Serious Scrum
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Serious Scrum


Scrum Master — Get That Collaboration Going!

When you get the collaboration going, everything falls into place

I know quite a few Tech Managers who look at the Agile Coaches as if we were made of fluff — ”Yeah, yeah, you and your processes and games.” And that condescending look — “What do you know if you cannot even code a simple calculator app?” True story, by the way! The attitude is —”Go and schedule your meetings in the calendar, we have some serious stuff to do here.”

You can be a great facilitator and problem solver but it is only when you get the collaboration going, everything falls into place. You feel that you are providing value and people around the company recognize that value too. And it feels great, you are the right person in the right place.

This is the last episode from the Scrum Master Stances series. And today I’m going to reveal my secret sauce to being a Scrum Master or an Agile Coach that evidently provides value. Let’s see how it’s done!

Get that Collaboration Going!

Different roles, different objectives

As I see it, we have people with determined roles like Developers, Product Managers, Product Owners, UX Designers, Architects, etc. Each of them has their own understanding of what they need to do and often each of them has a different manager. Thus a different set of objectives. This is being mitigated in some companies by adding a Team Lead role but it all depends on the company.

With all these people working on their own part of the process, we need someone to get a global view. We usually have some roles for that and they vary a lot between the companies — Engineering Managers, Program Managers, Project Managers, Technical Project Managers, or Release Train Engineers. Interesting that most of them, apart from the last one, are Managers. And somehow, they tend to be more interested in dates, deadlines and the output than the journey to get to the outcome.

Bring focus and alignment

How do we make sure all these separate people are aligned and the goal is clear for them? Well, this is where we can provide the most value!

Imagine we have three initiatives that are a top priority for the company. We have all those people mentioned above that make up 15 teams plus the leadership working on them. All in all, around a hundred people. And I am trying to make the numbers small here. What a pretty picture, right?

Where we are, where we want to be, and how to get there?

For starters, let’s take a look at some questions that can help us determine the current situation.

  • Is the intent behind the goals/priorities clear? Are the teams aligned with the leadership and stakeholders on that?
  • Are there any teams working on the same outcomes?
  • What are their interactions? Are they aligned on their dependencies?
  • Are the designs clear enough? Not only the visuals but the technical solutions. Are UXers and Architects involved and providing guidance?
  • Are there any blockers, impediments, doubts or questions?
  • What are the top risks?
  • What are the channels people use to align?

Getting responses to those questions will help you determine where the teams need your support. But there’s a catch — who‘s the first one to admit they don’t know? Might seem trivial and you might dismiss it at first but that’s a serious matter. How do you know what’s going on if people don’t talk?

I don’t know

Get the conversation going

You have two choices here. One is to declare I asked the people if they needed any help and nobody raised anything. My job is done here. Unfortunately, this is how some people understand the role — “I asked and there were no questions. I can deliver a status—all is clear, no questions raised.” This typically happens if the person is far from the teams or if they take the process too literally.

The good news is, there is an alternative approach. And that is — gain the trust of people and trust your intuition. A very technical solution. Imagine you did the above, you asked some of the questions on a big Slack channel, or worse, in an email, and got no response. By now, you probably have a few trusted individuals from the teams to talk to or you identified the people who usually provide the most feedback, go and ask them individually. Are those top three initiatives refined enough so your team can start working on them? Or if you want to use a powerful question, go with —what’s your confidence level on delivering those initiatives in the next quarter? If I see any hesitation, I dig deeper to understand the situation.

Get involved

To help the teams, you don’t need to know all the details about the initiatives themselves, you’ll get there. Although I highly recommend getting involved and trying to understand what we are trying to achieve in this company. Your task here is to help people align and remove any blockers preventing them from achieving their goals. For that, if you understand the basis of the technology and the product, you will be able to help better.

What’s more, you’ll get more credibility. Why? Because there are a lot of people allergic to the processes and, as a result, to the people defining them. Yes, I said it, some people are allergic to us! So yeah, you have quite a challenge on your hands if you don’t have technical experience. Now, not only the teams don’t talk to you but also the Managers treat you like one more obstacle. A great place to be!

If you add to this that they need to explain to you what the company is trying to achieve, you start off on the wrong foot.

A simple solution to this is to find a mentor to give you a crash course on the given technology. Believe me, there are a lot of people out there who will be happy to do so. The rest is to smile a lot and carry on.

Cooperation vs collaboration

There is cooperation and collaboration. I didn’t know the difference. When I saw it in Lyssa Adkins's “Coaching Agile Teams” book, I thought “Oh my, yet another philosophical topic when I really just want to focus on getting things done!” However, after reading about it, it made a lot of sense:

“Collaboration yields that old adage: The whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Cooperation yields the sum of parts.”

Lyssa Adkins “Coaching Agile Teams”

I was wondering about it many times. Is it bad that we have a group of individuals working next to each other but not really collaborating? Should we always struggle to convert them into a collaborative team? The distinction between collaboration and cooperation that seemed too philosophical at first helped me understand that, in some cases, there is no shame in settling for cooperation. That was refreshing!

In collaboration, the ideas are merging one into another and something new may emerge. As Scrum Masters, we set the tone for this creative environment of sharing and caring to flourish. Caring not about one own’s idea to be enacted but about having the best possible idea for the product created collaboratively.

Be a collaboration conductor

Getting back to our story. If so many people are involved, we can settle for cooperation. It will be more than enough. How to do it? Get the people together. Create opportunities for people to chat and create connections. This is a long way but it will help move from individuals who work together, to people who cooperate, and finally to get the collaboration going.

Lyssa compares the coach with the symphony conductor. Help people who speak the loudest decrease the volume, and those who speak too quietly or not at all, do increase it. You are not required to be the conductor forever but you help get them started and get them going.

Lyssa mentions some desired collaborative behaviors we should help the teams bring on:

  • Speak the unspeakable.
  • Build up instead of breaking down.
  • Hear all voices.
  • Nurture collaboration intimacy.
  • Gain faith in emergence.
  • Get unstuck.
  • Play (seriously) together.

Know your mates

“They must know one another as human beings first and workmates second. This creates the base from which they self-organize to get the work done.”

Lyssa Adkins “Coaching Agile Teams”

Create meetings to get to know each other. Funny warmups, Ask Me Anything sessions with the leadership. Bring people closer, create opportunities to learn about the people behind the roles. Let the meetings start with this small talk and put some music in the background. Music gets people in a better mood. At first, some of your technical friends will roll their eyes on you — ”Oh, the fluff!” Well, just keep going. Once they see how people start working together, they will get onboard, quietly. In the end, who wants to admit the fluff actually works!

Be fearless, do a workshop

How to help a hundred people to work together? Get on a workshop. And I heard this many times— an online workshop for hundred people? That’s insane, no one will speak. Isn’t it more of a presentation, you present they listen? Depends on how you run it and how you prepare it.

The workshop is an example. You might have better ideas. What’s important is to consult people on your ideas. Get their buy-in and get them to help you prepare it. Especially the people you expect a lot of pushback from. Those are the people who care, involve them at the beginning. They will help and bring their passion to it and so you won’t get the pushback later on.

Be fearless. Do your thing, help the teams start talking. Bring the teams, the leadership, and the stakeholders together on a call. Conference tools we use today have breakout rooms option, make friends with it. It will save your life.

I got to the point that the workshops run themselves. Do you know how? Because you respond to the needs of the teams. They do have questions and doubts, they need to refine the work they will be doing in the Sprints. They will drive it.

I don’t even predefine the breakout rooms, leave it all to the teams. If you give them the tools they need, they will self-organize. The power of self-organization surprises me each and every time.

That’s the secret sauce on how to help people start talking to each other and aligning on their goals. Consulting and involving people in any new ideas you want to develp can work its magic!



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Maria Chec

Maria Chec


Agile Coach and Content Creator at Agile State of Mind and Head of Agile Practice in Fyllo