Strong sense of responsibility sets scrum teams apart

minute read

Scrum master Alex Strang reflects on what sets teams working within a Scrum framework apart from other project teams.

“Without responsibility there can be no freedom.”

I love this quote. I heard it last week on a podcast which I was listening to as part of Lola’s Learning Thursdays (company-wide dedicated learning time). In it, Holocaust survivor Edith Eger was interviewed about how to overcome anything life throws at you - and she’d know. It got me thinking about responsibility and ownership, and how these attitudes impact our lives.

Obviously this is an overly simplified comparison considering the origin of that quote, but my interpretation in the context of this post is as follows: we often think that if we had people taking responsibility from us, we would be freer; but the deeper truth is probably that a true sense of freedom comes from accepting more responsibility, taking control and having a firm hand on your own steering wheel through life.

It is my belief that understanding this and demonstrating it as a scrum master is the true secret of the trade. Most people can learn the rules of Scrum relatively easily, and with experience you can master techniques and learn approaches to resolve any issue. But as a scrum master you will never be as powerful as a full scrum team: a group of individuals all feeling responsible for their own work and yet connected by a shared sense of ownership, and empowered to perform their best in their own specialisms. That is a force of nature.

Scrum is a structure that allows all individuals to have control, and not only that, but have control and responsibility across disciplines within the team. When a team is fully empowered you can pull anyone out for a short time and it can continue to operate and deliver. The focus on team self-management allows for a culture of interdependence rather than reliance, which might appear similar on first read, but is a crucial and powerful differentiator. It can support an environment where people’s potential is allowed to fully develop, which results in engaged and motivated individuals - which ultimately leads to high quality products and successful businesses.

By way of comparison, the reverse of this is the classic waterfall project manager - one person becomes the lynchpin on which a whole project and team relies. This project manager holds the control and the team members “just do”. This can and does work, but it adds risk to the process. The most obvious of which is the over-reliance on a single person to drive the project forward - if the project manager is taken out of the game everything grinds to a halt. Also, in my experience it rarely makes for an enjoyable or successful (from a cost and timing perspective) project in the long term.

In avoiding those pitfalls, scrum masters face two key challenges: first, they need to keep their ego in check. They have a voice in the team, but it is the same volume and has the same value as everyone else's - and it is not a managerial voice. The role is that of a facilitator, more than a leader. This leads to the second challenge, which is the hardest for me personally: to give the team free rein to do as they think is best, even when I might feel I know better. This may work out well, better than planned even, but it could also fail and confirm my worries. However, these experiences are absolutely key to the growth and development of the individuals (including the scrum master) and the team as a whole, and they should be embraced.

So, let’s bring this back to the quote from the beginning. The primary focus of a scrum master (in my humble view) should be to create and sustain an environment where the team feels responsible for its joint success while the individual team members are all equally responsible for their work and each other. A challenge for sure, but pure magic when it works.

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