The Scrum Masters Diary — a powerful Tool to derive effective Interventions

Increase the effectiveness of your system interventions with a structured thought process.

Stefan Willuda
Mar 10, 2018 · 10 min read

Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches influence and change organizations by performing all sorts of “interventions”. Interventions are distinct actions that affect the boundaries of a specific system. Changing the boundaries of a system over time may cause a change of the people being part of the system which ultimately alters the outcome of the system.

How does a Scrum Master or Agile Coach derive those interventions? Simply by interpreting and evaluating what he or she observes in an organization. Then he or she might consider something to be worth changing which leads to a certain intervention. Often I experience this decision on what to change and how to change it to be done by mere intuition or out of gut feeling. Although intuition is a good starting point the thoughts from which this intuition is derived are often vague and fuzzy. Interventions derived out of those vague and fuzzy thoughts are by far less effective than those which are derived by a more thorough thought process.

The Scrum Masters Diary

Some time ago a colleague of mine invented the Scrum Masters Diary to help me structure my thought process in situations in which I made a significant observation and wanted to derive an intervention. Over time I refined the Scrum Masters Diary to help me in my day-to-day work as an Agile Coach.

Like a regular diary, the Scrum Masters Diary is intended to make thought processes explicit, get feelings of one’s chest and to change the own perspective on an observed situation. The Scrum Masters Diary leads the writer‘s thought process along with four distinct questions.

  1. What did you observe?
  2. How do you interpret and evaluate the observation?
  3. What questions come to your mind when you interpret and evaluate that observation?
  4. What interventions do you plan based on your interpretation and evaluation?

I am going to show you why I believe this structure makes sense and how I use this diary in my day-to-day work to derive effective interventions.

Why structure the diary?

Often when I do cooperative case advice with my colleagues in which they ask me to add a perspective to an observed situation I hear descriptions like this: “Pete was mad at the rest of the team.“ or “The team started to take responsibility for the user experience.“ Actually, those descriptions are not very helpful in a case advice talk since they are already altered by the colleague who interpreted the observation. Whenever I ask back how they came to that interpretation they can hardly remember what actually happened in that observed situation and what made them interpret the situation the way they did. This makes it hard for me to add a perspective or challenge a decision made in favor of an intervention.

Moreover, it restricts the thinking process to a very narrow view and it ignores the fact that our interpretation of the observed world actually shapes this world in a more profound way than we think. Changing our interpretation in this sense actually changes the world around us.

By deconstructing the thought process we get the chance to derive different interpretations and evaluations of exactly the same situation which opens a door to our selves and to a greater variety of possible interventions.

Observation

The question “What did you observe?“ asks for precise documentation of what actually happened.

For instance: Pete was not mad. That is just our interpretation of what happened. What instead actually happened was that “Pete left the room before the sprint planning 2 was over“. Instead of “James hates Rick.“ you simply note the facts. “James does not look into Rick’s eyes when he talks to him in the daily standup meeting“. Instead of “Mike does not want to participate in my workshop.“ you see that “Mike crosses his arms in front of his chest while leaning back in his chair.“ Instead of “Paula is confused“ you simply note that “Paula asked me: How are the teams going to be set up in the upcoming quarter?“

Do you see the difference?

I find this kind of documentation highly liberating. I just need to exactly write down what I see, hear or sometimes smell ;) It‘s all about senses. At first, this might feel strange. However, I can assure you, you will get used to it quickly.

Whenever you ask a colleague for a different perspective or advice you first just share those observations. You might be surprised how different the interpretations of the same situation can be if someone looks at it from a different angle.

That is the power of dividing observations and interpretation or evaluation. This does not only help your colleague to derive a different perspective on a situation. It also helps you to stay focused on what actually happened. If you think that you also need room for your own feelings about a situation, read on.

Interpretation and evaluation

Based on an observation or a set of observations related to the same situation you write down how you interpret and evaluate the observation.

Interpretation means that you think in terms of how behavior might have been meant or how a person saying something might have felt. It is helpful to try to come up with different interpretations. However, this is nothing that shall be done by force. Simply write down what comes to your mind. Whenever a question pops into your head, write it down in the question section of your diary.

For instance: You see that your Scrum team pulls a card into a Work In Progress (WIP) limited board column which violates the defined limit. Based on that observation different interpretations are possible. It might have been that they just did not recognize the WIP limit. Or the issue on that card was super urgent and has to be done immediately. Or the flow of work on the other cards in that column is blocked and the team did not want to be idle. Or maybe they don‘t want to pair with team members on other cards but the WIP limit is set quite low (to encourage pairing).

You might immediately recognize that questions come to your mind that, if answered, would affect your interpretation. That‘s fine. Write them down in the “questions” section. You might also realize that every interpretation leads to a different direction of evaluation and thus to completely different possible interventions.

After you‘ve captured the interpretations that have come to your mind you add your very personal evaluation of the observation and interpretation. How do you feel? What do you think about this situation? This is a very important step in the reflection process of writing the Scrum Masters Diary. Since it is our perception of reality that shapes reality we better be explicit with ourselves on how we shape it and why. As long as you stay true to yourself nothing written here can be wrong. In this step, you simply want to get in touch with yourself. You don’t need to share the diary if you don’t want to.

For instance: You already gave the Scrum team that violated the WIP limit a training on the power of WIP limits and in a retrospective some weeks ago you defined the WIP limit to be small in order to foster pairing. Plus you are pretty sure that they noticed the WIP limit violation. You might write: “I‘m sad that the team avoids pairing. It is such a powerful practice. I wish they could already feel the benefits it brings.“ Or: “What happened is normal. The team needs to learn to hold each other accountable for decisions made in a retrospective. This is a process and I can support that team development with my own actions.“

It is very important to acknowledge that your own feelings triggered by a situation are not directly linked with the situation. This might sound conceptual, however, the implications are far-reaching. The behavior of a team is by itself unrelated to your feelings. Usually, the behavior of people (in organizations) is not explicitly intended to affect your feelings. This makes clear that your feelings stem from your perception of the situation and the people’s behavior. Although this might not change the feelings it implies that you better consider those feelings as your own and not causal to the behavior of people around you.

Questions

In the process of writing the Scrum Masters Diary a lot of questions might come to your mind. Although you can write them down any time it is worth taking the time to explicitly think about questions that are related to the observation, the interpretation, and your evaluation.

It is not necessary to actually ask those questions to anybody. Of course you can, however, the primary reason to think about questions is to strive for different perspectives and to identify blind spots in your own perception and knowledge which might limit your ability to come up with an effective intervention.

For instance: “Does everybody in the team remember the agreement of the retrospective in which we decreased the WIP limit?“ “Could everyone in the team describe the benefits that are related to WIP limits or pairing?“ “Are there interpersonal issues in the team that I am not aware of?“

Sometimes to ask one of those questions to the team already is an effective intervention since it helps them to slow down and reflect on decisions made in the past and their behavior in the present.

Interventions

Now that you have explicitly documented the observations, interpreted and evaluated the situation and thought about questions that are unanswered you may want to derive interventions on the system.

Just to be clear the intervention is applied to the boundaries of a system not “onto” certain people. People might, however, alter their behavior based on the change of the system.

Interventions are specific actions that are performed by you.

For instance: “I‘m going to make the decisions from the retrospective explicit to the team as visible sprint-constraints right next to the board.“ “Then I‘m asking someone in the team if he or she may recapitulate what those decisions have been and what they mean to him.“ Or: “I am going to visibly acknowledge whenever I see people pairing.“ “I‘m going to ask those team members if they would like to share their experiences made while pairing. What made them start and what hurdles they had to overcome to do pairing regularly.“

Inspect and Adapt

From my perspective, this tiny Scrum Masters Diary tool fits perfectly into different agile management frameworks since it supports Plan-Do-Check-Act and the OODA-Loop. It is a micro-retrospective with yourself that can be actionable immediately.

Not only for Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches

Since I‘m a strong believer that Scrum Master and Agile Coaches are managers, I do believe that the Scrum Masters Diary is in reverse useful for every manager in any organization. It gives them the structure to reflect and become clear about their own motives and aims related to a specific situation. This brings clarity and helps you to make better decisions. This is even truer when you consider management as a team play job. The different interpretations and possible interventions on a shared observation help a team to shape the boundaries of a system to support the work of the people in the system.

Keep it simple and use it regularly

The full-fledged examples in this post might seem to be quite heavy. However, I want to assure you it is not. Sometimes I take my time to analyze situations in depth sometimes I just briefly write down the explicit observations and add some interpretations.

The in-depth analysis is usually done in Evernote. Therefore I use a simple template note which is duplicated every time I take my time to reflect.

Sometimes I just briefly take a handwritten note in my physical notebook without deep analysis. Nevertheless, it helps me to derive interventions.

A colleague of mine uses the tool grid diary to reflect on day-to-day situations. Since you can freely customize the questions in the grid this tool might support your first weeks of using the Scrum Masters Diary as well.

I can say that using the Scrum Masters Diary has become a habit for me. However, as with every new habit, it takes some time and some discipline to become used to it. Like with starting a new sport, it is more fun together. Maybe you find someone that wants to start a 30-day challenge with you. Share your diaries every second day and reflect on your observations. I‘m sure that you are going to see the benefits quickly.

Let me know if the diary helped you in your work as a Scrum Master or Agile Coach.

July 2018 — Addition

I received a photo from an agile management consultant and trainer who presented the Scrum Masters Diary to her clients. I’m blown away by this artwork and I am proud to see the diary in action. Thanks, @ConstanzeRiess!


On my account

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Stefan Willuda

Written by

Former Scrum, Kanban and Management Consultant | Agile Coach | TOC Enthusiast | idealo Internet | I believe that a humane global economy is possible.

idealo Tech Blog

👨‍💻👩‍💻 idealo tech and product folks writing about their work 💡⚙️💻 🛒 and their endeavour to build, ship and run a great user experience on https://idealo.de

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