April 9, 2020

How To Be A Good Scrum Master During A Crisis

Teams are facing new challenges

Many teams are finding that they need to adjust to a new reality amid the covid-19 pandemic. Strategic plans lie in tatters, urgent unplanned work fills the board, stakeholders are hammering teams with requests, and routine has gone out of the window. This is a time for a Scrum Master to be pragmatic, calm, and outcome focused: providing delivery leadership without allowing process to get in the way.

Help the business clarify their tactical objectives

Responding to change is a well-rehearsed line, but it’s important that everyone understands the new objectives. Try to get a clear line from the business that can serve as a new, tactical vision. Something like “We need to support customer service in managing increased volumes to avoid losing customers or damaging our brand”. Getting this agreed will help to focus minds and allow decisions to be made. The key is that the Product Owners and teams have an awareness agreement over what needs to be done. Once this is established, you can avoid the barrage of stakeholder requests being taken on without thought. Help to draw up some criteria for what counts as urgent.

Saying yes to everything means nothing gets done

As a Scrum Master, the way you can help here is to ensure the right questions are being asked. Asking probing questions that you think people should know the answer to can reveal gaps. Once the gaps are revealed, you can help people find the answers:

  • Product Owner: “what’s your sense of where we are in terms of the current strategy?”
  • Team: “who asked for that feature and what are they trying to achieve?”

Adjust the process if necessary

It might be that some temporary adjustments need to be made to team composition and/or delivery practices. As a Scrum Master and delivery practitioner, your role is to help the business put an appropriate system in place while avoiding chaos. Ideas may emerge from the teams and leadership:

  • Moving people between teams to bolster capacity in key areas
  • Forming new rapid response teams to focus on tactical objectives
  • Abandoning planning, review, and retrospective events
  • Moving to a Kanban style of delivery in order to take a responsive stance

It’s important to be pragmatic and outcome-focused when facilitating change. Not all of the ideas proposed will be in the best interests of the business, and will need to be thought through. A good Scrum Master will help the organisation to strike the right balance and avoid potential issues, such as:

  • Overloading teams with urgent requests
  • Allowing work to be started with insufficient analysis
  • Constant re-prioritisation resulting in lots of partially done work
  • Stakeholders going direct to team members
It's OK to be responsive, but you need some discipline

Keep in mind that the process is there to support people in getting things done. Without any process, it will be chaos. The process is not the end goal, however. This would not be a good time to quote the Scrum Guide to the CTO, or stick rigidly to your preferred way of planning. You will lose credibility if you are seen as getting in the way. Try to provide a simple, lightweight, but disciplined process and flag up any changes that might lead to adverse outcomes. Events seen as a luxury might be needed more than ever, such as Retrospectives and Daily Scrums. It’s worth considering that change is disruptive, so making small modifications to the existing process may work more effectively than dumping all of your routines and starting from scratch.

Take action

The leadership style of a Scrum Master in normal times puts emphasis on building long-term capabilities. Allowing events to unfold and helping teams learn from experience is the best way to create long-lasting skills and capability. This is the time to adjust your style to emphasise short-term outcomes, especially for critical work:

  • If teams are taking in too much work, call it out for discussion
  • When Product Owners are allowing poorly formed requirements to be worked on, intervene and suggest they are clarified
  • If work is being done outside of the process, get it logged and visible
  • When work isn’t being completed before people move on the next thing, call it out
Don't let the team drive off a cliff

Take care of people

These are unprecedented times and will be having an impact on people in all sorts of different ways. Make time to connect with people and find out how the experience is for them. See if there is anything you can do to help, whether it’s about flexible working arrangements, overcoming practical problems, or just listening.

Check in with people

Lead by example while helping people adapt. If you hear a baby crying in the background, ask about it to show it’s not “unprofessional”. If you’re distracted by your own circumstances, be open about it with your team. With some care and thought, both the business and the people will come through the crisis, and without the people, there is no business.

Originally published at agility.im