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Agents of Organizational Change: ScrumMasters as Mediators and Negotiators

I often field concerns from traditionally trained project managers as to how their job will change if they shift to an agile software development approach like Scrum, and become ScrumMasters. One of their biggest concerns is what they are expected to do once their team begins self-organizing. Here’s the answer: once your team’s need for your guidance diminishes, your focus will turn to external forces that affect your team, and you’ll work to increase these forces’ positive influence and decrease or eliminate their negative influences. All ScrumMasters are agents of organizational change.

I’ve developed a chart to show where the ScrumMaster’s focus will lay, depending on where the team is in the Tuckman Model of group development. The Tuckman model was created by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, and illustrates the stages a team goes through as it matures and learns how to function smoothly as a unit.

When the team is new (or new to working together in an agile environment) they are in Tuckman’s forming stage. This is the honeymoon phase, where all are on their best behavior as they learn about the project vision and goals. Following forming, the storming stage is characterized by team members in conflict over differing ideas, perspectives, and interpretations of the issues.

In the forming and storming stages, a ScrumMaster focuses most of their time and energy on the team. They begin with helping them to understand Scrum and making sure they are communicating with one another, and then move into mediating disagreements and disputes between members of the team. This is part of the guidance the ScrumMaster provides in helping teams learn how to successfully work together and reach consensus on decisions.

As the team moves up the curve to the norming phase, they will have resolved most of the issues they have control over, such as how to set up their environments, what tools they’ll be using, how they’ll approach configuration management, etc. The next set of issues the team begins to raise now are typically external forces, or those that are outside the sphere of influence of the team. The ScrumMaster starts to split his or her time between coaching the team and negotiating solutions with those who own the external forces, i.e. the external influencers. These entities are more often than not “management,” but can also include vendors, legal staff, customers, and peers.

I make a distinction between mediation, which I view as a tool the ScrumMaster uses within the team, and negotiation, a tool used with external influencers. As a Scrum team is designed to be self-organizing and make decisions about how to deliver the product, the ScrumMaster has the responsibility of helping team members learn how to work together to become a high performing team capable of achieving consensus. Mediating problem resolution discussions allows the ScrumMaster to assist the team in this process without taking ownership of the solution.

When working with external influencers, the ScrumMaster is representing the team as a part-owner of the system, and thus is negotiating as an owner for better conditions for his or her team. Systems thinking becomes a critical skill for the ScrumMaster, as the main topics of negotiation are around how to improve the flow of value through the entire value chain – of which his or her team is a part. This is where their role as an agent of organizational change becomes readily apparent, if it hasn’t already.

The next phase in team development is when the team moves from norming, where they have all learned how to work together to achieve a common goal, to performing, where the team members are a cohesive unit that need little to no help in reaching consensus and taking action. They have a solid record of delivering value to customers and have become more proactive than reactive. The ScrumMaster’s focus is now almost entirely on negotiating solutions to organizational issues. You can see how the chart illustrates this shift from team-facing mediation activities to management-facing negotiation strategies, as the team reaches the top of the curve – the performing stage – in the Tuckman model.

Traditional project managers should approach their transition by learning how to apply agile practices tactically at the team level, as well as understanding how to embrace agile, lean, and systems thinking strategically as an agent of organizational change. From a focus on the team during their forming, storming, and norming phases, to a focus on the organizational changes needed to support a high-performing team, the ScrumMaster’s key strength will be his or her versatility and understanding the nature of situational leadership. Like the process they are supporting, they too will have to be agile.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.9 (20 ratings)
Patrick Ejueyitchie
I love the narrowing down of what the scrum master focuses on as the team develops. I facilitate a high performing team and I find that more of my time is spent negotiating with external teams - especially the support desk.
9/23/2017 11:39:28 PM

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10/10/2016 12:40:04 AM
This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. This is very nice one and gives indepth information.
10/6/2016 12:40:29 AM

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9/24/2016 1:20:14 PM

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9/24/2016 6:25:31 AM

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9/21/2016 6:26:46 AM

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9/20/2016 5:41:26 PM

Adebayo Asoro
Wonderful write-up Michelle; the key factor in this article is the realization of the fact that Scrum is an empirical framework and it does requires situational leaders for effective and successful implementation(s).
9/16/2016 8:47:23 AM

Nicolas Scheel
Exzellent article. I'd like to add one point: when both project managers and developers transition to agile at the same time, it's even more difficult since both parties fall back into known behaviors....
9/10/2016 3:23:32 PM

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9/1/2016 4:59:07 PM

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8/26/2016 10:32:11 PM
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8/8/2016 8:58:13 AM

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8/4/2016 5:47:36 AM
Thanks Michele, it was very intresting, keep working!
7/6/2016 4:41:02 AM

Gorakhnath Choudhary
Great post! It really help me to educate traditional managers and team members they used to follow SDLC approaches.
11/2/2015 5:29:48 AM

Manoj Sanhotra
Michele - Quick question.

What are the symptoms that we should be looking for to make sure that the team is not taking too long to come out of forming and storming stage. I've seen teams where they are taking too long to come out of these stages and then eventually leadership calls it a day and scrum is termed as a failure.
8/17/2015 8:15:39 AM

Padma Priya Devarajan
Clearly said on how the scrum master approach towards team and outside team!!
7/17/2015 1:21:42 AM

Rohan Bhokardankar
Good thoughts Michele.
This guidance is very useful for former Project Managers.

One hurdle to this approach is the frequent changing of team members and sharing them across various teams, which may or may not be Agile.

Hence the curve may not be as smooth as depicted and will be practically more complex. I know these violate core Agile principles, but have to continue, due to the legacy in client organization.
4/8/2015 9:01:34 AM

namitha naveen
As a scrum master, I could visualize broadly and versatility of the role. Thank You..
3/18/2015 11:05:04 PM

Nice article Michele. I can co-relate what i am going through. I feel more confident now!
2/18/2015 7:54:47 AM

Really a very nice article. All SM / PM should read this.
11/3/2014 1:58:41 PM

Michele Sliger
Hi Tony,
That's a great story! Thanks so much for sharing.
10/27/2014 10:58:33 AM

Tony Gibson
I've seen other resistance/hesitancy/uncertainty stem from the role-based versus title-based nature of scrum.

In the traditional world, your title clearly states your role in the organization. With Scrum being title-agnostic, all that matters is filling the roles with the right people. As a Programmer Analyst, I was the ScrumMaster of a team because I had the skills needed for success in that role. But at the same time, the team also had a Project Manager.

I focused on the team (mediation and process management) while he focused on the negotiation (budgets, shared services, approvals). In the beginning, the PM and I worked closely, but as the team shifted in our performance, the PM's need shifted to a more macro level.

As a Project Manager now, I understand how that shift can make a PM feel out-of-place, or not needed. To me, the key is to gain a deep understanding of the Agile process and find what roles you can perform as the PM in order to allow the team to deliver the most value they can.
10/22/2014 1:55:56 PM

Anand Vyas
Nice Article..!!

Must say, I can co-relate many things written here to what I see practically. The focus shift does not come overnight and will take a persistent check on oneself.

Thank you.
10/13/2014 1:38:56 AM

Shane Tanzymore
Great article. The forming stage is such a challenge for traditional PMO or new a Scrum Master. Here, I found that I spent a lot of time helping improve communication within team without becoming a proxy for the communication. The use of metrics really helped to illustrate the results of the decisions they made, but it takes patience in this part.
10/8/2014 8:22:03 AM

Deepak Joshi
Nice article. Many Project managers who have followed the waterfall methodology for quite a time, hesitate to embrace agile practices and the role of ScrumMaster as they could not envision the overall responsibilities of this new role 'ScrumMaster'. This article provides the broader view of roles and responsibilities for them.
10/7/2014 4:16:00 AM

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