Scrum Isn't a Spectator Sport! Part Two

December 28, 2010

This is my second post about the need for active participation in order for Scrum to be successful. Part One discussed some the changes involved with managers and how managers can support Scrum teams. This post discusses the changes that individual contributors need to make as participants on a Scrum team.

Scrum defines just enough for teams to self-organize and manage their work, defining roles and boundaries of key participants along with providing all participants full control over their work. Scrum, however, isn’t a rulebook. It’s a framework. This places a responsibility on the people making use of the framework to bring it to life. Even with strong management and organizational support, Scrum will fail if individuals fail to participate. Just like managers, individuals need to learn about what Scrum is really all about and what changes are required in order to make Scrum successful.

For example, there are people who don’t take the initiative to truly understand the goals of the project or even attempt to understand a User Story and the benefit that the business hopes to derive from that User Story. Instead, they simply wait to be assigned tasks. I’ve seen cases where people applauded the fact that a Scrum team is self-organizing and that managers wouldn’t be assigning tasks, only to observe that they were perfectly content to have others on the team assign them tasks!

This isn’t full participation, and if you operate this way, you are selling your team and yourself short. You need to be involved in shaping features, discussing options and approaches to addressing the business need, helping the team provide the greatest value possible to the business. Active participation on a team also means stepping up and volunteering to take on challenging tasks, not waiting to be assigned work.

One big change for many people is the level of conversation and collaboration that is essential to productive Scrum. There should be conversations and active collaboration throughout the entire design, development, and testing of the features, with the team sharing the knowledge and work that goes into taking a feature from a concept to reality.

Using Scrum simply as a project management tool and not a framework for knowledge workers collaborating on solving truly difficult problems will negate many of the benefits of teamwork. This will be evidenced by individuals working on tasks in isolation, with the Scrum board becoming a set of “swim lanes” with the very real risk of finishing a sprint with a lot in progress, but nothing completed.

High-performing, truly collaborative teams limit their work in process at any one time, focusing on completing the highest-priority items first. As we all know,there are always unexpected twists that arise during the actual development of a feature. Collaboration helps to overcome these hurdles more quickly than is possible when individuals wrestle with problems independently.

Another area that is a change and a challenge (at first) is the daily stand-up. The daily stand-up is THE opportunity for a team to monitor its progress and adapt to changing – and unanticipated – circumstances. The key for individuals to remember that the objective for the team is to deliver on its commitments; just because YOUR tasks are on schedule doesn’t eliminate the responsibility that you have to help make sure that the team is on track to meet its commitments.

As a team member, you need to provide clear, unambiguous updates about what you are working on AND you need to listen to others, weighing how the team is progressing. If someone is being unclear about what they are working on or what progress they are making, ask questions!

Sometimes this will mean asking pointed questions about why someone else is taking longer on a task than planned – perhaps they are over their head and need help. Maybe they aren’t getting help from someone else on the team who could help them. It’s up to the team to ask itself the hard questions so that the team will meet its commitments – with quality.

In terms of keeping work both productive and at a high quality, it is up to the participants on self-organizing teams to drive continuous improvement. Each sprint retrospective is an opportunity for the team to ask itself what is going right and what the team can improve upon, such as incorporating new technical practices to increase quality and productivity. In addition, Scrum supports sustainable development, making room for professional learning and development that everyone should be taking advantage of.

This leads to the next change: The relationship between you and your manager. Ideally, it’s less about answering to your manager (unless you are not performing and your team is expressing reservations) and more about having someone who is partnering with you on your career, coaching and advising you along with helping you reach that next level and making new opportunities available to you as you demonstration your capability and growth.

I’ll summarize by stating what might sound unnecessary and obvious: In a Scrum environment, professionals need to be just that, professionals. Professionals who are actively involved with managing and being accountable for their own work and their team’s work; who take responsibility for their professional development, who establish professional, working relationships with those around them.

Scrum works, but it takes active participation and involvement from everyone to succeed.