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The Importance and Power of "Us"

11 May 2016

Patrick Norton
OmniTI Computer Consulting

Over the years, I've found that one of the biggest hurdles in getting (and keeping) a team to think in an Agile Scrum manner is the fact that the ScrumMaster is not the boss. As with many things in life, this is easy to say and more difficult to practice. Adhering to this important guiding principle is a challenge for both the ScrumMaster and the rest of the team, and it is more pronounced for teams new to Agile and Scrum.

Some simply enjoy the comfort of another person telling them what to do. It makes their lives straightforward, relieves them of accountability, and lessens the stress of being linked to decisions that don't pan out. For traditional managers, they have the comfort of knowing folks will generally only follow their direction because they are the boss. The thought of opening up decisions to the entire team creates a paralyzing fear of endless hours of debate and getting nothing done. However, those who have seen a hyper-productive Agile team at work know that the power of a strong ScrumMaster lies in empowering a team while gently but strongly guiding them through owning their destiny, together.

When I am asked to assume the ScrumMaster role for a particular team, the first thing I talk about and continue to stress is the notion of "us." I use this pronoun extensively because it is simply the truth. Everything we do is not about me. It's not for me, it's for us and the greater good of the team and the organization. I don't get preachy about it. I don't get combative and say, "You need to take some responsibility!" because that's not the case. Instead, I stress that everything we do, every process decision, technical decision, and logistical decision we make, is to get us toward the goal of our project. And I continue to politely correct team members when we stray from that thought process.

Recently, we had a card (work item) in one of our sprints that represented a necessary but extremely tedious piece of documentation that we were required to complete. One of our team members struggled a bit because while not difficult, the labor-intensive work extended the task beyond the current sprint. I was working closely with the team member to figure out how to bring this problematic card to a close. When she finally completed the task, she proudly declared at the stand-up meeting, "I got that document done for you, sorry it took so long." I immediately smiled and said, "Jennifer, awesome job! And while I know that was a bit of a 'white whale,' the team is going to benefit from the work. But you didn't do that for me, you did it for us."

On another occasion, my team had a particularly bad sprint. We missed several cards, and the demo was extremely buggy and underwhelming. It was not a good showing, and the client was disappointed. Afterward, the client's product manager asked to meet with me to punctuate their displeasure. Morale on the team was understandably low, and I called a meeting outside of the retrospective to focus specifically on what went wrong with the cards, which bled into the next sprint, and the bugs in the demo. I knew this team was good and worked hard, and I wanted to calmly outline to the client what went wrong, why, and how we would correct it.

In the meeting, a team member said, "Sorry you had to go through that, we feel like we let you down." I was taken back a bit by this remark.

I replied, "I'm sorry that we, as a team, didn't represent well. Having to represent the team is part of my job, and I'm fine with it. It's for all of us that I want to make sure we outline and correct what went wrong." We did just that and moved on to a series of successful sprints and demonstrations. Again, it was an opportunity to politely but firmly emphasize it's not about the ScrumMaster.

It is an important fact to emphasize in your kickoff with a new team and to constantly reiterate throughout a project. Yes, you sometimes have to assume some authority in driving the team to decisions, and yes, you need to be a strong ScrumMaster and weigh in on issues to be effective. But remember, it's never about you, it's about us.

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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