rugby scrum

How to get a ‘scrum team’ up and running

In the agile project management framework, a ‘scrum’ is where a cross-functional team comes together for a short time, to plan and build (iterating as they go) until the project is finished. The name is based on the rugby scrum where teammates huddle together to talk tactics and plan their moves, and connects to my recent article How to design an agile organisation.

The advice below refers to project management in its broadest sense – you could apply it to a traditional project, or when a team comes together to look at potential business opportunities or to take a deep dive into another topic.

It’s best used when a small team (say, up to seven people) works on a project full-time.  The scrum team would probably be in place for up to six months, so they can go in, blitz it, and get out. Any longer, and a more typical day-to-day operational team approach would apply.

“You can’t be agile when you’re knee-deep in mud.”
Martin Fowler

Ways of working when a team is not together for long

Here are some of the essential characteristics that need to be in place for a scrum team to be effective:

  • As always, establish a clear purpose and goals. If the project doesn’t serve the purpose of the business, there is no point in doing it
  • Recognise that there will probably be cross-functional people in the team, so everyone’s roles and responsibilities should be made clear. It is important not to over-emphasise anybody’s individual expertise. Otherwise, people could focus only on their own area, or become over-defensive of it
  • Ideally, people will be based in the same location. I appreciate that’s unusual these days, but it is a lot easier to get the work done if everyone is in the same room, on the same floor, in the same building, or at least in the same country!
  • Every team member should have the same title and position in the hierarchy. To reinforce the lack of hierarchy, team members need to be accountable to each other rather than to a boss
  • That said, it is helpful to have someone with the overall role of guiding the team and keeping the work on track. Their role is to protect the people in the team so they can get on and do the work. This person also manages stakeholders and helps avoid scope creep
  • KISS (Keep It Short & Sweet)
    • Ensure that team members are empowered, with simple and minimal processes that won’t slow them down
    • Use short communications. That means no long emails!
    • Minimise dependencies on other teams, so giving your scrum team maximum freedom to act

“The thing that cripples communication saturation is specialization—the number of roles and titles in a group. If people have a special title, they tend to do only things that seem a match for that title. And to protect the power of that role, they tend to hold on to specific knowledge.”
Jeff Sutherland, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

Stand-up meetings

A scrum team is only together for a short time period, so issues need to be dealt with quickly. That’s why the agile approach recommends daily stand-up meetings. This is a 15-minute check-in on the team’s well-being and any roadblocks. Because there are no chairs, there is no sitting-down ritual, and the meetings are over quickly.

Three questions for the team leader to ask

  • What have you completed since we last talked?
  • What are you working on now?
  • What is standing in your way that we can help with?

Ground rules for a successful stand-up meeting

  • Responses should be succinct. The team leader might need to reinforce this frequently at the beginning before people get into that routine
  • Park any topics that need to be addressed by some, but not all, team members
  • Don’t allow stakeholders to attend, because they will push their own agenda. Just keep it to the team

Characteristics of scrum team members

These characteristics will benefit any team, but are particularly suitable for a scrum team:

  • Highly competent, proven performers that deliver
  • Self-starter/driven, but not so independent that they will go off and do their own thing
  • Collaborative. With cross-functional members on the team, people have to be open to different skills and ways of thinking
  • Customer-focused, especially if this team is looking at a business opportunity or something that hasn’t been done before. Customers must be at the front of their mind, so the project isn’t ‘just another job’ for team members
  • Confident (see my article How to develop your confidence)
  • Resilient (see my article How to develop resilience and cope with stress)
  • Good communicator
  • Curious and open-minded

Characteristics of the scrum team leader

  • Ego-less (For more on this, please see my article What’s the role of the leader)
  • Calm
  • Confident
  • Organised
  • Outcome-focused
  • Good communicator (including listening)
  • A motivator of people
  • Problem-solving skills and focus (and no blame game)
  • Good at cutting through bureaucracy and the complexity of differing agendas
  • Comfortable with ambiguity
  • Ability to say no, nicely (to avoid scope creep)
  • Willing to stand up for the people on your team (so they know you ‘have their back’)
  • Strong influencer, with a balance of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ influencing styles (See this article written in conjunction with my Syngenta client How to improve your influencing skills)

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Harry S Truman

How to spend your time

According to research by Ruth Wageman and Richard Hackman, who created the Team Diagnostic Survey, team leaders should split their time following this ratio:

  • 60% Pre-work before the team is set up. Decide whether the work needs a team, and what is its compelling purpose. Identify the right people to get on the team. Have a solid organisational structure and process, and a supportive context with genuine sponsorship by higher-ups
  • 30% Launching the team. Build relationships, and figure out how team members will work together. Ensure they are excited by the purpose and really forming as a team
  • 10% Hands-on coaching. The quality and level of team coaching are critical. This could be done by the team leader, or by a coach who is on hand regularly to support the way the team are working. (It could even be an external coach – for example, me!)

How a good scrum team works together

Setting up the project

The initial focus is on building trust. Of course it is imperative to have a clear goal and purpose. But it’s critical to set up the relationships as well. It’s tempting to shortcut this phase, but the team won’t be successful without doing this.

Make time for people to get to know each other. Understand what makes them tick, and what they want to accomplish by being on this project team. Discover what their hot buttons are, and how to get the best out of them.

Talk about how you want to work together to establish a mini-culture. Perhaps create a team charter to formalise this. (Please let me know if you’d like a process or my help with that.)

As you go along

In agile methodology, an important way of working is to iterate as you go. Remove the expectation of perfection, or of making decisions only when you have all the information. Team members will be probably working on something that’s not been done before, so they will need to be comfortable with ambiguity. (For more on this, please see my article Dealing with ambiguity.)

It helps to celebrate success regularly, both small and big wins. However, you should avoid complacency. If a team is not together for long, this might not become a concern. But if things are progressing really well, It’s important to keep things fresh, keep challenging yourself, and to maintain a supportive environment that’s without blame and retains a focus on what people bring. (There’s more on this in my article Psychological safety and team effectiveness.)

Ending the project

When the team eventually disbands, a key thing is knowledge-sharing. Discuss what was learned – not just the outcome of the work, but also how the team worked together. Publicise this more than once, using different methods. This will help shift the organisational culture to be more open to an agile style of working – which is becoming increasingly important in the long-term.