Applying Scrum (1 of 9): How Great Scrum Masters Rock The Boat

Posted By - Robin Hackshall


Congratulations! You have attended a two-day training course, passed the post-course exam and you now hold a Scrum Master certification. But what happens next? Does your organisation expect you to start applying Scrum with immediate success, delivering twice the work in half the time (or at least that is what the book says)? But it’s not that easy for newly branded Scrum Masters. In fact, seasoned Scrum Masters can struggle to attain success too!

When you step back into the office after attaining your Scrum Master certification and first look at applying Scrum, whether that be with a single team, in a department or across an entire organisation, it can feel like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The Scrum framework provides you and your team with an ability to self-manage and self-organise around the work, while helping to maximise the value that is delivered. However, that flexible and autonomous approach can feel at odds with the methods currently being employed by the organisation to manage the work being undertaken.

Applying Scrum: A Square Peg in a Round Hole
Applying Scrum: A Square Peg in a Round Hole

Your challenge as a new Scrum Master is not just about introducing your team to a new way of working, it includes winning over the hearts and minds of a department and/or an organisation with deep set roots and mindset of, ‘that’s the way we do things around here’.

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the challenges of applying Scrum. Each post will consider some of the obstacles that may be faced and the potential approaches that Scrum Masters can employ to increase success when applying Scrum, while winning over your team, department and organisation as you go.


Rock the boat (but don’t tip the boat over)

It can be difficult for individuals, teams and organisations to embrace a new way of working, particularly because anything new implies introducing things that are unfamiliar. As a Scrum Master supporting the implementation of the Scrum framework you have a difficult balancing act and tightrope to walk. You have to guide those around you as they learn, understand, adopt, and look to continuously improve with Scrum, while at the same time balancing those efforts against the needs and expectations of an organisation that may have already agreed to product delivery deadlines that may have been set weeks, months or even years ago.

If you try to implement a new way of working too quickly, there could be push-back from team members who don’t fully understand why processes and practices are changing. Furthermore, they may struggle to see the benefits of those changes that they are being asked to put into practice. In short, the team will not buy into the new way of working and they may lose faith and trust in you as their Scrum Master. Conversely taking too much time to support the change in working practices, while gaining trust within the team, could see delays in delivery that may be unacceptable to the organisation.

When applying Scrum, it can take time to build trust in the new approach to delivery, especially if previous change programmes have failed or had limited success. It is therefore important to be transparent in what you are doing, clearly articulating what is changing and the impact that you expect it to have. These changes do not need to be ‘big’, in fact smaller changes are likely to be easier to implement as well as providing faster feedback. The success of these smaller initiatives will also create a ‘feel good factor’ that could be contagious.

As things do not always go exactly according to plan, it is important to have a consistent message and sometimes prepare for the worst. Be honest. Acknowledge the fact that things may not go well, we may fail, but every time that we do, we will learn from the experience and that will help both in better decision making and in the application of new ways of working.

“Trust is built with consistency”

Lincoln Chafee


Applying Scrum using the MAYA principle

The success of small changes when applying Scrum can also be attributed to the MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable) principle. Developed by Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) the principle looks to provide users with enough familiarality with regards to what they already use or understand, combined with enough new features that are easy to adopt.

Loewy believed that,

“The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”

This approach highlights the dichotomy between two human preferences:-

  1. Neophilia – love or enthusiasm for what is new
  2. Neophobia – the fear of anything new

One of the more recent examples of the MAYA principle is the iPhone. Around 40 versions of the iPhone have been release since the original iPhone in 2007. If you were to compare the first iPhone to the most recent iPhone 14 Pro Max, you would be comparing two very different phones, yet they would be strangely familiar. Over the years the iPhone has seen gradual change – ‘advanced yet acceptable’ – but kept commonality with initial device.

As a Scrum Master applying Scrum, you can look to incorporate the MAYA principle. The Scrum Guide identifies that you are ‘accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide’, which requires you to have a strong understanding of the framework in order to be able to ‘sell it’ to those that you are working with. However, you also need to understand the boundaries of those that you are working with – how much and how quickly can this new approach be absorbed and implemented?

When identifying those initial changes as part of your Scrum adoption, consider how you can link the proposed improvement to how things are currently work. Loewy said,

“A lot of people are open to new things as long as they look like the old ones.”


Team formation when applying Scrum

Although the use of smaller changes will reduce the impact on a team or organisation, there will still be an impact. A useful model that can help teams and organisation understand the journey that they are to go on when applying Scrum is the Tuckman Model. In his 1965 paper, ‘Developmental Sequence in Small Groups’, psychologist Bruce Tuckman created the phrase ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ to describe the development path that team may follow, which has be visualised by Steven Sampson-Jones.

Tuckman Model by Steven Sampson-Jones
A visualisation of the Tuckman Model by Steven Sampson-Jones

During the ‘forming’ stage members of the team are likely to act and behave very independently. To support team development you, as Scrum Master, may help the team in setting ground rules, working agreements and the standards against which they wish to be held to account. While at the same time as creating these, the team are likely to look to test the boundaries of these ‘rules’ and the consequences of breaking them.

As the team begins to trust each other and the new way of working they enter the ‘storming’ stage. This language may seem counter-intuitive (as do many Agile ways of working), but is completely explainable. The trust that grows between the team members encourages them to be more open and transparent, allowing for thoughts and opinions to be shared more readily. This can result in conflict between team members as they search to have their viewpoint heard and suggestions adopted. Despite this conflict being a healthy part of the teams development, the conflict may result in the team slowing-down – this is both normal and expected. The outcome from this should be a better understanding of how to work together and could include refinement of the working agreements established during the ‘forming’ stage’.

This process pushes the team towards ‘norming’. The team better understands what makes each member of the team tick and how to get the most out of each other. By now, the goal of the team should be clear to all, with every team members taking responsibility and having an ambition to work towards delivering that goal. However, caution should be exercised here. As team harmony increases there may be a tendency for members of the team to prevent conflict with them becoming reluctant to sharing controversial ideas.

Over time the team become both motivated and knowledgeable and enter the ‘performing’ stage. Often the team will have become more competent, autonomous and are able to make decisions without the need for constant supervision and approval.

It is likely that teams will go through these stages on regular basis as and when something changes, for example, if the team composition changes. If a long-standing member of the team leaves and is replaced, or if the team expands, the team may have to work their way back through the previous stages in order to the re-establish the ground rules, begin to trust each other and work out how to get the most from their new team dynamic.

Possibly the biggest challenge is the fact that it is unknown how long a team will remain in each stage of the Tuckman Model, or what the impact will be on the work the team is undertaking. We do know that during the early stages of team formation, the output and outcomes delivered by the team are likely to remain relatively stable. However, as the team starts to storm the output/outcomes delivered will fall, recovering as the team enters the norming phase. As they begin to perform, they should be delivering more than when they formed.


Be the catalyst for change when applying Scrum

Scrum Masters cannot enforce change or inflict their help on a team or the organisation as they have no explicit authority or power. In order to be the catalyst for change when applying Scrum, a Scrum Master needs to gain the ‘respect’ of the team(s) that they work with, and the wider organisation. Gaining respect will enable them to risk being a bit of a pain as they help a team and organisation transform their ways of working and eliminate the bad habits that they may have fallen into.

A Scrum Master needs to be able to guide their team through the challenges that they may face as the start applying Scrum. Understanding and communicating the impacts and new challenges that the application of a new way of working will introduce is extremely important in order to be able to gain the trust and respect of both team members and those that the team engage with. Remember to introduce small changes considering the MAYA principle, and allow time for inspecting, adapting, and validation of growth or adjustment.

Although being honest and acting with integrity may mean that you need to deliver updates that others may find unpalatable, this approach will help in changing the mindset of those that you work with. Increasing transparency is important as it is the first of the Scrum pillars, which allows for inspection and the identification of better ways of working. Inspecting without transparency can be misleading and wasteful. Similarly, if you inspect but do not adapt, that inspection would be considered pointless.

Your challenge, as a great Scrum Master, is to rock the boat just enough to support the team in applying Scrum without tipping the boat over.


Next Time

In the next part of the series of applying Scrum, I will be looking at how Scrum Masters need to lay the foundations in order to ‘enable’ long-term success.

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