Thursday, October 11, 2012

Scrum Masters and Coaching

Couple of days ago, I went through ‘The Scrum Guide’ developed and sustained by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. I focused on the ‘coaching’ aspects involved in the role of Scrum Master and found the following.

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:
       *  Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality
       * Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:
       *  Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;

Thinking through these aspects, I started recollecting a decade-old incident. We were new to agile methods at that time. Scrum was not very popular in India as well as other parts of the world. We were learning to do iterative development and trying to understand and follow agile principles. XP was well known.

Our team was not fully self-organized. Jim, one of the senior project managers in the organization was responsible for building the project team, working with them and making sure that we deliver. He had prior experience in executing projects using RUP (Rational Unified Process).  He was a wonderful person, seasoned manager, knowledge seeker and mentor.

To me, the role Jim played appears similar to the role of Scrum Master.

During the early days of this project Jim noticed that Sailesh, one of our team members used to come late (by an hour or two or even three sometimes) to work, complete his tasks and go home. Jim was open-minded. He believed in flexible work hours. With no urge to make any judgment Jim was not bothered as long as Sailesh was able to deliver and meet his commitments. Sailesh was a very good programmer who wrote high quality code and took charge of complex features.

After a month or so, Jim found that one of the team members needed some support from Sailesh in solving a technical issue. Sailesh was not around. As usual, he arrived late that day and started concentrating on his work. Obviously, everyday Sailesh had just enough time to take care of his tasks at work. How could have his daily schedule provided him time for collaboration or hand-holding or mutual help? He felt self-sufficient because of his skills and experience. He did not need help from his team mates. As you may guess, he was not showing any signs of collaborative attitude.

That was an impediment.  Having observed similar incidents with Sailesh, Jim was concerned and called for a meeting the next day at 9.00 am. Jim wanted me to accompany them in the meeting. This is because Jim was preparing me to play his role over the next few months.

The next morning Sailesh came in late. He entered the meeting room at 9.40 am with a quick smile and a casual remark, “Hi Jim, I reached just now. Shall we start?”.   That was a 40 minute delay!

Not expecting anything more than that, Jim responded, “Sailesh it is 9.40! How come you got delayed?”.

“I went to bed an hour past midnight and got up late!”

“We had scheduled this meeting yesterday. You accepted and you went home on time yesterday. So, I was wondering this morning and worried why you did not reach by 9.00 to start this meeting.”

“True. But somehow I am used to starting my day little late. Today I had to fixe my flat tire which I did not expect! I am sorry.”

I was listening to the conversation.  I was shocked. No doubt, Sailesh was not organized. He was focused on his tasks alone. He did not value the time of his coworkers.

The meeting continued for 10 more minutes and ended with a stern remark from Jim. He said, “Sailesh, You need to be available at work on time as per our corporate work hours. If you are going to be late by 30 minutes or an hour it is ok as long as you are consistent and all of us in the team know your availability. It is about team work. We are not working in this team as individual contributors.”

Sailesh left the meeting room. Jim was talking to me. We talked about two options. The first option was to talk to Sailesh, coach him and make him understand his strengths and improvement areas. The second one was, of course if the first option does not work, to move him out of our project for further counseling or action.

Eventually, Sailesh resigned after couple of months. It appeared to me that he wanted to remain as an individual contributor and specialize in software architecture. I wasn’t sure of his professional success because of his lack of collaborative spirit!

Looking back, I wonder if Jim and I could have handled it differently. Were we reactive? Did we fail to pay attention early or bond with Sailesh early? If we come across a similar situation now, what will we do?

Have you come across a soft issue like this in your projects? If yes, what was your approach?

I believe an incident like this has to be analyzed with the coaching role of Scrum Masters. Next week, on 20th October, Saturday, I am delivering a session ‘The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for Scrum Masters’ at Agile Tour 2012 to present similar incidents and discuss my thoughts on how to turn these around with powerful questions. If you are in Chennai, don’t miss this event! More info:

To know more on this read the 4-part blog series 'The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You!'
Note: For confidentiality reasons, I have changed the names of all characters in this story.

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