What is ‘scrum of scrums’ and why is it effective?
Welcome to part 49 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
Let’s start with the first part of the question. What is a scrum of scrums?
A scrum of scrums originally came about in the 1990s. It is an old idea. A simple one.
In scrum, we have something known as a daily scrum where the team come together to discuss what has happened in the past 24 hours, what is planned for the next 24 hours, and to highlight any impediments or problems that may prevent them from achieving their goal.
In the early days of scrum, we weren’t too focused on the sprint goal, we were instead talking about the work that needed to be done, and any problems or dependencies that prevented that work from being completed.
- Are we working on the most important items?
- How do we organize ourselves around value creation?
- Who is best positioned to address the impediment and get it resolved?
And so forth.
Multiple Team Environments
So, what do you do when you have multiple scrum teams and they need to organize themselves around value creation, collaborate with other scrum teams, and ensure that any impediments are escalated to the people who are best positioned to resolve that issue?
Enter ‘scrum of scrums’.
They took representatives from each scrum team, and hosted a daily scrum that enabled those representatives to keep everyone up to speed on what they had completed, what they were working on for the next 24 hours, and what impediments were blocking progress.
So, a daily scrum across many teams, which enabled those representatives to go back to their teams and update them on what was happening across multiple teams. If any synchronization or coordination was required, this is where that would happen.
Who are the team representatives?
It is the developer(s) that are best suited to represent the team in the context of that scrum of scrums. A scrum master could attend if they wanted to, but it was the people on the team who were most informed about the state of play, and most empowered to make a decision or gut call should that be required.
So, the thinking is to rapidly move information across multiple teams to ensure that teams were able to adapt and respond where necessary.
It’s not the best pattern out there, but it is a good, solid pattern that works.
How effective is a scrum of scrums?
This is where things take a bit of a turn for the worst.
In the scenario described above, things tend to work pretty well and it’s an effective way of keeping teams informed, coordinated, and prepared for any curveballs that come their way.
In practise, it seldom works that way.
What I often tend to see is that a group of scrum masters will come together to run the scrum of scrums, with little representation from the developers on each team, which makes it less effective.
If the scrum masters are coming together to identify and communicate common impediments, that’s great, but that is an ‘issues’ meeting rather than a daily scrum. It very much mirrors the ‘risks and issues’ meetings held in project management environments.
So, the problem is not the construct of a scrum of scrums, it is instead the execution.
A daily scrum is meant to take 15 minutes for the developers to connect around what is happening, what happens next, and what may prevent that from happening. It isn’t meant to take hours nor is it meant to be a meeting where we discuss risk and issues.
That’s a separate event by itself and shouldn’t be included in a daily scrum.
So, when you have a scrum of scrums that turns out to be a risk and issues meeting, it could take hours and vacuum hours of valuable development time. It isn’t a place for developers to be nor does it serve the team if they get sucked into a meeting that could have been an email.
If the scrum of scrums mirrors the team’s daily scrum, just on a broader scale, that’s great.
If not, skip the idea of a daily scrum of scrums and work out a better format to discuss issues, risk, or anything relevant to helping the team achieve their sprint goals. You just don’t need to include the team in that.
It is essential and valuable for developers and product owners to talk to one another, within the team context as well as to members from other teams. We need that. We want them to communicate and collaborate effectively.
So, how do we facilitate that if we aren’t doing a daily scrum of scrums?
Easily. We do it the way we always have.
Bob picks up the phone and calls John to chat about a problem he is experiencing or to gain clarity on something that he is working on. Daryn walks over to Sally and asks her when she has 30 minutes available to work through an item that needs greater insight, problem-solving, or clarity.
And people agree to work with each other in that capacity. Simple.
There’s nothing wrong with email, slack messaging, or any other digital platform facilitating those kinds of discussions either.
You can pick whatever format you like to encourage collaboration, just don’t create a mandatory daily scrum of scrums where teams of teams stand around listening to problems that have nothing to do with them, or involve details that are irrelevant in their world.
Experiment with a number of formats to see what proves most effective, and then agree to use that format for problem resolution, backlog refinement, or any other meeting that requires two or more people to come together to achieve a specific objective.
So, in closing, a daily scrum of scrums could be the answer you are looking for but ensure that you keep it within the 15-minute timebox and that you follow the rules and guidelines of a daily scrum.
If it isn’t that, it shouldn’t be a daily scrum or a daily scrum of scrums.
About John McFadyen
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