The Afternoon ScrumMaster: Keeping Agile Teams on Track

Context explains a lot of our behavior.

I’m going to recount a very intriguing case that I feel I can now retell to prove my point. In the warm summer months of August, I was engaged with an ambitious client who wanted to pursue Scrum adoption across the board. Alas, this enthusiasm extracted a steep price from the servant of the ‘Flying Wizards’ company team. A lot of time has passed, and my metaphorical obfuscation will protect the innocent.

The team was readied for the first wave. This group, veterans of two previous sprints, spearheaded the assault against a corporate culture that demanded action, a culture where stories of their Mongolian-style releases (raids) were recounted in post-release parties amidst much wine and rancor. These are fighting folks who soon realized that much is placed at risk when waging big wars — much more could be achieved if they were to master their lost art of guerrilla warfare, of winning regular manageable battles. In this pursuit, Scrum was ushered in to bring back the collective spirit of teamwork, shared accountability, and smooth releases.

As the coach for the Flying Wizards and two more first-wave teams, I was thrilled to see these teams get on to a stable start. Being one of the only two coaches at this organization, my day-to-day attention soon shifted to other teams, but I maintained medium- to light-touch consultation with the Flying Wizards and other first wave teams. Over my ritualistic morning coffee, I would often run into the ScrumMaster for the Flying Wizards team. Soon a pattern seemed to emerge where the dutiful ScrumMaster would appear very tense and worried, with little to no time to talk until noon. Strangely enough, our banter would return after lunch time. I decided to investigate further.

jumping through hoops agile scrumI attended their daily standup and realized that the nature of the meeting had drastically changed into a ‘command and control’ style operation. Later that afternoon, I talked to the ScrumMaster about it, how I was puzzled by his behavior, and asked why he was driving the team like a drill sergeant. He explained his behavior by saying that he felt responsible for the sprint commitment and would do whatever it took to make sure that the team delivered. To ensure this, he needed to understand a solution path fully or have the team follow his commands. Therefore he was very busy before and after the stand-up in the morning, and it was typically by noon that he freed himself from his micro-monitoring tasks. He needed to know and keep track of what the team was doing, and how! He had become an Afternoon ScrumMaster.

After further inquiry, I learned that the Generals had reverted to form. At a recent departmental meeting, their senior vice president had talked about the seriousness of the organization’s commitment to Scrum. To accomplish their objective, it was declared that the ScrumMaster was the ‘single-wringable’ neck. A slap on my forehead later, it was clear why this had backfired.

Able leaders do not pass the buck. After my conversation with the ScrumMaster, I met with the Sr. VP, who took ownership of these unintended consequences. He recognized that the rest of the organization had interpreted his commitment towards Scrum as reverting to the hierarchical ways of past. He promptly clarified his messaging through the various channels at his disposal.

Epilogue

Misinterpretations are common within any large organization. This is part of the any organizational fabric. The courage to seek clarity is a trait most desired in a ScrumMaster. Would you have succumbed? Are you an Afternoon ScrumMaster?

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