What I Did Not Learn At ScrumMaster Training

I was perplexed in the difference between the velocities of the two Agile (Scrum) teams. When I examined the metrics of two different Scrum teams, I noticed they produced wildly different outputs. The first, let’s call them Team Alpha, produced excellent work. Always completing on time and meeting their targets. The other, Team Beta, was late for target after target and their output was disappointing at best.

Everyone involved was competent, highly motivated and each of them had worked together well on previous projects. There was nothing abnormal about their goals and the tasks assigned to the two teams was roughly equivalent in complexity.

Yet their velocity was strikingly different.

It was time to take a look and see what was happening and observe each of the teams in action.

A Tale of Two Scrum Teams

I began with Team Alpha and found they were working well together. The team operated smoothly and efficiently, showing respect for one another and following each of the ceremonies as expected. The ScrumMaster expertly handled disruptions and disagreements, working with those involved to effortlessly get the team back on track. They had become a close team over the past six sprints. I also noticed that these team members were not rotated in and out of the group.

On the other hand, when I observed Team Beta, I found a different environment entirely. The members of the team had disagreements, as could be expected, but those were allowed to fester and grow into arguments and heated discussions. In this case, the ScrumMaster was unable to control the group, which quickly led to a low velocity and reduced quality. I also noticed that the team was constantly shifting team members and only three team members had been with the team over the last six sprints. The team was continuously changing.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the Beta ScrumMaster had no formal understanding of how group dynamics work. Which is effectively managing teams to their various stages. This completely explained their lack of progress and their inconsistent results. The people on the team had not learned how to work together due to the ScrumMaster’s lack of knowledge about group development.

When I was a young man, I remember learning about group development in the Boy Scouts of America. The BSA teaches the Tuckman model which is forming, storming, norming and performing.  Because the ScrumMaster of Team Beta did not understand the team development in the Tuckman model, the team in fact never got out of the storming phase, which completely explained their lack of progress and the roughness of their results.

The Tuckman Model

  • Forming: The team acts as individuals and there is a lack of clarity about the team’s purpose and individual roles.
  • Storming: Conflicts arise as people begin to establish their place in the team.
  • Norming: There is a level of consensus and agreement within the team. There is clarity about individual roles. The role of the Scrum lead is important in managing this.
  • Performing: The group has a clear strategy and shared vision. It can operate autonomously and resolve issues positively.

But how could this happen? Doesn’t Scrum training help? Why wouldn’t a highly trained ScrumMaster be able to successfully lead his team through forming and storming and into norming and performing?

As I reflected on my own Scrum training, I realized that the leadership skills required to guide people through these phases so they reach their optimum velocity was not part of my Scrum training at all.

The ScrumMaster for Team Alpha had received leadership training a few years before, and understood how to work with people and get them to operate as functional teams. On the other hand, Team Beta’s ScrumMaster was a developer without any experience or training in management or leadership.

Since ScrumMasters often come from development or other technical backgrounds, they have not tended to emphasize people skills in their training and career paths. While they may be incredible at their technical roles, leading teams can be a challenge for them due to the lack of focus in this area.

Wrapping Up

Thus, if you, as a manager, want your Scrum teams to succeed, make sure your ScrumMasters receive leadership training, coaching and mentoring so they understand how to work with people in groups. They must become comfortable with gently moving the members of the teams through the phases of team development as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you may become discouraged due to the lack of results from your teams.

So what happened with Team Beta? After spending a few hours coaching the ScrumMaster on the finer points of leading a group, his team quickly moved to the norming phase and the velocity started to improve. Over time, Team Beta’s velocity went on to match that of Team Alpha.

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