Friday, May 13, 2011

Bad scrum, good scrum and trust

Years ago I switched my development team to scrum. Or at least what I thought was scrum: we had teams, product owners, we carefully followed the sprint and stand-up process. Then we carefully sized our stories and we carefully worked to produce average work. of decent quality. It was scrum, but now I would call it "bad scrum".
It was bad because we had built ourselves a straight jacket, and none of us dared to step out of line with the risk of blowing the sprint. Arguably, there were attenuating circumstances: the teams were walking on eggs, working on a large C++ program that few us understood. Still I have seen this behavior elsewhere. It is a behavior of risk aversion, sustained by worries of the whole team.

So you might ask, "What is then good scrum"? Good scrum is when you follow the process but stop worrying about it.But most importantly, good scrum is when you have managed to build a liberating trust among all members of the team. All too often developers are suspicious of other people's work, or worse they have the "not invented here syndrome" where they need to make their mark in the code or the design for it to be acceptable. Strangely enough this type of behavior is more destructive in an agile process than a waterfall process! In an agile process like scrum, a lack of trust will amplify the risk aversion of the team, and this will kill your productivity. Remarkably, the notion of trust is rarely mentioned and yet it is fundamental. Take the size of a scrum team; Some people say 5 members, some say 7 or 9, or even 11 in certain domains; And yet you could even have a scrum team size of 21... if you manage to get the whole team to trust each other! A team of 5 often works better than a team of 9, simply because it is easier to build trust among 5 than among 9!

So you might ask me, how to build trust? If you are a crazy person like me, you have spent years building mathematical models of processes and people, you see trust as a process. But if you are not, then the simple rule is to show others that you trust them. You need to show it with your words but also in your actions. Then, if you are the scrum master, be a trust policeman! Anytime you see someone behaving in a manner that goes against trust, you stop them gently and bring the conversation back to trusting relation. Finally, you eliminate people who really cannot play the game, or if they are "the chosen ones" you ring fence them, which usually means you give them a babysitter to keep them from damaging trust relations (a painful job).

Having said all this, I am sure you have heard of catastrophe theory, which can visually be seen as moving from a continuous regime to another as a single event. Here is the insight: what do you think happens when you over trust your scrum team, and they over trust themselves? They can hit a wall, fall completely apart, and lose their trust (and yours too!). The magic then of a the good manager is to understand how complex the projects you give to your teams can be; And that my friend, is a very difficult task!

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