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What does a Scrum Master do if a team is underperforming?

The first place to start is to assess what is meant by ‘performance’ and how you evaluate whether the team are underperforming against those metrics.

Often, you find an inexperienced scrum team taking on heaps of points into each sprint backlog.

They may be doing so out of sheer enthusiasm, or they may be doing so because of pressure being applied by the product owner and product stakeholders.

The scrum team may take on 100 points into each sprint backlog and then only deliver 20 or 30 points within the sprint.

As a scrum master, you don’t have the authority to tell the team whether they are doing the right thing or the wrong thing, nor are you there to hold them to account.

What you are there to do is help to create an environment where the team can excel and thrive.

If you take the time to gather some data from the past few sprints, you have a baseline of performance.

You may discover that the team average 20 points per sprint but insist on taking 100 points into each sprint.

You can address this by having a conversation with the team about expectations versus past delivery performance.

You can demonstrate how the sprint average is 20 points and yet for the upcoming sprint, 100 points have been taken into the sprint backlog. You could ask them what has changed that will empower them to complete 100 points in this sprint versus the 20 point average of the past 3 sprints.

Sometimes, bringing the data into the light and allowing the team to understand what their actual versus expected performance is allows the team to have productive conversations about what is happening in each sprint and how that might impact performance.

You may discover that the team are continuously coming up against impediments and policies that frustrate their progress and prevent them from achieving their sprint goal.

Great, you now have something to focus your attention onto and start working to remove those impediments.

You may discover that the product owner is being overly ambitious with each sprint and is applying pressure to the team to take on more work than they are capable of delivering.

In this case, you can have a conversation with the product owner and help them to understand how their expectations and behaviour are preventing the team from building momentum and morale.

You could ask them questions around their expectations and help them to understand that the team has not reached the maturity or velocity necessary to achieve the expectations that are being set. You could work with the product owner and the development team to set more realistic expectations and work toward crushing sprint goals that are manageable and deliverable.

Regardless of what issues crop up, you are going to have to coach the team through the process of estimating work and assigning work to the sprint backlog. You may need to include the product owner in that process so that they are included in all elements of the performance expectations.

If your data and conversations uncover a very real problem with individuals on the team such as poor work ethic or lack of desire and motivation to achieve the sprint goals, you may need to involve a line manager in the conversations.

Sometimes, disciplinary action may be necessary, or a team member may need to be moved to a different team to ensure that dependencies are isolated and managed.

In my experience, most people wake up with the intention of doing a great job.

As a scrum master, your are there to help those individuals do a great job and continue to grow and improve with each sprint and product increment produced.

Teams generally want to perform well and as you coach them toward being more effective as a team, you will start to remove the barriers to progress and start to see slow but steady improvements in each sprint.

You may start with a team that is ‘underperforming’ against realistic benchmarks and metrics, but as you move through the process and coach the team to understand what they are realistically capable of achieving in each sprint, you will start to see improvements.

As you help create an environment where the team can excel, you will start to see steady progress against realistic benchmarks and metrics that help the team align themselves against realistic sprint goals and expectations from product owners and stakeholders.

Sometimes, you may even discover that new skills are required for the team to excel. Helping the team to discover which skill sets are vital and who needs to acquire those skills will help the team grow their capability and competency, leading to improved sprint performances.

In summary, you have the opportunity to help the team by working through a process of conversation and coaching. As you move through that process, the answers will become apparent, and you can actively lead the team toward better performances through your contribution.

If you like the idea of becoming a Scrum Master, visit our Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you are already a scrum master and want to level up, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to validate and certify your skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional course page.

If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Agile Coach Academy.

If you have identified coaching as an important skill to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to Coaching course page.

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