WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS AREN'T GOING SO WELL...

I love to teach and write about tips and tricks to help people improve their scrummaster skills. I talk about great scrummasters in the classes I teach - giving specific examples of exemplary masters of scrum who i’ve met and worked with through time - and I personally try to be as good as I can possibly be when i’m coaching a team.

However, recently i’ve had some experiences that I honestly wouldn’t put into the ‘great’ category. In fact, I’ve lamented even going to work some days - nervous and full of anxiety -  and have (gasp!) cried at my desk when things just didn’t go my way (hey, I’m a sensitive soul). Through these less-than-wonderful coaching experiences, i’ve re-learned an important lesson: to become great, you must explore the situations that didn’t work well and think about how to improve them, as well as how to improve yourself overall for the next team/project/engagement.

And as easy as it is to place the blame elsewhere, you MUST identify the part you played in it, the contribution you gave tomake the situation stale or negative. Adapt, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and keep on truckin’. 

We all want to be a part of that cool team, the team that communicates, trusts each other and does whatever it takes to ‘win’. And when we’ve been a part of a team like that in the past, we wish to create that environment wherever we go. Sometimes, it’s just not possible - well, at least, not right away. Here are some of my recent experiences, of course generalized and perpetrators made anonymous. :-)

  1. Not everyone wants to be a part of this team. Seriously, as fun as we try to make it, as clear as we try to make the product vision, etc., some people would rather be elsewhere. Maybe they want to work on a different product. Maybe they are trying to climb the career ladder, and, rejected for that promotion, they’re feeling dejected and unmotivated. Perhaps the person has some issues at home that are emotionally draining; their attention is just somewhere else and being a part of this team just isn’t high on their list of priorities. It’s importantto open the lines of communication in team settings and in one-on-ones so that you can understand what’s going on in the lives of your team members. Get to know them personally. Sounds easy but it’s really not. Check out this article on icebreakers for some ideas. 
  2. Not everyone wants to support you. And saboteurs DO exist, even in agile teams. Just because we’re ‘agile’ doesn’t mean we’re automagically going to like each other and want to join forces for the good of the customer. In fact, some people can be downright mean about this. Perhaps Bob secretly wants to be the scrummaster because he feels that this would set him up nicely for a promotion. You notice in every meeting he is trying to talk over you, interject his own ideas about how things should be done, confusing other team members. So you facilitate this during meetings, clarifying as you go, careful not to squelch what Bob has to say because that’s what a good facilitator does. Later you notice that Bob’s cries for attention have escalated. He’s sending emails behind your back about situations that he felt you could have handled better instead of coming to you directly. You schedule a one-on-one meeting. In this meeting, he’s aloof or passive-aggressive and doesn’t admit to feeling any ill feelings toward you at all (he retains the power this way - see this article for more insights on passive aggression). What do you do in this situation? Escalating to his manager has resulted in no action! Well, you have two choices at this point: face it or ignore it. Bullies - and yes, some of these actions border on bullying - often give in once the object of their attacks finally stands up for herself. Face it, confront it, step up and realize that nicey-nice just isn’t going to work for everyone. You might even have to be mean now and then. Perhaps Bob would prefer to work with a different team. Don’t be afraid to ask that question (or escalate through the proper channels to address the situation). Escalating an issue like this does not mean you’re a failure. At least get to a place so that you can co-exist with Bob and ensure that he is not disruptive to the rest of the team, so that the job gets done. This probably won’t be the guy with whom you’re going to knock back a few beers, however, during a team outing at the local pub. And that’s OK. 
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Learn more about the product, learn about what people are doing day-to-day, get MORE involved in order to be able to effectively communicate when people outside the team need to know how things are going. You'll have to find where the communication pendulum finally swings: sometimes taking a light touch can translate to some that you are ‘lackadaisical’ or ‘uninterested’. If a light touch doesn’t seem to be working, then communicate more. My personal communication style is to initially keep a light touch on process, working through a simple framework that allows a team to begin iterating. I’ll then assess team members’ comfort zone with the level of communication in order to make necessary adjustments. Don’t forget to invite team members and stakeholders to give feedback on you and your effectiveness as a scrummaster. Questions like “are you seeing the information you need on a timely basis?” “Will a different format of information help you to make better decisions?” Even set up a monthly process retrospective. Open it up to the team to find out what’s not working for them (and conversely, what may be working well that you had no clue about!). 
  4. Stop taking it personally. Much, much easier said than done. We’re all human, after all, and as much as we try to decouple our feelings from our team and the goals of the project, certain personalities or interactions can weigh you down after awhile. Step outside, get some fresh air, invite a team member to lunch with whom you have a great rapport. Take care of yourself. If you’re not in a good mental state, then your team will notice and feel that too. Here’s a great mental checklist for keeping your emotions in check. 

I’ve often said that the hardest part about building complex products are the complex people that build them. Inter and intrapersonal dynamics play such a part in our daily lives; when those dynamics are positive, the team thrives in a productive, collaborative environment. 

When negative, however, you must examine your part in the dynamics and do everything you can to get the team to produce.

Sometimes that means confronting a bully, learning more and getting more involved, or simply just stop taking things personally. Take care of yourself - by doing so, you’re taking care of your team.