Scrum Master + Designer — a partnership with vast potentials

Harvesting the potential of Design in empowered interdisciplinary teams goes beyond implementing processes — a new mindset is needed to perform Design as a team sport.

We have all read the books, studied the diagrams, watched the talks on how UX Design and Agile fit together.

A lot of designers have had mixed experiences working within an Agile team and although books like Lean UX have offered a healthy model for balancing the two fundamental modes of working — Discovery & Delivery — it still seems to puzzle a lot of designers (and agile teams) out there how things can fit for them.

Reality is, bringing a multidisciplinary team to perform the intricate dance between discovery and delivery, in the right measures, shifting tempo when necessary between reflecting and making, is not to be achieved by laying down the ground rules and hope for the best. (Hint: A diagram is also not gonna help much)

In the worst case, being a designer in a team of engineers and data scientists makes you just one lonely voice in the room and somehow the worst experiences that designers have had working for clients (you all know the stereotypes) are now repeating within the team itself.

To overcome this scenario we need to work together, closely.

Collaborative Design is required to solve the kind of complex, shifting problems we are facing nowadays and in the future— acting as the surface upon which the future state can manifest itself in the required fidelity to make everyone comprehend the impact and effort the solution will require, taking into account the many points of view, challenges, and opportunities. 
Or as Raymond Loewy said:

“Design is too important to be left to designers.”

That’s why Design Thinking is so popular, that’s why Design Sprints are so popular, that’s why Design has changed so much over the course of the last decade.

Design is not what we make — it’s what we do.

Teams nowadays need design capabilities and it takes design facilitation to seed this in the team, make it available and accessible to all members. This though requires the designer to move from the lonely ivory tower of creative genius into the shared apartment of the team mind. Changing your self-perception from Designer (who creates designs) to Design Enabler (who facilitates design).

This makes what you are doing as a designer overlap quite a bit with the responsibilities of a scrum master — facilitating team conversations.

If essentially a scrum master is supporting the team in moving forward, the designer, equipped with methodologies from collaborative & human-centered design approaches, has the tools available to enable the team to collectively arrive at the direction where to move towards.

This overlap offers an opportunity, the right mindset on both sides permitting, for forming a partnership between Scrum Master & UX Designer. As a result, this partnership can accelerate the teams’ path towards a more collaborative approach to discovery and delivery, with all the benefits this unlocks.

Understandably, it is not trivial to make this change in modus operandi and blending of responsibilities — but isn’t that exactly what agile is about?
It takes a great deal of letting go of what’s yours and what’s mine — and being attuned to the shared goal of product success, team performance & happiness.

We have worked with this model at BI X for some time now. Here are some of the learnings:

  • Conversations are what really matter. Scrum Master & Designer should talk to each other, all the time. In certain periods we have daily conversations how to plan the next day, which activities make sense in the current situation and bouncing around ideas and reflecting on the subject from both sides where Scrum Master & Designer can offer their perspectives equally in order to shape the path towards the common goal.
  • I recommend structuring team conversations as far as possible, looking at approaches such as liberating structures.
  • Co-Facilitation is hard, but very powerful when it’s working. Keep on doing it and always feedback with each other afterwards what worked and what didn’t.
  • Do research together, the whole team. Include everyone in user feedback sessions and dare to have someone else from the team to run the session. Not only you will empower them, but you might learn a thing or two by observing them do it.
  • Blend the frequency of discovery & delivery in small packages and with such a high frequency, that to some extent they become indistinguishable from each other. That helps the team to get the work done they need to, but keep on discovering ahead of time. It soon becomes second nature to get up and sketch ideas on the whiteboard mid-sprint to solve a problem without requiring the creation of documents or prototypes to communicate the idea. Because sometimes, that’s all it takes. It builds the kind of shared understanding that is the difference between a performing, happy, fulfilled team and a struggling team.
  • If you are the designer, turn everyone else into a designer too. Show the team how to run a design studio workshop and let someone else run it. Let go. Enable the team to have the right conversations, show them the tools.

Something to be aware of:
Be careful not to think of yourself as a team leader — rather be a guide. Be as humble as only an expert can be.

As closing remarks, I want to leave you with a quote from the great mystic Rumi, which captures the mindset that is helpful for this partnership to succeed:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

At BI X digital lab , we create intelligent digital products for healthcare in empowered agile teams and experiment with new ways of collaborating. Sometimes we make music together. We are looking for talented Designers — just send me a message if you think we should talk.

P.S. Shoutout to David Waelder for bouncing ideas and Leo Gründer for being an awesome Scrum Master with whom we first experimented with this approach.