of trust among members of different areas

It is often the case that there are two subteams within the same Scrum team. One team is represented by developers and the other by testers. Both are interdependent in many ways; hence, both need to make sure that they coordinate well for an effective sprint delivery.

When developers keep testers posted of their build plan, they provide a great way for testers to know when the testing work will arise during the sprint and create their test plans accordingly. The developers need to make sure that they give early builds to the testers. This can be achieved by breaking big stories into smaller chunks and delivering at equal intervals.

Understanding that the ScrumMaster is not a team manager

The SM is a servant leader of the team, and she should make sure that the team evolves to a self-managing and self-driven entity over time. For her own sake as well as everyone else's, the SM does not want to see the team fail, so she should ensure that the team gets everything it needs to achieve the sprint goal. That "everything" can include securing resources, facilitating communication (internal/external), providing technology training (if needed), and sorting out dependencies.

True success would be achieved when the team is self-managing and the SM is involved in coordination only. But this maturity is not achieved overnight. The SM should grant team members the freedom to make judgment calls and learn from them.

Asking the team to make maximum use of the Daily Scrum

The team should make maximum use of the Daily Scrum to talk about their problems or impediments. If the problems are complex, schedule a follow-up immediately after the meeting. The SM should make sure that the problems do not linger with the team for too long.

Encouraging the team to be fearless

The SM should encourage the team to accept challenges and work toward their goal effectively. The team needs to take time to mentally prepare to take risks. The SM can bolster confidence by showing the team the path to ownership and accountability.

Developing a winning habit within the team

Treat Scrum as a game; perform Scrum with the intention of winning and achieving committed goals. When things begin to run smoothly, the momentum of constant and sustainable increase in velocity should continue. With the winning habit of continuously achieving sprint goals, the team gains confidence, and this is visible in the Scrum ceremonies, especially in the retrospective.

Encouraging the team to do "continuous retrospective"

Don't look at the team retrospective as a one-time sprint activity. Conduct retrospectives continuously throughout the sprint. For early adoption and continuous learning, have team members frequently share experiences. To do this, the SM should adopt new ideas, innovate and experiment, and foster an environment of transparency and openness within the team in which team members express themselves without fear of retribution. You can read more about this concept in the Scrum Alliance article "Continuous Retrospective".

Encouraging the team to be self-organizing

It is important to foster self-organization within the team environment. Even though team members are competent, it takes time for them to gel, establish an atmosphere of trust, collaborate, and become self-motivated to deliver work. The SM needs to patiently practice self-organization with the team. Team members may have been used to taking orders from managers (before Agile was adopted in the organization), and changing this mindset definitely takes time.

Slowly, the group of motivated individuals starts to work toward the sprint goal and adapts to changing environments. A truly self-organized team would never ask its SM to assign them tasks or user stories. Rather, it would pull work directly from the sprint backlog and start delivering. This is also considered a sign of accountability and ownership. So within the team, all the attributes related to delivery would be self-managed in the best possible way. The SM should help members in the beginning, but the members should gradually be motivated to do this on their own.

Encouraging the team to be self-reliant

A self-reliant team tries to use its own resources, capabilities, powers, and expertise to deliver the product increment. A cross-functional team knows how to achieve this in the best possible way. However, realistically, the SM should help the team members realize their true potential to get things done. Over time, the expectation is that the team has matured enough to make its own decisions to accomplish goals.

Please share your valuable thoughts. Thanks.

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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