Keeping Your Center as a Scrum Master
A few simple rules to keep at hand.
1. Keep your eye on the fundamentals. Always.
There are a lot of shiny objects out in the Agile world these days. Case in point: Many tricky, cleaver, cutesy, and dewy-eyed “techniques” for running a retrospective. It’s as if the goal has become more about entertainment and less about eliciting sources of agony and clearing sand from the gears. If the focus of your retrospectives has become entertainment or some form of being liked, you’ve lost your center. High performers never get tired of practicing the fundamentals. They never get bored with the basics.
2. Know what game is being played in the wider context.
You and every other employee are walking the same halls or joining the same exclusive virtual meetings. You’re using words that sound the same and are marching under the same corporate logo. However, the larger the organization the greater the chance you’re not all playing the same game. The Rules of Play learned in your Agile training will be used against you if the Rules of Play long established in the the company culture are ignored or remain unrecognized. Nothing in your canned Agile training will prepare you for sussing these rules. You’ll need to learn the essential observation and investigation skills elsewhere before the centrifugal force of the company culture grabs your tiny center and throws it out of the system.
3. Study history.
Knowing how things got to be the way they are WILL have a significant influence on how you decide to move forward with your team. Things that look odd at first blush will likely make better sense the more you understand the often convoluted journey the company took on their way to present state. At every employment engagement or consulting gig I develop and maintain mind maps and causal loop diagrams of the company or client culture and history. Each day had a new lesson about the company and team history that would be added to the maps. The older the company, the more complex the maps became. With this in hand, I had a much better sense of where to make what changes and when. Small efforts in key places have a significantly more positive and lasting effect then one giant lever in the wrong place. You need a map to do this successfully and the only one you can trust is the one you create.
4. Trust human nature.
I don’t read or study much about Agile these days. It’s a simple system with easy to find limitations. Most of what I study is focused on research from psychology, neuroscience, and language, to name a few broad areas. The answer to why your retrospectives are becoming repetitive slogs will have much more to do with human dynamics than the artsy trinkets you bring to the event. What separates a scrum master who has actually mastered their trade from an amateur is the depth of their understanding of human nature – both the good and the bad. The pros have invested considerable effort into understanding what motivates each individual working on the project - the team members, management, and executives - what their fears are, their biases, and the patterns of behavior that reflect what’s going on inside their heads. The deeper your understanding into human nature, the stronger your center.
The key here is to work toward understanding. If you’ve pushed too far past this edge into the realm of trying to figure out how to fix, solve, or treat a team member’s limitations, you’ve lost your center. You’re not a therapist, nor should you be. Here, too, your canned Agile training won’t help. You should be working to understand your team’s strengths and limitations so you can competently guide them. And you, being a fellow human, must understand the same about yourself. Which gets me to #5.
5. Heed well the wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi.
Most everyone knows the famous inscription on the Temple at Delphi. “Know thyself.” Independent of any career, the men and women I’ve had the pleasure and honor to learn from and work with have all had a solid understanding of who they are – their capabilities as well as their limitations. The have a strong internal locus of control and they know it. They are life-long learners with multiple Ph.D’s from the School of Hard Knocks. It’s unfortunate that such people are becoming harder to find. Seek them out and model what they do.
"Then what makes a beautiful human being? Isn't it the presence of human excellence? Young friend, if you wish to be beautiful, then work diligently at human excellence. And what is that? Observe those whom you praise without prejudice. The just or the unjust? The just. The even-tempered or the undisciplined? The even-tempered. The self-controlled or the uncontrolled? The self-controlled. In making yourself that kind of person, you will become beautiful - but to the extent you ignore these qualities, you'll be ugly, even if you use every trick in the book to appear beautiful." - Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.6b9
There are two additional inscriptions on the Temple at Delphi. Lesser known but of equal importance. “Nothing in excess” and “Surety brings ruin.” As concerns Scrum mastering, take the “nothing in excess” as caution for knowing your limits. You’re not a therapist, guru, or some other type of superhero. If you are any of these, why the hell are you spending your days shepherding a tiny group of people too smart to figure out how to work together? And Agile isn’t a religion or world view or grand philosophical system. It’s a mindset that has created a long and rich trail of techniques, methodologies, and practices. It has limitations. Know where these edges are and when you’re no longer in Agile-land. Change your behavior accordingly.
“Surety brings ruin” is a maxim every bit as important as “know thyself.” It reminds me of a quote from the master poker player, Erik Seidel: “Less certainty, more inquiry.” Find a way to be genuinely curious about the world in which you work. Manufactured curiosity won’t cut it. Like faked empathy, fake curiosity is easily detected by your team and will erode trust. Genuine curiosity introduces a healthy separation between events and how you interpret them. Difficult conversations around team performance, for example, are part and parcel of a scrum master’s job. If your mind is too busy working up arguments to justify your position, the emotions of the moment will prevent you from quickly finding a way to agreement and resolution. Your surety will cause more harm than good. And remember that bit about trusting human nature.