Many of us find it difficult to ask for help at work, which is a problem if you are part of a Scrum Team. Interdependence and collaboration are central to Scrum, but these practices don’t always come naturally to those new to the framework. That’s especially true for teams working in organizational cultures that value independent players, standing out and personal accomplishment. Fortunately, there is a lot that Scrum Masters can do to foster interdependence, making it more comfortable for team members to ask for and offer help.
Why interdependence is essential to teamwork and Scrum
Organizational researchers, such as Adam Grant and others, report findings that indicate a willingness to help others achieve their goals lies at the heart of effective collaboration, innovation, quality improvement, and service excellence.
Scrum harnesses that power of interdependence and collaboration for complex environments dealing with a lot of uncertainty. In this type of setting, no one can “know it all,” and finding effective solutions depends on the team's collective knowledge, creativity, and skills.
Creating interdependent processes promotes higher quality products because everyone on the team “owns” the work rather than relying on individuals never making mistakes to succeed. All team members are invested in working together to overcome challenges and solve problems. Interdependence also promotes greater accountability. If one member doesn’t fulfill their responsibilities, we’re more likely to address it because it will negatively impact everyone on the team.
Interdependence also plays a role in team and work satisfaction because it increases a sense of belonging and shared purpose.
Assumptions tied up with asking for help
There are several incorrect assumptions many of us buy into that contribute to being uncomfortable asking for help:
Others don’t want to help: We tend to think we are inconveniencing others when we make a request. In reality, the opposite is true. People are generally happy to help others, and it makes them feel good. Stanford social psychologist Xuan Zhao’s research bears this out, finding that people routinely underestimate others’ willingness to help out.
Asking for help is a sign of incompetence: It’s unfortunate that many of us grew up in an education system that rewards students for always having the correct answer rather than for asking good questions. That’s led to internalized beliefs that not knowing how to do something and needing someone else’s input to sort out a problem is a sign of weakness.
In Scrum, we promote a growth mindset because there is always something to learn and different ways to approach problems. From this perspective, taking advantage of learning opportunities from a variety of sources is a strength, and that includes seeking knowledge and skills from others.
No one can help: In some cases, we might believe we have all the knowledge and skills necessary to resolve an issue independently. If we can't solve this problem, no one can. Or, we might think that we can get it done faster or more efficiently on our own. Even if that were true (it’s probably not), approaching collaboration and interdependence from a deficit viewpoint is a mistake. When we invite others to assist, we are tapping into different perspectives and the creative energy that comes from building on each others’ ideas. It’s a cliché, but the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
How to foster interdependence and collaboration on your Scrum Team
As a Scrum Master, there is a lot we can do to create the best conditions for a strong interdependent and collaborative team.
Without trust, people will not ask for help or input from others because it puts them in a place of vulnerability. Team members who fear being judged, ridiculed or shamed will keep their heads down rather than reach out. That might sound obvious, but there are subtle ways we can undermine trust without realizing it. See my previous post, How to Build Trust to Enable Agility, for the anatomy of trust and how to nurture it on your team.
Normalize asking for help and giving it
Make it routine to talk about giving and receiving help being part of the Scrum process and provide positive team feedback when you witness acts of collaboration. Modeling asking for help as the Scrum Master also conveys that it’s OK and encouraged. As mentioned earlier, reframing “asking for help” as inviting collaboration and co-creation can also move away from the stigma that doing so is a sign of incompetence.
Build helping behaviors into team activities
There are many opportunities to weave helping behaviors into your Scrum practice:
- During the Daily Scrum, focus on the work moving across the Scrum board rather than each team member talking about what they did or are doing.
- Encourage team members to work together to get Product Backlog items (PBIs) to Done earlier in the Sprint using practices such as setting WIP (work in progress) limits and measuring PBI cycle time. Making this workflow transparent illustrates the impact of collaboration instead of working independently.
- Establish as part of the team working agreement that when someone finishes a PBI, they ask the rest of the team how they can help get other in-flight PBIs to Done before they pick up new work.
- Suggest the team have one or two Developers act as mentors or co-creators during the Sprint rather than picking up their own work. In addition to normalizing collaboration, this has the side benefit of growing knowledge across the team on both sides of the helper/helpee relationship.
- During Sprint Planning, ask team members to identify aspects of the plan that require working in less understood or higher-risk areas of the product. Tackle these areas earlier in the Sprint and discuss the collaboration techniques the team could use, such as pairing or team swarming.
- Consider creating a team learning plan reflecting the skills and knowledge individuals would like to acquire or grow. Part of the plan can include members committing to teach and mentor each other as opportunities arise during the Sprint. Making a plan explicit normalizes taking opportunities to learn from and teach others.
How to avoid disincentivizing interdependence
Be aware of the many routine workplace behaviors that can strangle your efforts to grow collaboration and interdependence:
- Don’t assign all of the PBIs during Sprint Planning; let specifics of the plan emerge through collaboration as the team creates the Increment during the Sprint.
- Avoid measuring individual performance. Tracking such things as how many PBIs or story points each person gets to Done in a Sprint undermines team ownership and discourages helping each other.
- Notice if your Daily Scrum begins to descend into people accounting for their time. For example, if everyone on the team mentions they attended the Product Backlog refinement session yesterday, how does that help us understand progress toward the Sprint Goal? It doesn’t. When this type of accounting for time happens, it’s a sign that people feel they need to defend individual “productivity.”
- Don’t ignore signs that team members feel stressed or overwhelmed by their work. Keep communication open to uncover opportunities for closer collaboration to ease the burden.
Using Scrum effectively depends on interdependent team members with high trust enabling them to ask for and give help easily.
Embracing interdependence boosts innovation and creativity, which is essential in complex work featuring a lot of uncertainty. Collaborating with others can be freeing and reduces stress because we no longer live under the burden of needing to “know” everything. We can work out difficult problems together, and someone is there to assist with the heavy lifting when we're struggling.
Becoming comfortable with asking for help can involve a substantial cultural shift, but there are ways that Scrum Masters can foster a spirit of collaboration that becomes normalized over time.
If you want to go further with your team to develop interdependence, my online self-guided course Coaching Skills for Impact can help. It gives Scrum Masters the coaching skills and framework they need to help people bring their skills and talents to life, so they can thrive as individuals and strong teams.