Scrum in Practice

Category: Commentaries

Written by: Vandana Roy

We have come a long way in Agile and Scrum. There are many organizations who have adopted Agile, but are they really following it? The organization as a whole perhaps, but there may still be parts in the organization that have not adopted Agile completely and are still resistant. Teams are following waterfall disguised as Scrum and often complain they are not succeeding. The most common encounters of Scrum in disguise are 

  • Teams rely on either Scrum-Masters or Functional Managers to divide the tasks for them. In many cases Functional Managers prefer themselves over team for splitting tasks.
  • Key Agile ceremonies such as release planning, backlog refinement and sprint planning meetings are conducted without the entire team’s involvement
  • Functional Managers are always present in Retrospective meetings; this often hampers open inputs and candid feedbacks from team members.

Example challenges:

So as a Scrum-Master how do we handle these challenges? I faced this situation and I realized that if resisted and tried to educate the team about Scrum, then the working environment turned only hostile. So I had to find a better solution to handle the situation and I came up with the following two approaches:

  • Be observant; let the functional managers and team follow what according to them is right. Wait for the team to fail and then you can step in & coach the team on how following core scrum principles could have prevented failure in the first place.

This scenario needs lot of patience to look for the wrong moves and alertness towards pointing major mistakes. However, a major downside is it will take long time for the team to realize that their method is failing. Worse, there is the possibility that the team would never recognize the problem and would never agree they are wrong. They might continue to strongly believe in their approach.

  • Alternately, allow the team to follow their methods that are not totally  Scrum, and support them to an extent. But, enable the team to realize their mistakes early; this one is my favorite as it addresses all the three challenges that I’ve mentioned in the beginning.

To a certain extent, I would let the teams follow processes as they believe - though they may seem wrong from an agile perspective; this will ensure that as a team they fail fast.  I might even break the tasks down for the team myself and give highly challenging estimates that the team may not be able to meet. When they push back, stating the estimations are not correct or there are more tasks to be added, then I’d tell them in my opinion the tasks breakdown & their estimations are accurate, and if the team gauges work differently, then perhaps team members should have listed their tasks and given estimates. Eureka! The team realizes they should have themselves done tasking and estimation rather than I tasking for the team members; my objective is fulfilled.  When Functional Managers see that sprint goals are not met, and that tasks are not being completed - they retrospect with team members & understand that tasks were not complete since estimates were inaccurate. Since it came from the team, the Functional Managers are bound to give a chance to the team to do tasking and estimation activity. Hence problem with Functional Managers not letting team involve in estimation and tasking is solved.

Moving forward

The team has now committed to doing estimation and tasking, but how would they do these without knowing about the story details? The team comes to me looking for a solution and I explain the value of attending key ceremonies such as release planning and grooming and sprint planning meeting. Eureka! Team realizes and agrees to go for all the ceremonial meetings and convinces Functional Managers. Another problem solved!

In another case, the functional Managers always insisted on attending retrospectives and they never agreed with the concern that team members would not open up under managers’ presence. Due to this, team members lost interest in Retrospectives and they thought it is waste of time. To solve this problem I asked the Functional Manager to do me a favor by not attending just one retrospective and I promised to share the results. In one such retrospective - I told the team that Functional Manger will not be able to attend and the day’s retrospective was totally confidential. The result of the retrospective was that team gave more feedbacks, shared more pain points, came up with action items and agreed to act on those action items. After that I did a comparison between the retrospectives held in the presence of Functional Manager and the one retrospective held without Functional Manager, and shared the results. I was able to provide substantial evidence to Functional Manager that his absence is letting the team improve on its own by identifying their mistakes, looking for improvements and overall - it was turned productive for team’s performance.

In essence -conflicts are bound to happen when ScrumMasters and Functional Managers work together in a project. Their roles overlap a lot and another contest is that ScrumMasters always support and want to implement Agile, whereas Functional Managers would not prefer any specific methodology; their primary concern & interest is about team performance & deliverables. It is ScrumMasters’ utmost responsibility to convince the Functional Managers how much beneficial Scrum can be - if followed correctly and passionately!