Many agile and scrum teams want to be left alone so that they can do their
work. The last thing they want is leaders looking over their shoulders and
overseeing their to-do lists, even when they struggle to complete their
sprint commitments. Whatever the blocks impeding their progress are, they’ll
work through them, though maybe not at the pace, schedule, or quality
Therein lies the conflict, as leadership is accountable for driving
outcomes, which often means hitting deadlines, ensuring quality releases,
and meeting customer and stakeholder expectations.
When scrum teams aren’t on track to meet their goals or aren’t following
agile practices and standards
designed to help them meet objectives, what should
do to intervene? And what shouldn’t they do?
Micromanaging is not the answer. I wrote, “Talented software developers
bristle at the idea of being closely managed, and many will leave jobs where
there is a culture of micromanagement,” in a recent article on
managing software developers without micromanaging.
That was a “big picture” article where I challenged the norms in yearly
performance reviews and offered several suggestions on managing team and
individual performance objectives in ways that align with agile principles.
But what should agile leaders do in real-time to guide teams when releases,
sprints, practices, and behaviors are veering off course? How can Digital
trailblazers inspire their teams and avoid declaring edicts?
Agile cultures are built on trust, transparency, and openness
Stepping in and guiding teams when there are problems requires some upfront
work well before there are issues. An agile culture must include trust,
transparency, and openness as core principles, and teams must see consistent
leadership participation, not just when there are issues.
What do these elements of an agile culture mean in practice? Below are some
Trust is established when leadership supports psychological safety,
experimenting, learning from failures, avoiding blame, questioning the
status quo, and requiring inclusive and
when brainstorming and solutioning.
Transparency starts with leaders documenting
vision statements, creating program charters, and ensuring teams have prioritized
objectives. It extends to agile teams who see benefits in using tools to
help manage their work and expect leaders to use them as a window into the
team’s productivity and impediments.
Openness implies that leaders are open to being questioned and
challenged. It means teams hope leaders will attend their sprint reviews
constructive feedback. It requires that agile teams hold retrospectives, acknowledge their
problems, and apply continuous improvement practices.
Without trust, transparency, and openness between scrum teams and leaders,
it’s hard for
to guide agile teams, especially if leaders only parachute into the team’s
practices when there are problems.
Let’s assume that the agile organization has elements of trust,
transparency, and openness. What are some dos and don’ts when guiding teams
back on track?
1. Clarify the vision and avoid rigid roadmaps
and articulating a roadmap shouldn’t become a fixed contract. Leaders must
communicate the vision and roadmap repetitively and actively listen for
signals where teams need clarifications or when these artifacts need
Do help teams see the forest from the trees and better understand
the vision and midterm objectives. Misalignments occur when teams
misinterpret vision statements or assume more difficult-to-achieve
acceptance criteria than what’s actually required.
Don’t promise rigid roadmaps to stakeholders where scope and
timeline set a high bar for agile teams to hit consistently. When scrum
teams support openness, invite stakeholders to participate in sprint
reviews and encourage them to share feedback. The transparency and
resulting dialog often lead to stakeholders acknowledging they are
learning the requirements and priorities in partnership with the teams.
2. Bring a flashlight into the weeds, not a machete
When teams struggle, I believe it’s important for Digital Trailblazers to
step into their working process lightly. That means observing and
highlighting improvement areas without explicitly telling teams and their
leaders how to fix issues.
Do sit in sprint planning, observe the process, and encourage teams
to perform a bottoms-up commitment. Accept a lower velocity and help
address any questions about the intent of user stories or clarify
Don’t dictate commitments or invite yourself to the daily standup,
as this will undermine a team’s self-organization. Stay away from the
day-to-day sprint mechanics and instead mentor the team’s
on improving team collaboration and cohesion.
3. Inspire the team by taking them out of their sprints
Teams can easily burn out going sprint to sprint and release to release
without time to come up for air and recharge. Here’s some of what Digital
Trailblazers do when teams are stressed out.
Do give teams time to reset, especially after major releases or if
they responded to a major outage. Celebrate their success, provide space
and time for learning, and take them on roadshows to visit customers.
Don’t allow stakeholders to pressure teams for more features,
fixes, and releases to the point where there’s too much stress and risk of
Empower product managers to work with stakeholders
on priorities and set realistic expectations.
Agile’s promise and strengths lie in giving teams more control of their
workloads, repetitive practices that improve delivery, and tools for
simplifying collaboration. When there are issues, avoid falling back into
command and control behaviors. Help teams identify problem areas, listen to
their impediments, address issues outside of their controls, and empower
them to prioritize continuous improvements.
Join us for a future session of
Coffee with Digital Trailblazers, where we discuss topics for aspiring transformation leaders. If you enjoy
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