Getting your Team to Self-Organize

Mark ArntzMon, 05/07/2018 - 17:10

I was the Scrum Master for a pilot team during an Agile adoption. I was not a CSM. But I knew more than most CSMs. I had read Agile Estimating and Planning, The Software Project Managers Bridge to Agility, Implementing Lean Software Development, and others. I understood that an Agile team is supposed to be self-organizing.

As a traditional project manager turned Scrum Master, I also knew that my role had changed and I needed to get the team to volunteer for work and that I was not going to assign work.

I had read in Agile Estimating and Planning that tasks should not all be assigned during Iteration planning. Seemed simple enough, right? Not. When your team is used to being assigned, guess what? They sit and wait for you to assign. How frustrating. I thought that they would get it more quickly.

I thought that they would get it more quickly.

In the first Iteration they got to the end of the Iteration and nothing had been completed to the Definition of Done. They earned zero story points. They were frustrated, but they didn’t understand what went wrong. In the Retrospective we did the five-why approach to problem-solving that comes from Lean. We kept asking why until we got to what we thought was a route cause; (maybe not the only route cause, but a route cause). They determined that they had picked up too many stories at once and didn’t focus on getting things across the finish line.

So we decided to set up Work-in-Progress limits. This is something that’s a part of Kanban, but we had never heard of Kanban (except as it exists at Toyota). The rule they set was: The team can only work on at most two stories at one time. We must get one done before we can pick up another story and work on it. This seemed to help with the problem, but they were still not self-organizing which, in reality, was contributing to the problem just as much if not more.

Here is what you need to know. Learning this is not easy. You have to be patient and keep at it. If you give up and start assigning tasks because they just don’t start volunteering, you become an obstacle to their learning. Let them fail. Do the Retrospective. One step at a time they will get to the real root cause and will learn. This process along with your good coaching and mentoring will eventually pay off and the team will become a high performing team that self-organizes.