What are the primary challenges a scrum master faces when working with multiple teams?
Welcome to part 47 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
There are a few challenges to be present. Some of the obvious challenges are:
- How can you be in two places at once?
- How can you be effective with multiple teams, in multiple contexts?
- How can you develop strong relationships within the time available to you?
In my opinion, these are relatively easy to get around so I wouldn’t go as far as to call these primary challenges for a scrum master at all.
Daily Stand-Up (Daily Scrum)
One of the questions I’m asked a lot is how a scrum master can attend the daily scrum when they are working with two three scrum teams.
If it is absolutely essential that you attend the daily scrum, for whatever reasons you have, then simply talk to the team about the challenge and ask them to schedule their respective daily scrum at different times so that you can be present.
That said, you don’t need to be a part of the daily scrum as a scrum master. You want the developers to be leading those events and you want them to be using the daily scrum to identify what they are doing for the next 24 hours, what they have achieved in the past 24 hours, and what may prevent them from achieving their goal for the day.
If it’s essential that you need to be made aware of something, someone on the team can ping you an email or connect with you in-person. Simple. Straightforward communication solves that issue for you.
Sometimes you have two or more teams planning at the same cadence.
If it’s essential for you to be a part of that process, as a scrum master or agile coach, you can simply ask both teams to plan in the same room. Again, you aren’t going to be leading sprint planning as a scrum master, the scrum team will be doing that, you can easily switch from one side of the room to the other to contribute how you see fit.
It may even be an interesting experience for the team to witness how other teams go about their sprint planning. It may even help both teams become better at sprint planning and you’re achieving multiple objectives simply by bringing both teams into the same environment.
You could also choose to split sprint planning into 2 distinctive categories.
- What are we going to do?
- How are we going to do it?
As a scrum master, you may contribute value to the ‘what are we going to do?’ element of sprint planning, but the ‘how are we going to do it?’ element is the exclusive domain of the developers, so you don’t need to be there for that.
You could ask team 1 to schedule their ‘what are we going to do?’ element at a specific time, attend that, and then attend team 2 in their designated ‘what are we going to do?’ element of sprint planning.
In my experience, if you are a respected and valuable scrum master, teams will actively make an effort to include you in their events because your facilitation or contribution matters. You shouldn’t experience any issues with scheduling different times of the day for these events.
In my experience, it isn’t too difficult for a scrum master to manage their effectiveness within multiple team environments because they work with smart people who understand scrum, understand the need for continuous improvement, and are committed to achieving their goals and objectives.
The problem comes in the organizational interventions that you need to make.
Team A are struggling with X organizational impediment whilst Team B are struggling with Y organizational impediment, and both of them need urgent attention and support.
You are now going to have to prioritize.
- Which team’s issue is more important?
- What issue is likely to be resolved quicker?
- What are the costs of delay in each context?
And so forth.
That’s hard because emotionally you are invested in helping each of your team’s to succeed, and regardless of what your analysis suggests, one of the teams is going to need to take a back seat whilst you address the more urgent issue.
- You care that your team can’t get the job done until the impediment is resolved.
- You care that your team are frustrated and blocked.
- You care that your customers are going to have to deal with delays.
- You care that one team needs to hold fast until the other team have been sorted out.
Understand that this is going to be a constant struggle for you.
- How do you explain to team A that you haven’t solved their issue because team B issue took priority over their issues?
- How do you explain to team B that you aren’t making progress on something urgent because your attention is required elsewhere?
- How do you maintain trust, respect, and influence in team environments when you are constantly being forced to address competing priorities?
Draw inspiration from Accident and Emergency environments where there is triage to decide what is the most important, most urgent case that needs attention. Sure, it’s painful for everyone, but what is the most effective thing you can do in this moment to move ahead despite so many competing priorities and emotions.
You are going to need to master this skill as a scrum master and yes, communication will be important to ensure people understand why you are attending to X rather than Y, but you need to master the ability to quickly and effectively diagnose, decide, and respond appropriately.
You are the limited resource, and you are working with limited resources and capabilities too, and so you need to decide which conversations matter most, which leaders and allies are best positioned to help you quickly resolve the problem, and what investments are needed to ensure that you can help your team move out of quicksand.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this is incredibly hard to do effectively, especially when you’re under pressure and stretched too thin.
The downside of context switching.
No matter how committed you are, and no matter how many hours you work, there is a truth that you are doing a less than stellar job for each team because you are context-switching and attempting to put out too many fires on your own.
It really is as simple as that.
You need to accept that sometimes you are going to get it wrong.
- You are going to prioritize the wrong team.
- You are going to prioritize the wrong issue.
- You are going to fail to achieve the outcome your team required.
- You are going to fail to bring about the organizational change required.
- You are going to fail to win support or a champion for your team’s issue.
This is simply part of the job. Part of the challenge of being a scrum master or agile coach.
Remember that you are often going to have incomplete information. You are often going to have less resources and insights than you need to make a great, effective decision. You are often going to have less time, influence, or control than you need to achieve the outcomes.
Accept that early in your journey and allow yourself to continuously improve, evolve, and become more effective as a scrum master.
Communicate frequently, openly, and honestly with your teams so that they understand the challenges you are facing and can contribute in some way to help you make better prioritization decisions.
So that they empathise with you and understand that you are making difficult calls.
Sometimes, they are the beneficiaries of those decisions and sometimes, they get the sharp end of the stick. That’s fine. As long as you maintain those relationships and communicate as effectively as you can, the team will learn how to roll with the punches and support you as best they can.
About John McFadyen
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