October 15, 2021

The Scrum Guide - A Leader’s Perspective

Scrum - The Leader’s Perspective

If you’re leading Scrum Teams or generally are a leader in an organization that’s leveraging Scrum? Are you feeling a bit left out after reading the Scrum Guide? The Scrum Guide doesn’t explicitly call out the role of the Leader but successful implementation of Scrum definitely requires leadership. 

The Scrum Guide describes the leadership required by the Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Developers.

In this series of blogs, we’ll talk about leadership outside the Scrum Team.

The first blog post will focus on what Scrum means for you as a leader. Future blogs will explore:

  • How to create the conditions in which Scrum can thrive
  • How leaders can support the Scrum accountabilities, artifacts, and events. 

What Scrum Means for You as a Leader

Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems.

Leaders can leverage Scrum whenever the organization is facing a problem/opportunity in an environment that contains uncertainty. This could be uncertainty around either what value looks like or how to create it, or both.

The Key Ideas in Scrum

  • Empiricism - Constantly sensing what is going on using tight feedback loops; Responding accordingly rather than sticking to a stale plan. This is the essence of agility - the combination of awareness of the situation with the flexibility to respond. Another way to look at this is that through different types of feedback loops Scrum helps us manage/control risks:
    • Are we taking the wrong steps to solve a problem / build a product? Let's manage this risk by doing the work in small increments. Let's stop to reflect and adjust course on a frequent and scheduled basis. 
    • Could we be focusing on the wrong goal? Let's constantly reflect on the value of increments we’re creating, together with our stakeholders. Try to use what we've created. Reflect upon our goals and adapt them when we realize they're stale / irrelevant. 
    • Are we using the wrong techniques / approaches to how we work? Let's continuously inspect and adap our processes and policies. Let's debrief how we run our meetings, and our teamwork in general. 

  • Self-management - As their organizations grow and scale, Leaders often feel growing stress as they become decision-making bottlenecks. Complex problems and environments require constant decision making since our original plans don’t survive contact with reality. Complex problems require the involvement of multiple disciplines. Leaders find themselves coordinating the work of these multiple disciplines, adding even more to the dependency on leadership. This eventually slows down innovation and progress no matter how hard the leader works. In Scrum we rely on multi-disciplinary self-managed teams that are able to make decisions and create value on their own. These teams require minimal external dependencies and management guidance. To be clear, self-management isn’t anarchy. These teams are organized within constraints and are aligned to the mission set by leaders on behalf of the organization. We work towards self-management over time, as we nurture the competence and awareness needed for it. 
  • Continual Improvement - For both the problem we are solving and how we are solving it. Scrum encourages teams to continually strive to improve. The artifacts and events provide the opportunity to improve. 

Creating the environment where Scrum thrives

Many organizations struggle to create an environment of Empiricism, Self-management, and Continual Improvement. This environment is very different from traditional approaches of structuring work, managing teams, and getting stuff done. The Scrum Guide describes the responsibility for this Scrum-friendly environment as “Scrum requires a Scrum Master to foster (such) an environment…”. However, the reality is there are many challenges that require help from other leaders outside of the team. These leaders typically find themselves in the middle. They are trying to set up the conditions for success in an organizational culture and senior leadership that is often at odds. 

Before applying Scrum a leader needs to determine where and how to apply Scrum in the organization. Here are some of the typical questions a Leader would ask:

  • Focus - What work are we doing in the organization where it’s most worthwhile to implement Scrum? 
  • Problem Ownership - For each of these areas, who should own value identification and maximization? (This is called the Product Owner in Scrum)
  • Team Structure - What’s the best way to organize into teams or teams of teams that can focus? How can we create these teams in a way that will enable them to self-manage an effective empirical process? 
  • Human Resources - What in the way we are structured, staffed, and governed do we need to change to enable successful value creation with Scrum? 

  • Stakeholder Management - Who are the right stakeholders to inspect the results of every Sprint? How can we get them to engage with the team and give useful feedback? 
  • Culture - How can we create an environment where feedback is an opportunity to do better rather than a demonstration of a mistake (that often has further consequences)

Evolving your Scrum

Scrum is simple so you can quickly understand it. It is incomplete - it requires you to complement it with context-specific practices and solutions. The basic rules of Scrum can provide some guidance for what to do and how to behave as a Leader. They will not give you hard and fast answers to all of the above questions. Many of the right answers will emerge over time as your teams gain experience using Scrum in your context. You will have a chance to test out some different ways to address the challenges that emerge. 

To reinforce this concept - Scrum encourages teams and organizations to find the minimum viable way of working. Then you try it out and adapt based on experience. The more frequently you can close this “learning loop” regarding how your organization operates, the faster you’ll converge towards an approach that is optimized for your needs and context. As the organization and its context change and evolves, the continuous improvement learning loop will enable further adjustment. Some practices might become stale and irrelevant. Your process can benefit from the periodical “decluttering” the same as your closet and your kitchen drawers. (If a practice/policy doesn’t spark joy… thank it for its benefit so far and stop doing it…) 

The Leader's responsibilities in a Scrum environment

To summarize these are the key responsibilities of Leaders in a Scrum environment:

  • Create the conditions where Empiricism, Self-management, and Continual Improvement are possible.
  • Provide clarity of mission/purpose and what good results look like.
  • Serving teams as they work towards these goals using Scrum.

A Leader can use the Scrum Values to help create the conditions for successful Scrum. This will be the topic for the next blog post in this series providing a Scrum Guide companion for Leaders.