Managing Without Authority (Things they forgot to tell you at Scrum Master training)

“Congratulation, we have decided to become Agile and in order for that to happen, we have nominated you as the team Scrum Master. Next week you are going to a two-day training that will teach you everything you will need to know about Scrum”

Sounds familiar?

Going to a Scrum Master training is a first good step, however, expecting you will become a “Master” of anything at the end of a two-day course, is, well a little unrealistic to say the least. I’m not saying that these training are not valuable. On the contrary, they are very valuable, but they are not enough. Most likely they will focus on the what and will leave you to figure out the how.

For example, one of the first things they probably teach you there is that a “Scrum Master has no authority over the teams”. They are expected to serve the team, by helping it to tackle and remove obstacles, by facilitating the various meetings and in general try and lead the team into a better place.

Great. But, how? How can a Scrum master control things when he has no Authority over the team?

Stop Telling

The truth is that the SM is not expected to control anything his role is to help the team. However, in most organizations he will be looked upon as some sort of leading figures, partly because of his special role, and partly because in many places the new Scrum Masters are picked from the management layer.

What they don’t teach you in these training is how one can lead people even in contexts when he has no authority over them.

The first thing one needs to let go (especially if you are an “ex-Manager”) is your habit of “telling” people what to do.  While in many contexts you can actually do that, being some sort of manager, in most cases that will be counterproductive. In order for a team to become hyper-productive, it is necessary for him to assume responsibility for his work. Relying on someone else (manager) to tell the team what he should do well in most contexts prevents the team from assuming ownership.

Build Trust

To get people to cooperate with you, you need to earn their trust. Trying to lead people who don’t trust won’t work in the long run. People won’t follow someone if they are not feeling comfortable doing so. They resist everything he suggests or asks them to do. So it’s absolutely important that you as a scrum master invest time in earning and building that trust.

Here are some things I found important when I try to build people trust in me:

Be reliable

People stop trusting those who don’t do what they say they will do. To earn someone’s trust, you need to make sure that you don’t do that. It’s crucial to honor all promises made, even those small ones (which you might not realize became a promise at all). Try to minimize the times you fail to follow up on what you said, and in those cases, you do fail, don’t be afraid to admit to it. Then you apologize and lest you try to fix it. A common defense mechanism for failing to deliver is belittling the act. Try to avoid that. The other person might put the great significance of the promise and by belittling it, he might feel you are belittling him

Be Honest

Tell the truth. Even when it’s not so pleasant, being frank and direct sometimes helps to deal with uncomfortable situations. When people recognize that what you say is your absolute truth, it is much easier for them to trust you. If you do happen to lie (which I’m guessing everyone does eventually) admit to it. Denying a lie is just another lie. And last don’t forget to expose your feeling and your mistakes.

Be Open

Share information, don’t hold facts for yourself. Make a mental effort to supply more than enough details, and don’t start omitting things. People will notice those little contradictions and eventually will consider you a liar. If someone, for example, asks your “how did the meeting went” a wrong answer is: “it went fine” a better answer is “it was ok, we discussed A and B and C, we argued over D and E and decided F,G, and H”. If you need to keep secret, let it be known. People will respect you better if you say “I’m sorry, but I can’t share those details about the meeting.” and will stop trusting you if they find that you are withholding information from.

Be Respectful

Yes, you are the Scrum Master,  and maybe know more about some things than others, maybe you have more experience, or maybe you just understand better. Still, no reason not to be respectful. To everyone. The minute you stop respecting someone you will lose his trust. And most likely another will be wary of you as well. If you are disrespectful to him, how will I know you won’t start disrespecting me?

Start Asking (for help)

One of the best alternatives I have found for “telling” people, is asking them for help. As a consultant I use that a lot. For example, in one of my recent projects I needed the team to update their build cycle to include unit test execution. It was perfectly reasonable for me to go ahead and tell them to just do it. However, knowing the current, pressure, I  knew that telling them will cause a discussion about who will do it, how much time it will take, what’s the priority of that,… (that is a 1-2 weeks until it gets done). Instead, I just approached one of the team members told him I need to update their build cycle and asked for his help. The answer I got was: “you know what, if you give me a day or two I will just do it myself” – mission accomplished.

And that I found is a common pattern with most people, when you ask someone for his help is solving YOUR problem, they are much more willing to cooperate and assist them if you try to make it their problem. (Of course the guy could always say no, and left me to do that alone, but even when that happens, most people do try to make sure that you are not stuck which ends with things getting done faster)

Is this all?

Of course not, leading people is an art form, and this is one of the subjects being researched and investigated in many fields. Some people have a natural talent for it, some don’t.  But everyone can improve. The best Scrum Master, I’ve see recognized that and invested the time and effort to teach themselves.

If you also feel that the basic training you have received is not all of it. And are trying to learn more techniques and tools that will help you become a better Scrum Master, I would like to invite you to our upcoming Scrum Master Week. We have designed it to help Scrum Master catch up on everything they need to know and learn to become really effective

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