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Posted By - Martin Lambert
In the Scrum Mastery Pathway Community we’ve been trading thoughts on questions a Scrum Master might be asked at interview. I’ve picked this one to write about as I’m drawn to how one word here is commonly used, versus – arguably – what it actually means.
The word is ‘commitment’
Commitment; as in, you might be asked
What does the sprint commitment mean ?
How can you help a team to commit to their work ?
Or even just
What does commitment mean to you ?
Now whether this ever turns up as an interview question for you or not, this isn’t about providing a text book answer to it. For some, what comes next will be controversial. But I want to open a line of thought around this word that you may not see very often.
First is the conflation of the word commitment with the concept of certainty.
“But you’ve committed to it (and now it’s late)!”
Ever heard that ?
Now sometimes committed does mean non-negotiable
It’s true that a big event, a major product launch or a legal change is usually a committed date but even “deadlines” aren’t as fixed as we might think. Indeed the fact that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ran in 2021 should tell us that commitment can never be total, but for most teams your point of view, the chances are that these kind of things are beyond their team’s liberty to make a date change to.
If you’re in product start-up, shipping increments frequently, the exploration factor will be high and the absolute commitment of dates for any specific thing, probably low.
Even where Scrum is used for a clearer scoped long term project, each sprint gives the team multiple ways to reach their next stepping stone towards the bigger goal.
In these examples, commitment to an incremental step such as the sprint goal comes with negotiation, flexibility and less element of guarantee. That doesn’t mean the commitment is any less strong; remember it’s there as one of the Scrum values for important reasons.
I’m trying here to de-couple the word commitment from certainty. And I am still emphasising that teams should not avoid ‘commitment’ but rather qualify their relationship with it, and really think about what it means.
It means a full effort, a promise to give the goal the best you can find in yourself, in pursuit of reaching it.
In the organisational context, it means a promise for a team to do everything in their power to achieve the goal, and also a promise to escalate and seek help as soon as they feel that achieving the goal is at risk.
That second part of the phrase sometimes takes a hit, doesn’t it ? That promise to escalate and seek help. Often teams get bogged down, because they feel they have, or have been “committed” and yet they are struggling with something. That can easily lead to pressure to increase velocity. Remember that one of the things available is that escalation route and that request for help. If that will increase the chances of achieving the goal, then remember – that’s part of the commitment too.
But that will only work if the next part of commitment is present. The part you probably don’t hear about too often and would make an interesting and enlightening part of the interview conversation. Commitment is a two-way thing. It’s not that the teams commit to a goal, and that’s it. The Leaders, who are typically the folk who have requested the results of that commitment, have a part to play too. Leaders must match that commitment with their own; “we as leaders promise to do everything in our power to help you , the team, achieve the goal. We are as invested in this as you are. Your impediment is our problem”.
That includes the smart blend of keeping out of the way, yet being immediately there to hand when needed.
Imagine how powerful that can be. This was one of the inspirations behind Scrum. In the New New Product Development Game, Nonaka and Takeuchi tell us of several Japanese companies who basically did what I’ve just described: These teams were empowered. They demonstrated commitment and had the commitment of their leaders to provide what the teams could not provide for themselves.
Those leaders set the teams a goal, gave them what they said they needed, and then otherwise kept out of the way. It largely worked.
Being able to empower the teams to commit confidently, and being respected in the organisation so you can have the sometimes brave conversations necessary with the leaders to help create accountability, are skills which will help make you a great Scrum Master. Empowering and Respected are two of the aspects of the RE-TRAINED model on which the Scrum Mastery Pathway is built.
I hope that’s given a new view of a word you’ll hear a lot of when working as a Scrum Master.
Some commitments are indeed fixed, immovable things.
Commitment isn’t a guarantee that a goal will be met, but a promise to do everything you can to do so, and to escalate immediately you think the goal’s at risk.
Commitment is a reciprocal thing, matched by leaders and managers on hand to help their teams reach their goal
Next time you hear the word, pay attention to which of these aspects you’re seeing, and which you’re not
Check out this post on agile values