Illustrations by Thea Schukken

How Do Scrum Masters Deal With Problems Outside Of Their Team’s Control?

Results from a survey by Age Of Product and The Liberators with 201 Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches

Changing the way we work is extremely difficult — we all know this. It requires us to find novel solutions to wicked challenges, to deal with cultural baggage (‘the way we do things here’) and to bring along the people needed to make a change successful. And yet, this difficult challenge is a core responsibility of Scrum Masters: How can your organisation work effectively with Scrum if it is not considering the entire system?

But how do Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches go about this? What strategies do they use to change the system? Who are their most important allies? And what else can we learn from them?

Age Of Product teamed up with The Liberators to identify what works in the field. We gathered both quantitative as well as qualitative data from a survey completed by over 200 participants.

Key Findings

We managed to obtain responses from 201 Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches from organisations of varying sizes, varying levels of Agility and varying industries. These are our key findings:

  • The most common successful strategies involved bringing people together to solve problems. Although it may sound obvious, it underscores how important it is to build networks and groups of people that can drive change together — you can’t do that on your own;
  • The use of politics — building coalitions, using existing power structures and finding sponsors — is considered a successful strategy in organisations that score low on Agility, regardless of their size;
  • As organisations become more agile, politics make way for the use of metrics, bringing people together and using facts and arguments to persuade and drive change;
  • Team members, management and stakeholders, are considered the most useful allies by participants. Surprisingly, and contrary to what we expected, other Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches are far less likely to be considered allies. External consults are rarely considered to be useful allies and/or worth building relationships with;

About The Survey

Our sample consisted of 119 Scrum Masters and 82 Agile Coaches from all over the world. On average, participants indicated a 4.4-year experience in their role and over 15 years in their industry in general.

The survey managed to attract responses from a wide variety of organisations, of varying sizes (92 large, 86 medium and 32 small), from various sectors (153 IT-oriented, 48 non-IT).

On a scale from 1 to 10, the average self-categorized level of Agility of the companies was about halfway (4.8). We used an online survey — Google Forms — to invite these participants to share with us the strategies that worked for them. Please note that the choice of the survey software may have influenced the outcome as not all organisations authorize the access of Google applications from company networks.

Most Common Strategies

We invited participants to categorize their successful strategies according to a predetermined set, while also adding a more detailed description afterward. Ranked from most to least frequent, we found the following:

Most common allies according to participants of our survey (N=201)

It is clear that the most effective strategy for our participants is to bring people together to solve the problem. Over 82% reported an approach in this category. Although it may sound obvious, it underscores how important it is to build networks and groups of people that can drive change together — you can’t do that on your own.

The most effective strategy for our participants is to bring people together to solve the problem

Involving leadership is particularly relevant here, as mentioned by many participants in this category. Several participants reported success by bringing together members from the leadership level in ‘transition teams’ or ‘Agile Working Groups’ that resolved organisational impediments beyond the control of individual Scrum Teams. One participant shared how this team used an ‘Impediment Backlog’ populated by the teams, effectively turning them into the stakeholders of these transition teams.

Other successful strategies are education (52%), the use of metrics/measures to make visible the impact of impediments (48%) and the use of facts and arguments to persuade (43%). One participant provided an excellent example of these strategies as “visualizing, showing where the impediments affect the whole system’s flow and then working with all of the stakeholders to come up with a solution.”

Another good example of these strategies was described as “articulating a Deficit of Done, which shows the impact of the external problem (e.g. an impediment or dependency) on the team’s ability to create increments of production quality.”.

Interestingly, the use of technology or software, the use of (external) experts and politics were not considered as successful, or at least not often used successfully.

“We created an ‘Agile Working Group’ containing a small number of 1st/2nd tier leaders who were passionate about growing agility. This group (5 members) focus on either directly assisting to remove the impediments or taking it to senior leaders.”
Illustrations by Thea Schukken

Most Useful Allies

We can’t change the environment of Scrum Teams on our own. We need help from allies that can create space for new ways of working, for people to break through traditions and habits — technological, procedural or political. We invited participants to select their most useful allies from a provided set of options:

Most important allies according to participants of our survey (N=201)

Team members are by and large the most important ally of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches in changing the environment of Scrum Teams, as reported by over a third of our participants (35%). One participant described this as moving “the conversation and authority to where the information is. Those who have the most intimate understanding of the issue, often also have the most effective suggestions for durable solutions.”

After team members, the most important allies are sponsors in leadership positions (25%) and business stakeholders (13%). One interesting finding is that only 9% of participants consider their colleagues (Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches) to be allies. We would’ve expected this to be higher.

A very small number of participants (2%) considered external consultants to be useful allies

Furthermore, a very small number of participants (2%) considered external consultants to be useful allies. As most organisations employ external consultants of one kind or another, it would be interesting to explore why. But the survey doesn’t provide us with data to do this. Perhaps consultants don’t frequently work with Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches enough. Moreover, given the temporary nature of their engagement, they might not be considered a good investment when seeking long-term allies.

When all is said and done, finding the right allies can be a challenging task, especially in larger organisations. One participant described this as “going into the jungle” and explains a strategy of asking “Who knows the most about X?” to move up or around the organisational hierarchy to find key allies.

Illustrations by Thea Schukken

Differences between Organisations

We also employed more advanced statistical magic to explore if the use of strategies and allies depended on factors such as experience and/or the size and agility of organisations.

We found that politics is used more frequently to enact change in less Agile organisations. As agility increases, so does the use of facts and arguments to persuade to drive further change. This seems to fit with the empirical process that underlies Agility; gather data to validate assumptions and make decisions based on what you learn. But to change organisations towards such a mindset, politics may be necessary initially. An interesting additional observation is that more Agile organisations tend to bring people together more frequently to drive change.

We found that politics is used more frequently to enact change in less Agile organisations. As agility increases, so does the use of facts and arguments to persuade and drive further change.

We also found that as people become more experienced in their role, they increasingly rely on the use of metrics to enable change. They also focus more on educating others. The survey doesn’t tell us what ‘educating’ looks like, but one can certainly hope that the use of metrics is an important strategy to educate others.

The size of the company did not significantly influence the use of strategies or allies.

So What Does this Mean?

In the end, the results from our survey bring us back to the principal question of any transformation: what pattern is driving change successfully? Do we need a visionary leader believing that Agile is the right way to go, initiating a top-down change initiative? Or do we need to foster a bottom-up approach from the trenches until it delivers data that proves Agile’s usefulness before the organisation embraces it fully? Or shall we engage in the agile pincer movement that combines both approaches — top-down as well as bottom-up — to bypass potential incumbents of the middle management and make change happen?

The results from our survey suggest that participants feel that ‘engaging in politics’ is a helpful strategy during the early stages of agility. But as agility increases, so does the reliance on metrics and shared sense-making to create an increasingly Agile-friendly culture. This supports the pragmatism of the Agile pincer movement as a means of change, where bottom-up change is empowered by top-down support. Our results also show how critical the support of management and leadership is in any change initiative to become an agile organisation.

The results from our survey suggest that participants feel that ‘engaging in politics’ is a helpful strategy during the early stages of agility. But as agility increases, so does the reliance on metrics and shared sense-making to create an increasingly Agile-friendly culture.

The purpose of our survey was to explore what strategies Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches use to help organisations work more effectively with Scrum. We used broad strokes, both in the questions and the analysis, to identify interesting patterns. We’d love to explore these further. What kind of politics are used? What kind of metrics are used? How are people finding allies? When and why does the shift from politics to data occur? We hope to answer these questions in future research.

Future Research

  • We’d love to explore cultural differences in the use of strategies;
  • We’d love to explore why it is that Scrum Masters don’t consider other Scrum Masters and/or Agile Coaches as important allies;
  • We’d love to dig more deeply into what kind of political strategies work. The use of politics often has a bad smell associated with it. But many kinds of politics, like the building of coalitions, finding allies and building connections, are vital to change efforts;

Join our upcoming Scrum Master Learning Journey to discover how you can make a bigger impact as a Scrum Master by engaging with the broader community. Or join our Professional Scrum Master- or Professional Scrum Master II-classes to develop a deeper understanding of Scrum and explore strategies for how to increase transparency, inspection, and adaption.