July 18, 2022

Stakeholder Trust — How Can We Earn Our Stakeholders’ Trust as a Team?

TL; DR: Stakeholder Trust

Trust is the beginning of everything. I am hesitant to recycle an old slogan of a banking institute. However, in the context of becoming a learning organization and embracing business agility, it condenses the main challenge perfectly: How shall we convince the incumbents with vested interests in the status quo to give the new way of working the benefit of the doubt? Join me and delve into how distrust manifests and what we can do to earn stakeholder trust.

Stakeholder Trust

🇩🇪 Zur deutschsprachigen Version des Artikels: Stakeholder-Vertrauen.

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Trust According to the Scrum Guide

Trust is the foundation of empiricism, allowing for transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Nevertheless, the Scrum Guide 2020 mentions trust just once in the context of Scrum Values:

These values give direction to the Scrum Team with regard to their work, actions, and behavior. The decisions that are made, the steps taken, and the way Scrum is used should reinforce these values, not diminish or undermine them. The Scrum Team members learn and explore the values as they work with the Scrum events and artifacts. When these values are embodied by the Scrum Team and the people they work with, the empirical Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life building trust.

SourceScrum Guide 2020.

The sparse notion of trust in the Scrum Guide should not come as a surprise, given that it focuses on how to make Scrum work for your organization once you decide it is useful and the organization supports the decision of its introduction. Scrum is a very effective practice, and it shows in the Scrum Guide, detailing the interconnected aspects of this delivery system. It is, however, less concerned about the pre-requisites of its introduction to an organization.

In practice, given that Scrum is an excellent probe into any organization’s dysfunctions, it turns out that precisely these pre-requisites regularly pose the most significant obstacles to its introduction. Self-management in the sense of Scrum pushes many people into uncomfortable territory, be it the expectation to accept more accountability as a team member or challenging a hard-earned position in the management hierarchy: “I’m not in entrusting my career, my ability to pay my mortgage, and putting my kids through college to a bunch of hoodie-wearing nerds.” 

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How Lack of Stakeholder Trust Manifests Itself

The discomfort of people outside of a Scrum team required to work with a Scrum team — commonly referred to as stakeholders — manifests itself often in a kind of collaboration that does not provide the benefit of the doubt to the team but is characterized by distrust. This lack of stakeholder trust manifests itself in various forms, for example: 

Lack of Stakeholder Trust at the Organizational Level

  • Metered funding: The Scrum team is permanently held in limbo by the stakeholders regarding whether they will continue its funding or be disbanded.
  • Internal agency: Stakeholders do not empower Scrum teams to solve customer problems. Instead, stakeholders hand lists of tasks to Scrum teams to accomplish.
  • Stage-Gate® vs. self-management: Stakeholders approve Increments and decide over releases.
  • Reporting-driven culture: Stakeholders demand various reports from Scrum teams but refuse to attend, for example, Sprint Reviews.
  • Using unsuited metrics: OKRs are based on output metrics instead of being determined by the desired outcome.
  • Command & control: Stakeholders create arbitrary deadlines to push Scrum teams to higher performance levels.
  • Lack of commitment: Scrum is abandoned the moment there is a challenge on the horizon.

Lack of Stakeholder Trust at the People Level

  • Team building I: Line managers and HR have the final say over hiring and firing new team members.
  • Team building II: Stakeholders and line managers assign team members to Scrum teams without consulting the team itself.
  • No slack time: Line managers believe in keeping utilization rates of team members high. (An increasing velocity is regarded as a success sign.)
  • Sub-roles within Scrum teams: Line managers insist on creating “lead positions” within the team. There are lead engineers or lead designers.
  • Hierarchies within Scrum teams: Line managers create reporting hierarchies within Scrum teams; for example, junior developers report to senior developers.
  • Resources & FTEs: Line managers move “resources” between teams without consulting the affected teams and individuals.
  • Incentives: The organization grants personal incentives for individual team members instead of incentivizing the whole Scrum team.

Lack of Stakeholder Trust at the Way-of-Working Level

  • No failure culture: “Failure is not an option.” (Solving complex adaptive problems is inherently failure-prone.)
  • Separation by silos: Sales prevents Scrum team members from talking directly to customers.
  • Dependencies I: The Developers do not enjoy the freedom to choose tools.
  • Dependencies II: Developers cannot decide how to turn Product Backlog items into Increments. For example, an outside software architect is pre-defining solutions.
  • Imposing processes: The organization creates detailed processes in Jira or any other project management tool outside the team’s control, thus disempowering the team members. For example, team members are not allowed to delete entries or change processes.
  • Approval gates: Scrum teams cannot decide how to spend their training or book budgets.
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How to Build Trust as a Scrum Team

Seeing is believing. In my experience, a promising way to build stakeholder trust is to regularly deliver valuable and viable Increments as a Scrum team, thus making your internal and external stakeholders successful. Achieving that level of routine value creation requires including your stakeholders in your team’s work, giving everyone a voice, and making them feel heard. Useful stepping stones on that path are, for example:

  • Regularly deliver a valuable Increment every single Sprint and embrace a servant leadership attitude as a Scrum Team: make your stakeholders look good.
  • Educate your stakeholders: organize workshops on how agile product development works. Do not assume that your stakeholders are familiar with the intricacies of “Agile” or Scrum. (Learn more: App Prototyping with Absolute Beginners – Creating a Shared Understanding of How Empiricism Works.)
  • Create an actionable Product Backlog by designing a transparent product discovery system encouraging everyone to contribute. If your Product Backlog process looks arbitrary, every stakeholder will be pushed into a corner and focus on pursuing their (personal) goals over aligning with the big picture.
  • Over-communicate all aspects of your Scrum team’s work; it is okay to sound like a broken record in this regard. (Learn more: 11 Proven Stakeholder Communication Tactics during an Agile Transition.)
  • Practice radical candor: be upfront with issues that impact the scope or delivery dates, and communicate the underlying issues immediately.
  • Run user story mapping workshops to learn from your stakeholders, include them in the discovery process and build rapport with them. Once they are a “part” of the solution, they will become more trusting. 
  • Don’t ignore stakeholders’ needs; the “how much is it and when can I have it” question is valid; your stakeholders must also meet objectives.
  • Show empathy; try walking in your stakeholders’ shoes; for example, as someone from sales attempting to meet their quota.
  • Include stakeholders in Sprint Reviews and organize regular meta-retrospectives
  • If necessary, write reports to satisfy their information needs. At the same time, figure out why they need these reports and support them to come up with something better.

Stakeholder Trust — Conclusion

Do not expect all your stakeholders to be enthusiastic about your team just because you are practicing Scrum or other agile practices; stakeholder trust needs to be earned. The best way to do so is to make your stakeholders successful by regularly delivering valuable Increments while including them in the process of figuring out what is worth building. 

Depending on your industry and organizational culture, doing so is not necessarily a straightforward process. So, be prepared to take some detours along the way that are not described in the Scrum Guide. 

How do you earn stakeholder trust? Please share your learnings with us in the comments.

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📖 Stakeholder Trust — Related Posts

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15 Sprint Review Anti-Patterns Holding Back Scrum Teams

21 Sprint Retrospective Anti-Patterns Impeding Scrum Teams

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