Coaching 7 Communication Smells in Scrum Teams

Because the inches we need for victory are everywhere around us.

This post is about a scrum master’s coaching stance. Playing the role of coach in ‘Any Given Sunday’, Al Pacino delivered an awesome, fiery motivational speech talking about why a team should ‘tear ourselves [..] to pieces for that inch’ that will separate victory from defeat… I won’t be quite so dramatic, but the idea of small things making a big difference is a nice starting point for coaching discussions.

I’m using the term ‘communication smell’ to describe statements or behaviours that shows a lack of understanding of the values of scrum or the objectives of agile approaches. Scrum Masters need to coach these before they become a negative part of the local culture in a team.

It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and I would love to hear about your own experiences. Please let me know what you think!


Smell 1: Abusing the word ‘agile’

‘Agile’ is quite abstract, and overloaded with meaning, so care needs to be taken when using it as a decorator pattern in a sentence.

When used correctly, it clarifies expectations. However, when deployed incorrectly, it can prescribe a misunderstanding of agile approaches. Remember, a little knowledge can be dangerous, and can scale dangerously well.

The way we construct sentences with the word ‘agile’ really matters. In saying ‘process x is agile’, we do not necessarily demonstrate an understanding of what an agile process actually is. Instead we are really saying,

A: “I believe agile processes have the attributes of process x”.

We need to be sure that we understand the attributes of an agile process before we make this kind of declaration. ‘Agile’ is not a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘I like it’. By extension, ‘not agile’ is not a synonym for ‘bad’ or ‘I don’t like it’.

If we are talking about agile processes, expectations are that it will encourages openness or transparency, and support emergent learning, experimentation, or seeing the system more clearly.

If the process cannot support the values of agile or scrum in this way, then we may need to call out the label… but use caution here! Please please please don’t decide something is ‘not agile’ just because you don’t like it.

This leads me nicely to number two.


Smell 2: Saying “That’s Not Agile” without a ‘because’

This sentence is a dangerous weapon, used to discount something that is not wanted. It can be deployed to dismiss any approach or technique. When used incorrectly, it can even dismiss approaches or techniques that uphold agile values and principles.

Here’s the thing. Agile approaches help us see a system of work more clearly, or they help us uncover better ways of doing something, or help with the flow of work. For example, andon processes help a team to give signals of poor quality.

It is perfectly ok to attempt to explain why an approach does not help with these objectives. By contrast, it is not ok to flatly declare “that’s not agile.” If you encounter this tactic, you need to slow down the conversation, reaffirm an understanding of agile approaches, and ask why. Don’t let that kind of rhetoric catch on or it will become ‘a thing’ quite quickly.


Smell 3: Abuse of “should“ or “shouldn’t” e.g. We shouldn’t have interruptions…”

More empty rhetoric. We should all be rich, am I right? We should all have better, newer cars, ya get me?

The thing is, when we use the word ‘should’ we are not accepting the reality in front of our faces. We are not seeing the system as it really is. If our starting point lacks this basic transparency, how can we ever hope to be effective change agents?

‘Should’ can describes a utopian version of an existing scenario. That might be a good expression of where we want to get to. The kata approach can be a good technique to counter and coach these ‘should’ situations.

B: “We shouldn’t have dependencies between teams.”
A: “Great, that’s a nice outcome to aim for. How about we articulate the current situation with an improvement kata? That’ll help us uncover the next steps to take to help us get there, and if there are any obstacles holding us back.”

Smell 4: Let’s adopt agile approaches ‘by the book’

This approach is an oxymoron. Like ‘Microsoft Works’, am I right!? Ok, I’ll stop, sorry.

Demanding things are done solely according to a playbook can be restrictive, as it precludes opportunities to inspect, adapt and uncover better ways. This approach also makes leaders and managers appear to lack a basic understanding of agile approaches.

By prescriptively applying any agile approach or framework, and omitting the possibility of flexibility, adaptation, we lose the primary value of an agile approach — learning new and better ways of doing things.

A variation on this smell is, “this approach seems to work for team A, why can’t all teams use this approach?” Answer: Because context is everything.

Team approaches are context-sensitive. Team B might just hate story points. And, also, story points are not in ‘the book’ dude.


Smell 5: There is only one kind of impediment — a blocker.

Shu ha ri describes a learning process where we try to get better at techniques over time. At the beginner level, Shu, we are painting the fence like Ralph Macchio, ignorant of the benefits of our actions, but putting faith in the knowledge of a leader.

At Ha, we know what we’re doing. We have learnt the ropes and we have a purpose to our learning.

Shu-ha-ri, Daniel-san

At ‘Ri’, we are Mr Miyagi, teaching karate by getting kids to wax your classic cars, because of course we are :)

With impediments, teams at ‘Shu’ can see everything as a blocking issue. In this context, red andon signals will frequently stop the flow of work.

At ‘Ha’, teams begin to anticipate issues, and flag them before they can stop the flow of work. Yellow signals help attract attention, and help address quality issues before they ripen further.

At ‘Ri’, teams are learning new ways of highlighting quality issues, and inspecting and adapting without necessarily even needing to involve supervision. They self-organise where quality is concerned.

If everything is perceived as a ‘blocker’, you need to slow down and inspect the team’s recognition of impediments, how to recognise them, and what to do when they occur. Andon is a useful metaphor here.


Smell 6: Say ‘meetings suck’, omit to have conversations that could prevent meetings

Let’s go out on a limb here and compare meetings to technology. Neither are evil, but both can be used for evil purposes. In order to get benefits from either, you have to understand how to use them effectively. This means that meetings must be facilitated well, and used wisely.

However, the smell that we are describing here is the fact that, if teams could start to anticipate the need for meetings, we might be able to avoid them more often.

The other classic is that an potential blocking issue arises, but the team waits until the next daily scrum before having a conversation about it. Oh boy, this needs to be coached.

A: “were you able to look into the design of the next piece of that requirement?”
B: “No, I was waiting to discuss it in a refinement meeting. Are you going to schedule one?”

Teams can avoid unnecessary meetings by having high-bandwidth conversations right where they are. The best example of this is a face-to-face conversation at a whiteboard. No calendar entry, no meeting room to book. Very effective communication.

Look at that! Face-to-face conversations are still pretty damn good!

Also, here’s the thing: refinement doesn’t have to be a meeting! It’s a process. It just requires conversations! We can have conversations any time we want. we don’t need to book a room and put a meeting in the calendar…

“The Scrum Team decides how and when refinement is done” (Scrum Guide)

Scrum teams, you have the power here! Scrum masters and product owners, we need to work together to ‘uncover better ways’ of doing refinement.


Smell 7: Post-Directive Syndrome

Post-Directive Syndrome is a tacit desire for directive management. Perhaps the team was previously run in a command and control style in the past. In any case, some folks will tend towards waiting for direction for small actions, and coaching is required in order to develop and foster a better sense of autonomy. Waiting is a waste! Scrum masters, empower the team! Here’s an example.

A: “That production issue is still happening since this morning. Did you make any progress with your investigation?”
B: “No, I couldn’t. I don’t have access to the production database.”

This situation most definitely requires coaching.

A: “How do we get access to the production database?”
B: “I think Fred in production support can grant that, but I don’t know how to ask for access.”
A: “Ok. It sounds like you need to have a chat with Fred, what do you think? Do you need me to arrange that?”

This type of conversation should be meat and drink to a coach. It is also quite closely related to smell number 5 above. We can coach team members that not every impediment is a blocker!

Apply Shu-ha-ri, coach your team members to resist their urge to look for direction on simple matters, and more autonomy should blossom as a result.


To recap, the issues Scrum Masters coach can appear small, but as Al Pacino said, these inches can separate victory from defeat. Scrum masters need to keep eyes and open for behaviours that can lead to communication or behavioural smells in teams, or become culture bubbles if we don’t watch out.

And if all else fails, watch Al Pacino’s awesome Any Given Sunday speech with your team for a bit of motivation. For all the coaches out there, hoo-rah! :)


Did you like the article? Then it would be awesome if you’d clap 👏🏻. I am also very keen to learn what you think about this topic.

My twitter profile is https://twitter.com/paddycorry

Do you want to publish in Serious Scrum? Connect with us on Slack to make it happen!

We run a Serious Scrum channel on Slack. You’re all invited. Feel free to reach out and connect with us on Slack to share your thoughts.