Tips for New Scrum Masters Part III: Facilitating Focus and Alignment on Agile Teams

by Brandy Emesal
Image of a Scrum master facilitating meetings and helping an agile business team

In any organization, good Scrum Masters find themselves wearing many hats: coach, facilitator, agile champion, storyteller. You are a company’s cultural guide when it comes to implementing agility, and that comes with no small learning curve. Here’s how to rock those roles.

Championing Agility on Your Team 

Co-create working agreements that reflect team goals.

As you begin to discuss working agreements with an established team, many of their individual proposals will represent friction the team faced in the past and the solutions each person believes will prevent those problems in the future. Instead of attempting to create highly specific working agreements focused on past or anticipated problems, coach your teams toward demonstrating agile values with flexible, collaborative, and transparent working agreements that allow their growth through the stages of group development: 

Forming. Even with an established team, when you introduce Scrum ceremonies and agile practices, your agreements must make space for each member of your team to demonstrate trustworthiness and build trust. This trust lays a healthy foundation for self-organization through each phase in the team’s growth. Focus your agreements on goal-setting, monitoring, and celebrating. Ask:

  • How will we measure success?
  • How and when will we communicate impediments?
  • How will we celebrate our accomplishments?
  • What do we do if the backlog needs to change mid-sprint?
  • How will we measure each team member’s satisfaction with their work and their experience on this team

Storming. Though this sounds conflict-related, storming really refers to all of the ways that each of us may work and envision our work differently. This may not result in conflict at all, instead showing up as “surprises” resulting from lack of communication or transparency. Ask:

  • What are each of our natural working styles? 
  • How might we leverage the positives of your style?
  • How might we account for the pitfalls of your style?
  • How will we communicate and discuss our perception of the “how,” “what,” and “why” of a project before pulling it into the sprint backlog?
  • How will we offer transparency into our work?
  • How will we address 1-1 conflict?
  • How will we address broader disagreements on our team?
  • How will we handle external pressures or conflicts?

Norming. As teams learn to resolve conflicts, build trust, and self-organize, they begin to establish a smoother, faster way of operating together. Sharing the experience of progress toward team goals goes a long way toward building team cohesiveness, and you may see this in more joyful conversations and team members who socialize together. Ideally, this is when complaints begin to reduce and impediments become primarily external and not conflict-related. Do not expect storming behaviors to disappear, as collective growth does not necessarily eliminate individual experiences, nor does it guarantee each person arrives at the same place at the same time. In the norming phase, however, you can begin to gently challenge longer-standing issues or norms that could be improved upon. Ask:

  • What’s working now that used to be a major problem?
  • What could we do more efficiently?
  • How could we improve our feedback experiences with each other? With our customers?
  • Are there cross-training opportunities we could take advantage of now?
  • How has our individual satisfaction improved since we started asking these questions? What would improve it now?

Performing. Established teams seldom introduce friction or conflict into their workflow. Indeed, these are the teams that handle external pressures and impediments confidently. They know how decisions are made, how to prioritize projects, and what is expected of them. No team “performs” 100 percent of the time, however, so it is worth continuing to focus on the now-more-subtle ways of developing and strengthening your teams. 

  • What training do we want as a team or as individuals to further our success?
  • What storytelling would we like to share with the organization to help them understand our accomplishments, strengths, and challenges?
  • What new platforms or programs could we explore to better understand and deliver value to our customers?

Leverage digital tools as information radiators. Digital tools (such as Trello, Google Drive, Miro, and analytics dashboards) increase transparency for remote employees, other teams, and leaders in the organization. They also reduce the amount of time individuals on your teams spend validating their work or searching for answers. Be sure to also consider digital team-building platforms (for example, Zoom, Jackbox.TV, Team Building Bingo, and trivia) to keep your teams socially engaged. “Mandatory fun” serves an incredibly important purpose: increasing the number of positive interactions between team members, which builds trust and opens lines of communication.

Master your Scrum event skills. As the team’s primary facilitator, your job is to set it up for success in backlog refinement, planning, and retrospectives and to serve as a coach and support system surrounding the Daily Scrum. You will:

  • Help identify and remove impediments
  • Set the tone for a productive team culture
  • Help resolve friction to find positive solutions
  • Help the team bring its “how” into alignment with the product owner’s vision 
  • Shield the team from external disruption and distraction

Championing Agility Within Your Organization

Leverage data (not just burndown charts). 

Track metrics. While your organization may have defined “key performance indicators,” you want to ensure the metrics you generate and track as a team help you provide a complete picture of customer engagement and satisfaction, not just product (or service) performance. For each backlog item, be sure to ask:

  • What data collection or testing will we include in this iteration that will inform our next iteration?
  • Is the data we’re gathering valid, or does it paint an incomplete or slightly inaccurate picture?
  • Do we have the tools we need to understand and tell the story of our impact?

Define customer satisfaction. All too often, the work we choose to do and how we choose to do it is based entirely on what we believe the customer needs. If, however, we spoke to our customers, their feedback could provide an entirely different story. That gets to the root of this one: The user story. Though it’s easy to follow the simple formula for writing user stories, they must answer these questions as well:

  • What assumptions/hypotheses have we made here?

  • Is this backlog item based on what the customer has stated is a priority right now, or is it based on theories we need to prove?

  • How are we measuring our customers’ satisfaction on this backlog item?

    • Are these the “right” metrics for this project? (Would the customer agree with us?)

  • How much positive improvement in these metrics would be considered successful? 

    • How much can we reasonably expect?

Employee satisfaction. This metric has more to do with how efficiently your teams can deliver value to your customers than you might think. Unhappy employees and high turnover rates are more than expensive on the hiring end, they affect the quality of a team’s work as well. Whether you implement anonymous surveys or rely entirely on your retrospective meetings for this data set, you may benefit from measuring:

  • Each person’s level of engagement
  • How autonomous they do or do not feel.
  • How they perceive their learning opportunities.
  • Whether your teams believe they are acting in alignment with company values and goals.
  • Whether your teams feel the organization is acting in alignment with its values and goals.
  • How likely individuals are to recommend an open position on your teams.
  • How aligned individuals feel with their work.
  • How frustrated (or not) employees are with company leadership.
  • How much the people on your teams trust each other and company leaders.

Practice storytelling. Though raw data can be helpful and open-ended questions foster creative solutions to pressing issues, storytelling allows you to transform feedback into actionable insights that inspire leadership buy-in and foster team trust and support. As often as you can, use a simple visual and a few key data points to help you share the stories of your teams, organization, and customers in a live format. Many companies leverage an “open mic” or all-staff meeting for these opportunities, others use a simple Slack channel. The truth is that few actions are more powerful and effective at strengthening company culture and employee buy-in, so it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to leverage any and all opportunities to share impactful stories. 

 

Raise Awareness and Promote an Understanding of Agile in Your Organization

No job title could accurately capture and describe everything a good Scrum Master brings to an organization. This is especially true of a Scrum Master’s role as an educator. Though many people start this journey with a Certified ScrumMaster course, career progression in this field relies heavily on your ability to become a champion of agility, educating and coaching individuals, teams, and organizational leaders toward increased business agility. This educational offering is not limited to those practices we consider “agile” — so much of what agilists learn and practice centers around strong values and cultivating the interpersonal skills necessary to self-organize and rapidly deliver value to customers. For most Scrum Masters, however, it all begins with cultivating buy-in.

Find Your Team’s Scrum & Agile-Applicable “Whys”

Though any agile or Scrum-practicing organization hopes each individual demonstrates values that align with those of the organization, it is always true that each person is most motivated by their personal why, than by the why of those they work with directly. 

Create a safe space for clearing the air. Often, in the early stages of business agility, individuals and teams bring their baggage to your discussions. Their “why” (for example security or creativity) was, at some point, not honored, and they often need that to be addressed and validated before moving into a forward-thinking mindset. You may, therefore, need to start by working directly with each person to allow them to vent and begin to explore the idea of a future with the company and team that looks different from what they previously experienced. In a team environment, if you anticipate the need for individuals and the team to identify problems, come prepared to diplomatically and neutrally steer the group toward actionable solutions. This can be facilitated with techniques such as firm timeboxing and agreed-upon feedback protocols, though myriad frameworks for powerful conversations may aid in helping you facilitate productive conversations.

Identify common ground to develop a shared vision. Say, “We know some of what we don’t want. What do we each want in the future for ourselves, our team, our company, and our customer?” Other relevant questions include:

  • “You could be paid by anyone. Why else do you come to work for each day?”
  • “What do you believe to be the strongest attribute of our team?
  • “If you were running a company like this that truly cared about its customers, what would you do differently tomorrow?”

Facilitate self-organization. Once your teams know why they want to do better, enlist their expertise in identifying ways to take measurable, incremental steps toward experiencing their why in action. 

 

Develop Leadership & Team Understanding of Agility to Increase Buy-in

What matters most here is that there is leadership and team understanding of why you believe taking an agile approach will provide different results. This means getting an understanding of what you all want more of, what you want less of, and then connecting agility to those new results. Helping others truly understand how business agility or Scrum values can transform how they work is never as easy as walking them through the Agile Manifesto or Scrum Guide. Sure, it all sounds good, but skeptics abound. If your timeline for adoption is long, your confidence high, and your knowledge deep, you may choose to tackle organizational understanding of agility on your own. Here are proven paths you may factor in to help ease the transition. 

 

  1. Build a foundation. Whether you choose Scrum or another path to business agility, it is important everybody understands the what and why behind the approach you adopt.

  2. Co-create working agreements and ceremony parameters. Frame them in terms of the “why” behind the agreement. For example, “We believe transparency and collaboration will increase our efficiency and reduce stress, so we agree to meet for 15 minutes each morning,” or “We believe we perform best with a singular focus, so we agree to limit our work in progress to three backlog items in ‘doing’ at any given time.” If your team expresses meeting overload, a ceremony parameter might be that you put time limits on certain meetings and team members have the autonomy to decline invitations to meetings outside of the Scrum events, for example.

  3. Training and certification. In addition to Scrum Master training, you may find it useful to have a trained product owner and certified agile leaders on your team. If you are working with a product development team, consider having them trained in Scrum to increase efficiency and buy-in.

  4. Storytelling. Though this is covered in a previous article in this series, it’s worth mentioning here as well. People learn best and get most excited about success stories. Seeing truly is believing, so when the team gets it right, make sure everybody knows it.

  5. Time and trust. As agile experience and team trust increase, buy-in naturally follows. As an educator, you may identify learning objectives for your teams, especially if your organization chooses not to train and certify everybody. Focus on these learning objectives as they are relevant to goals and friction the team encounters to help tie the lesson to team members’ actual experiences at work. 

 

Ways to connect the learning (Scrum/agile practices) to your team 

Ask powerful questions:

  1. Who needs courage and for what right now?

  2. In retrospect, who surprised you with their courage recently?

  3. How can we practice openness in the face of this friction?

  4. Are we open to exploring solutions right now, or do we really need to keep complaining about our problems?

  5. Do we respect the source of our problem enough to have a powerful conversation?

  6. Did we demonstrate respect for our customers in developing our sprint plan?

  7. Was our focus in the right place when we made that mistake?

  8. Are we demonstrating focus when we spend the first half of this meeting complaining?

  9. Is our commitment to this project enough that we can meet our goal?

  10. What commitments should we make to better accomplish our goals?

 

Deliver engaging and interactive group learning experiences

 

  1. Consider your audience. Frame your presentation in terms not of what matters to you, but in terms of what actionable takeaways benefit them. Reward them for their attention by focusing your presentation on your audience.

  2. Minimize text and slides. Or use none at all. Slides with more than a headline and a few bullet points are difficult for your teams to absorb. Though they can be helpful for the note takers in the group, they are not reliable as the single source of information delivery, because much of your team will struggle to absorb information they could easily ask for after the fact.

  3. Leverage multimedia experiences and visual online tools. This one is simple: Use short videos, simple charts, illustrative photos, and easy-to-understand visual tools to create a learning experience that reaches your visual learners.

  4. Use real life to illustrate abstract concepts. Whether you share highlights from case studies or client experiences, practice storytelling to recap a team’s experience, or position a new exercise you’d like to try in terms of how it carries over into their real lives, your teammates need to see it to believe it.

  5. Partner up in pairs or small groups. Often, your teammates are your best teachers. In the virtual world, breakout sessions are still your best friend. Whether you use Zoom rooms or separate sections on a Miro board, learning is more fun when it’s not in a silo. Partnering teammates up at random also encourages them to converse with those who they do not speak with often and helps increase positivity and trust on your teams. Conversation may get lost in the hustle and bustle of getting work done, but its importance in the creative and team-building processes really cannot be over emphasized. 

  6. Enlist their help in solving for customer value. Present customer problems to the team and create an experimental experience that helps them understand, first hand, the problem-solving methods that are available to them as agilists.

Read Part One: Tips for New Scrum Masters Part I — Assessing Teams & Crafting Problem Statements

Read Part Two: Tips for New Scrum Masters Part II — Coaching, Consulting, & Catalyzing Change

 

About the Author

Brandy Emesal is a Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) with certifications in Agile Leadership Essentials (CAL-E) and Agile Leadership for Teams (CAL-T). With a bachelor's of science in news-editorial journalism and a background as a marketer and military public affairs sergeant, she works on the Leaders Team at Scrum Alliance, creating content to help agile leaders and aspiring agilists advance their careers and empower their teams.

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