Coaching Experiences

Coaching Experiences: The Power of Observation as Scrum Master

Many books, articles, blogs and comments have been published around the role of the Scrum Master. I have found that one important skill for a Scrum Master is the observation for the interactions, behaviors, and dialogue of the team during multiple events, such as Sprint Planning. Review, Retrospective, Stand-up, and any other interaction they have during the day. This coaching aims to provide a set of recommendations to improve your observation skills an it is influenced also in the concept of Direct Observation from Lean Mindset.

In my personal experience, the observation is a powerful tool/skill to discover critical issues impacting areas such as:

  • Trust and openness in the team
  • Collaboration and swarming to solve problems
  • Kindness and humbleness in the team interactions
  • Team happiness, morale, and motivation
  • Team focus

The next recommendations are based on multiple experiences working with several teams and also helping many scrum masters in their daily job.

The first recommendation is simple, take notes about what you see. It is important that you carry a very sophisticated tool, a pencil and a notebook, to accomplish such task. Try to record not only the observation but also the date and moment when you see it. Remember, this is raw material for you to be used to help the team to reflect about improvement or solving critical situations. You usually need to synthesize and reflect about it. It is good that you may also complement your notes with some potential hypothesis that you need to verify as it is described in the next recommendation.

The second recommendation focuses on your own mindset. Be open and do not make conclusions with just one observation. Follow a scientific approach to make any potential conclusion. One situation observed one day may not be a recurrent problem in the team. This is the power of frequent observation in multiple moments, such as standup meeting, helping requests, etc. I remember one situation, for a team that I was starting to work with, where the team were extremely rude during the standup and they generated some frictions among the members. It was tempting to conclude many conclusions about potential problems, but after observing and gathering some data I found that the previous day the team had an embarrassing soccer match where they lost and the soccer game was a very important thing for them.

The third recommendation focuses on making more efficient the observation process, the recommendation is to have a purpose for your observation. There are multiple things/issues that you can try to observe and being honest, trying to get data for all of them can be misleading and confusing. Try to focus on a couple of items, behaviors, or areas you want to focus. I remember one case where there were many issues in a team, then I decided to focus in some areas after having a conversation with management and the Product Owner. My observation focused on the low help that team members offered among each other. My observation had an special focus on such situations, facts, and behaviors around such area. I discovered a strong “silo thinking” surrounded by a culture of individual meritocracy. In such scenario every member focuses more on their own individual tasks and not on the team goals. To finish the story, it took 4 months to work with the team to change their mindset and see an amazing transformation where the team started to help and swarming to solve problems.

The fourth recommendation is to make the observation intent visible to the team. This recommendation is a difficult one since you need to manage it carefully to avoid the “big brother effect” where team members can feel observed in a negative way. Usually, the Scrum Master should work using his coaching skills to help the team to be aware of some issue that requires attention and then work to solve it. I remember the case of one team where they were not able to complete stories during the sprint, they just complete portions of stories. The team acknowledged the situation and they were aware of some potential root cause of such issues. As Scrum Master I focus my observation to validate some of the potential root causes and also to discover others. There were many root causes. One of them were the common assumption that multitasking is a great skill. I helped them to see the reality of multitasking in complex tasks and they experimented to focus on one or two stories at the time before starting a new one. They improved. It was an amazing experience for them and a boost in their productivity.

The fifth recommendation is about to the moment to trigger the reflection. Use the retrospective for such purpose. Be prepared with notes, data, and your own strategy to trigger the reflection by connecting your data/facts with powerful questions. Sometimes, if you have a good connection with your team, you can also use carefully planned emotional questions such as “how did you feel when you ask for help and nobody answered?”. This situations can help the team to connect among them and also bring in to the conversation situations not visible in the team and outside the team. Remember, try to engage the team for making real the improvement, define specific actions to observe the progress. I have multiple experiences triggering reflection in situations based on emotional responses. You need first to create a psychological safe environment to express and share such type of information.

I hope that new Scrum Masters using these five recommendations will find a set of initial tools to improve their observation skills to help the growth of the team they working with.

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