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Being a "Leader who serves" – during a pandemic: Challenges of a Scrum Master

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

If you listen to conversations today, there seems to be only a time before and after Corona. That's the same for me. As a Scrum Master (SM) - currently in a SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) environment in a customer's IT programme - Corona has not affected me as much as employees in other industries. However, it is a challenge to take over an agile team remotely. This is a new situation for all those involved in this environment, as working remotely was not the status quo at all. This was the case for all roles involved, especially the Product Owner (PO), the team members as well as the Release Train Engineer (RTE).

Initial situation:

In my case, I took over an agile team that had not previously worked in an agile way and could not be introduced to PI Planning the same way the other teams in the train were. This led to general frustration and a negative mood. Furthermore, there were no (agile) structures and the work packages were not bundled according to SAFe. Uncertainties about what features are, how epics are used and how big the stories should be cut did not contribute to the team feeling better. The team was not only preoccupied by uncertainty about the content of the work, but also about how to interact and work with each other. Most of the team members had never seen each other before. The only communication they had was via Skype, hearing the other persons voice.

(Above all) Since Corona we all know the problems that remote workshops and Scrum ceremonies can bring with them. In calls people who are more dominant by nature are more likely to be heard and perceived than people who are more reserved. I felt the general dissatisfaction of the team already in our first call


Challenge:

I was faced with the challenge of getting a frustrated team back on track. Of course I not only want the team to become more structured, but also to enjoy working together. In my opinion, each team member can only deliver the best possible work if they feel accepted, valued and heard.

The first two sprints I tried to do the normal Scrum ceremonies and to work through the sprints according to theory. It quickly became clear that the team had not been qualified to act according to SAFe or Scrum due to their history. Because of this we used an entire sprint only for planning and working through the non-existent structures. At the same time, we also used the newly gained time for team building.

Before I could even think about how to approach this situation, I had to think about which tool to use for the remote workshops. Each of the existing tools (Skype, Webex, Teams, Zoom) has its advantages and disadvantages.


Remote tool:

Since there are many external consultants in our team, we ended up choosing Microsoft teams. With teams we have the possibility to use channels under the main group. We made use of this feature by creating different channels for our working groups (divided by topic). The onboarding of the team to the new tool was another challenge, but the team quickly recognised the advantages and has since come to appreciate it.


Workshop agenda:

Apart from the lack of structure and team cohesion, the project brief was not clear. For this reason, the Product Manager (PM) was also invited to the workshops, so that not only the Product Owner (PO) but also the team had the daily opportunity to clarify open questions directly with the Product Manager (PM).


I have brought along an excerpt from the workshop agenda:



Check In - Check Out

The decisive factor for me was that the team had a "check in" in the morning and a "check out" in the evening by means of a short retro.

The daily check-ins with the camera created closeness to each other, because you could see each other every day and could not hide in your own four walls. Already after the 3rd day you could feel how the team approached each other differently. Of course, it wasn't only the check-ins that helped the developers to act more and more as a team. The intensive cooperation during the workshops also helped the team to come closer together. Additionally, the presence of the product manager brought a certain commitment and positive pressure.

Further, the clearly defined goals for each day also helped the team to focus.


Presentation work status:

Every day the team members were able to present their work status to the Product Owner, Scrum Master and the Product Manager. This created a short feedback cycle. Questions were answered directly and changes could be incorporated immediately. In addition, the team was "forced" by the time pressure to have the courage to accept a gap (in their planning/knowledge?) and take a certain risk (agile principles). As the progress was immediately visible, the team gained new motivation and confidence to be able to work in a regulated, agile mode. The joint achievement of goals is of great importance for team building, which was very clear in this case.

Another realisation was that all team members as well as Product Owner had to be present in Microsoft Teams online or in the main group the whole day. This gave them the opportunity, just like in the office, to simply talk to someone and clarify questions directly without having to make long phone calls or wait for a call back. Of course, this meant that all team members, including PO, had to completely block the entire workshop days in their calendars. If someone really had to attend a different appointment during the day, a short message was made in the chat and all team members got informed when they would be back. In this way a physical workspace was simulated, and this worked perfectly.


Conclusion:

If an agile team, due to whatever circumstances, gets into a state where the path seems hopeless, a temporary 1:1 supervision of the Scrum Master as well as the Product Owner can strengthen the team. If the team works remotely and does not (yet) know each other personally, this workshop variant is a great opportunity to weld the team together into one unit, to get a common understanding of the content and thus prepare for an onboarding into the current project. Sometimes you must take a step back to move forward again.

Today, about 3 months and 2 PIs later, still in a special situation due to Covid19, I can say with joy and pride that the team is doing a very good job and the cohesion can be felt every day. We also have a lot of fun working together and we know each other so well that we can laugh together. From a frustrated, de-motivated team to a strong, well-positioned team that supports each other and together, now full of energy, work towards a goal.


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