How we are all doing SCRUM wrong, why it matters, and how to fix it.

Posted by on May 15, 2017 in Business | No Comments

Anyone who has spent any length of time in the Software industry has heard of the “Daily  Standup” and anyone who has participated in a standup is likely familiar the “3 Questions”.  Repeat them with me now:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What are you doing today?
  3. Do you have any roadblocks?

Over the course of my career I’ve heard those questions thousands of times, I’m guessing you probably have too.  I’ve heard SCRUM coaches, SCRUM trainers, SCRUM Masters, Project Managers, CTO’s and countless developers use those three questions.  What if I told you those were the wrong three questions?  Well, those are the wrong three questions, and that is how most of the industry is doing SCRUM wrong.

Right now, you might be thinking “Why do the questions we ask matter?”.  To answer your question, I want to start by talking about the concept of a SCRUM team.  From the “SCRUM Guide” by the SCRUM Alliance we get this definition for a SCRUM team.

“Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team. The team model in Scrum is designed to optimize flexibility, creativity, and productivity.”

One of the core concepts of a SCRUM team is being “self-organizing”. The team is supposed to work together to determine how the work gets done and how to move forward most effectively. This is a key element to SCRUM that most clients I’ve worked at have overlooked.  Most “teams” are little more than a collection of individuals working on backlog items, and reporting their status to the Scrum Master (SM).  I believe that this is largely because we are asking the wrong three questions. Those three questions largely focus on the individual and the SM.  For a SCRUM team to become a highly effective team they must actually behave and function as a TEAM.  To successfully do this each team member must feel like they:

  1. have a say.
  2. are accountable to the team.
  3. that other members of the team are accountable to them.
  4. that their efforts make a valued contribution.
  5. that the team is a team and not just a bunch of individuals working on the same project.

Let’s step into a daily standup using the three questions above and see if they help the individual members feel those five things:

SM: Welcome to stand up let’s get going, John why don’t you start.

John: Well Mr. SM yesterday I did, A, B, and C.  Today I am going to do Y, Z and am blocked by X.

SM: Great, let’s talk about X after standup.  Ok Jim, you’re up.

Jim: OK SM, yesterday I did Q, and R, today I’m going to do E, F and G.  I don’t have any road blocks

SM: Cool, Joe you want to go next?

Joe: Sure SM, yesterday I did…

Sound familiar? Does John feel like he has a say? Probably, he is deciding what he is doing today so that is fine.  Is John accountable to the team? No. Why?  He is reporting his status to the SM not the team, this implies accountability to the SM.  Is the team accountable to him? Again, no for the same reason, the team is giving a status report to the SM. Does John feel like his efforts matter?  Maybe. Does John feel like a part of a team?  Probably not, he feels like a guy making a status report to a manager for his individual work.

When the standup goes like the that Jim and Joe are usually thinking about what they need to report on while John is talking, and John tunes out as soon as he is done.  As the individuals report to the SM rather than the team the others tune out and it keeps the team from coalescing and creating the accountability to the team as a whole.

How do we change our questions to improve the accountability and unity of the team?  Let’s look at a slightly different standup:

SCRUM Master (SM): Welcome to stand up let’s get going.

John: Hey, I’ll start, I finished everything I  committed to yesterday. Today I am going commit to do Y, Z but am blocked on X.

Jim: Hey John I think I can help with X let’s talk after stand up.  So, I met my commitments, except I didn’t get E done because I got blocked. Joe and SM helped clear the bock, so today I am going to commit to do E, F and G.

Joe: Jim if you need any more help with E let me know, yesterday I finished my commitments…

I hope the first thing you noticed is that the SM got the meeting going and then stayed out of it. After the standup, he can help resolve X but during the standup he needs to remember that he is a chicken, not a pig, and let the team work it out.  I know that has nothing to do with the questions but it’s another common occurrence and making the change will help the team develop.

What are the questions that were used in that standup?

  1. Did I keep my commitments from yesterday? If the answer is No the team needs to know why.
  2. What am I committing to do today?
  3. What help do I need from the team?

Does John feel like he has a say? This doesn’t really change with the questions themselves but as the team becomes more accountable to each other John will feel more empowered to help direct the team.  Is John accountable to the team? Rather than giving a status report to the SM John is telling the team if he kept his commitments, accountability to the team is a natural outcome of making and keeping commitments.  Is the team accountable to him? As they keep the commitments they made, or they help him understand why commitments aren’t met, he will feel like they have skin in the game and his desire to help them meet their commitments will increase.  Does John feel like a part of a team?  Absolutely, as the team works together to solve the problems that come up it will improve team unity immensely.  The SM is the second level roadblock remover, not to say that he shouldn’t be aware of every roadblock, but he should only step in to help remove road blocks that the team can’t remove themselves.

The change in the questions may seem subtle or even trivial at first, but as you try them out you will find that they do help improve the team, and as the team improves the performance of the team will also improve.  Give them a try for a few sprints and let me know what you think.