Podcast Ep. 53: Why Should Scrum Teams Continuously Improve?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Episode Description:

In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, host Dan Neumann received an email from a listener that posed an interesting question. In short, they said, “We’re doing alright every Sprint and the business is doing alright, too—we’re not really facing any competition. So, when the team asks, ‘Why should we continually improve?’ how can I help them through that scenario?” This is a great question. Though this team is stable, have been working together for a long time, and are doing well, they’ve reached a plateau.

When you dominate your market and you feel there is no competition, there can end up being a serious lack of continuous improvement (especially if the barrier to entry is high). And it’s not totally unexpected that teams sometimes can get a little bit complacent—but it’s the Scrum Master’s job to challenge that. So, Dan and his collaborator, Sam Falco, will be answering this question and addressing how you, as the Scrum Master, can help re-motivate your team to amplify what’s going well, shake things up and make sure they’re all doing more of what they love.


Listen on Google Play Music



Key Takeaways:

  • Why should you continually improve?
    • In the case of competition (people may find an alternative to your company)
    • Because there is always something you can look to improve (even if things are going well you can always amplify that)
  • How can you get your team to be interested in continuous improvement? What’s important to note as a Scrum Master or team leader?
    • Watch out for change fatigue (sometimes it’s good to simply celebrate stability)
    • Ask, “What could we try differently?” even if everything is going well (amplify what’s already going well)
    • Hold timeline retrospectives (i.e. with the team, plot the events that happened over a period of time and list them from most to least positive to see what people are feeling good or negative about)
    • By looking back further than a Sprint, you can do an exercise called a journey map for the last quarter (or as far back as a year) to look for trends
    • Find the things that are going to be good for your team (i.e. a compelling interest beyond just the financials of the company)
    • If some members of the team are bored with the work they’re doing, assign a new project or have them learn a new area of the business
    • Work with the Product Owner on the question of, “What could we do to delight customers? What are they asking for?” using the Kano model
    • Work with the Product Owner and coach them on the product road map/how to understand customer needs and creating more inspired product backlog items to fuel the motivation for continual improvement
    • Look for ways to tap into your team’s intrinsic motivation (if you have a long-standing team, it may be important to find out what motivates each individual member of the team [which could be autonomy, mastery, or purpose, according to Daniel H. Pink])
    • Remember that you are looking for the intrinsic motivators rather than the extrinsic motivators (which are things like time off or financial rewards)
    • Try flipping the script; do your retrospective around, “What would destroy us as a team,” “How can we mess up,” and “What would make the next Sprint a complete disaster?”
    • Identify somewhere that the team can go and lead the way by holding the vision and finding areas of improvement (i.e. lead more than serve)
    • Be sure to keep in mind that change and improvement can take a long time
    • Find a representative within the team of developers who is interested in continuous improvement to facilitate change, model the behavior and lead through attraction



Mentioned in this Episode


Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and not completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought, the podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:17]  Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner, I’m Dan Neumann and joined today by my colleague, Sam Falco.

Sam Falco: [00:23] Happy to be here, Dan.

Dan Neumann: [00:25]  Always always fun and more fun this week because we have an email from a listener who basically posed a scenario, said hey, we’re doing all right. Every Sprint, we’re getting some working software done. We’re in our room doing the Scrum thing, the business is all right. You know, we’re not really facing a lot of competition or compelling threats from the industry. When the team asks, Hey, why should we continually improve? How can I help them through that scenario? So what do we do to, uh, to help our friend in the Netherlands?

Sam Falco: [01:00] I love this question because, you know, typically we think about starting Scrum up and getting people going and answering those questions about how do we, how do we work together? How do we find something to improve? And here we have a team that’s, that’s stable and been working together for a long time and is doing well. So what, what advice do we have for them? And that’s, um, that’s a great direction to go in because it’s real easy to get stale.

Dan Neumann: [01:28]  It is. And honestly like getting to the point where you’re getting an increment every Sprint is pretty awesome. So, you know, there’s some, there’s some celebrating to be done perhaps. And it does make me wonder if perhaps there’s some change fatigue going on and we didn’t get a sense for how long they’ve been doing Scrum or how many changes have led to this point. So, um, perhaps there is some value in stabilizing for a little while, whatever that is or, or changing the perspective there. So just maybe have the antenna up for change fatigue potentially.

Sam Falco: [02:01] Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. But it’s true. You can, especially, let’s say you’re doing two weeks Sprints, I mean, that’s 26 experiments a year you’re running right there. Uh, and if you’re doing smaller Sprints, it’s even more so that can maybe get a little overwhelming. That said, I think there’s still always something that you can look to improve. So, one of my early Scrum teams had been together for a while, was doing well and wanted to start skipping retrospectives because well, we’re doing okay. There’s nothing really that we can see to improve. And my response was, I’m reasonably fit. I should stop going to the gym, right? And um, they said, no.

Dan Neumann: [02:42]  You? No, no, no, no. Let’s discuss our idea of reasonable. Yes, yes.

Sam Falco: [02:50] Yeah. Okay, so things are going well and your Scrum team’s working together really well. There’s probably still something you can experiment with. It doesn’t have be improvement necessarily from the status of, or the stance of we are doing poorly, but what could we try differently? What, what experiment can we do? So you’re doing well, great. Change something to see what happens. Does this make things better or worse? Uh, is this a new direction we can go in?

Dan Neumann: [03:19]  Yeah. And I like the idea of exploring where we can amplify things that are working well as opposed to identifying problems that need to be fixed. And I’ve jokingly referred to my German heritage sometimes as being a bit of a challenge when it comes to praising good deeds. You combine a German heritage with the Lutheran minister father and we get really good at finding things to improve.

Sam Falco: [03:49] Now that we’ve offended a good portion of our audience.

Dan Neumann: [03:51]  I don’t know, not the Lutherans, they don’t know it. So, but yeah, there is an opportunity to identify things that are going well and try to amplify those as well.

Sam Falco: [04:03] Yeah. Yeah. And that’s true, it is a cultural thing. Uh, some, some cultures really have a difficult time saying we are doing well and even Americans sometimes will get to a point where we have to be constantly improving ourselves. I mean, one of our, one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin talked about constantly needing to improve himself and we have that as part of our culture. So I, I see how that can happen here as well.

Dan Neumann: [04:29]  So what might, um, so one idea that, that we uh, mailed to this person too because we wanted to get a quick uh, feedback cause there is a little bit of lag in the time from the question to do on the production of a new podcast. One of the ideas was a timeline retrospective where, uh, with the team, kind of plot the events that happened over a period of time. So basically you would have a two week Sprint, if that’s your retrospective, you’d have a timeline of two weeks and then people would typically on post it notes write, Hey, here’s an event that happened. And if it was a positive event emotionally it would go high on the board up. And if it was negative emotional, you would place it down relative to where it was. And that’s a way to see, Hey, what, what are people feeling good about? What are people feeling negative about? And pairing it with amplifying good things. Maybe there are ways to amplify more of the things that give us the positive.

Sam Falco: [05:23] Absolutely. And you can look back farther than a Sprint. You know you can do this exercise, I’ve seen it called a journey map. Do this for the last quarter, do it for the last year to look for trends perhaps. Or if you have a major project that you’ve just delivered and you’re about to embark on something new, maybe maybe make the scope of your retrospective a little broader.

Dan Neumann: [05:49]  And I think the why for that, just trying to make sure that we tie it back to the how do we get people interested. Continuous improvement is find things that are kind of going to be good for them. You know, as a scenario, I heard of a, a manager, it was outside of software. They weren’t a client or anything, but the big boss, his annual goal is make me more money. Well I’m going to have a hard time getting excited about making somebody more money. You know? So really what is the, what is the compelling interest beyond just financials of the company and trying to figure out what might be there.

Sam Falco: [06:30] Sure. And perhaps you’ve got a team that is sort of bored with the work they’ve been doing and they need a different line of business to work on or a different project, a new thing because it can get kind of boring to just do the same thing over and over again. You know, maybe you’re doing a payment system and while we’ve, we’ve moved buttons around, we’ve increased our ability to take different credit cards or whatever and it just starts to be what we’ve, we’ve solved this problem over and over again. It starts to feel like maybe this team needs to do something new, maybe swap with another team and start learning a different area of the business.

Dan Neumann: [07:07]  Yeah. And so those are, those are conversations that obviously go outside of the Scrum team potentially though if that is something of interest to the team, the Scrum Master could facilitate a conversation around that or exploration of that. Even within the team, you know, is it an opportunity to do some pairing, you know, do I want to broaden my technical skills? Which is good for a career longevity for sure. So much is changing that you don’t want to over specialize and get stuck when something shifts in the market because it will.

Sam Falco: [07:40] Sure. Oh yeah. I think that’s another factor is especially with larger companies where they dominate their market and there can be a sense of we don’t have to worry about competition, especially if the barrier to entry is really high. Why should we improve? We’re doing all right. We’re making money. People are going to come regardless of what we do. And I don’t think that’s a healthy outlook in the long run. Something will challenge for your market dominance or some other adjacent market will come up and people will go spend their money on that.

Dan Neumann: [08:19]  Yeah. You had, you were alluding to I think, uh, an entertainment choice that you used to make and, and have opted to, uh, invest in a different area. I think due to some annoyance.

Sam Falco: [08:30] Right, sports sports is the, the example, a local team that I used to support, it became a bigger hassle to support them than not. So I stopped giving them my money and found other things to do. It’s not to say I went to a rival team or even a another sport, I just found something else to do. So there’s not just a competition, it’s not just other companies. It’s all of the other things people could be spending their money on. And there is always that danger that people will find other things to do.

Dan Neumann: [09:05]  And bringing that to the Scrum Master role, you know, working with the Product Owner on, Hey, what can we, what does the product backlog look like? Are there things that we could, um, validate that are good ideas? We don’t just want to do stuff to do stuff, but Hey, what are, what are the customers asking for? Is there something we could do to delight them using, um, when we were prepping for this, you’d mentioned Sam, the Kano model, right? You know, what could we do to delight people because I would expect that their needs and interests would continue to shift. So do you want to give a little Kano model? Um, CliffsNotes?

Sam Falco: [09:41] Sure. It’ll be real short. So the Kano model describes features of a product in, it’s kind of hard to, we’ll have to put something in the show notes. Uh, perhaps a link or a, an example of the, the diagram. But the idea is that you’ve got features that are, um, delighters, uh, you’ve got features that are basic needs and you’ve got features that will dissatisfy people or you know, the lack of which will dissatisfied people, things that are delighters. Uh, so let’s take cars for example, car play for whether it’s an Apple device or, uh, an Android device. Something allows you to just plug your phone in and run it through your car. Well, that used to be a delighter. For me, every time I rented a vehicle, it was like, wow, this is really cool. This amazed me. But then one time I rented a car that didn’t have it, and I was like, where’s, where’s my car play? And when it became time for me to buy a vehicle, it was a basic requirement. I wasn’t going to buy a vehicle that didn’t have that in it. So here’s something that became a delighter that now became something I expected to be there and was a basic need for me in the, in the product.

Dan Neumann: [10:50]  I’ve had that experience as well where I fly a lot to clients and, uh, where the upgrade to first class used to be exciting. Now it’s, uh, I get sad when I don’t get, especially when the, especially when the man next to me is in my seat to a substantial degree. And yeah. And so, yeah. So things shift and from a Scrum Master standpoint. The Scrum guide is going to advocate work with the product owner and coach them on the product roadmap, how to really understand customer needs and put that into a backlog. And perhaps coming up with more inspiring backlog items would, would fuel the need or the desire, the intrinsic motivation for continuous improvement.

Sam Falco: [11:47] So have we talked about intrinsic motivation yet?

Dan Neumann: [11:51]  Um, it’s late in the day us and, uh, I’m getting a little fuzzy. So let’s talk about intrinsic motivation. Let’s see. Is this, is this thing on?

Sam Falco: [12:01] So, uh, sometimes again, if you have a longstanding team and they can get a little bored and it may be important to find out what actually motivates each individual on your team. Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive,” he talks about intrinsic motivation, uh, being autonomy, mastery and purpose. These are the things that actually get people going and we need to find out what, what actually motivates them. What do they consider about the autonomy of their workspace? Do they have that? Is that maybe a problem? Um, do they have a purpose? As you’ve already alluded to, maybe this isn’t, and I talked about too, maybe this isn’t exciting work that they’re being asked to do. Um, and mastery, can they, can they learn some new skills? Can they find ways to improve, uh, automate some of the stuff that they don’t like doing so they can learn new things. And then, um, finding out, again, just what motivates each individual person cause they’re all different. There’s a game called moving motivators that’s really helpful for that. And that’s 10 or 12 cards with different personality traits, I guess. And you lay them out from right to left in order of what motivates you most. And then you can look at each other’s teammates thing and see who you’ve got the match, and then you move them up and down to say removing this one will demotivate me or et cetera. And that can give you some insight into the team.

Dan Neumann: [13:28]  Yeah. Uh, Management 3.0 has those cards on there. Right. And so it has, some people are motivated by positional power, some are motivated by recognition, some are motivated by learning, et cetera, et cetera. And so you’re looking for what, uh, the intrinsic motivators are versus the extrinsic, something outside of the person is trying to motivate them like financial rewards or time off or other things like that. And I found that the moving motivators is interesting. It gives an insight for teammates into other teammates so they can see who’s motivated by what. Yeah. For me, I, I think I get a lot of, um, I feel a great sense of freedom and enjoyment when I can explore things, especially figuring out the how on my own. Like I, I’m not a big fan of being told exactly how to do things for other people. They’re really comfortable when, when they are told exactly how to do things.

Sam Falco: [14:28] Yeah. And it’s important to know that because if you give someone a puzzle to solve and they are not by nature puzzle solvers, well you’re not, you’re not going to challenge them and you’re just going to frustrate them.

Dan Neumann: [14:40]  For sure. So yeah, looking at ways to tap into that intrinsic motivation.

Sam Falco: [14:46] So you’ve got a Scrum team that’s doing really well, right? Well, and they’re, they’re struggling in the retrospectives and coming up with something to improve. So why not flip the script, do your retrospective around what would destroy us as a team, right? How could we mess up? What would make next Sprint a complete disaster? And that may bring in some things that people are thinking about. They’ve seen this coming and they just haven’t thought it was significant enough to raise because everything’s going well. Well now you’ve just given them a new way of thinking about things and that can create maybe not opportunities for improvement, but things to avoid. Let’s make sure we don’t have this problem.

Dan Neumann: [15:26]  Yeah. And those problems will creep up, well not those, but problems will creep up eventually. And so what, how do we make sure we’re addressing the right things so that we can continue to deliver an increment every Sprint. And you know, if we enjoy being able to leave work at the end of the day and not have to look for system outages, how can we make the system more robust? Or if we have to get into really nasty pieces of the code and nobody likes doing that, what can we do to avoid, how do we automate scripts or manual repetitive stuff that developers a lot of times don’t like doing. Yup. So, yeah, so finding ways and that kind of taps into some of that intrinsic motivation too, kind of avoiding pains, not just not just seeking out more happiness and enjoyment.

Sam Falco: [16:17] Yeah, I think overall, as we’ve said it, there can be a little bit of fatigue that sets in from the ceremonies of Scrum, a repetitive, especially if the cycle is really fast and really tight, so it’s not, uh, it’s not unexpected. I guess that sometimes teams get a little complacent, but I think the Scrum Master’s job, it’s part of the Scrum Master’s job is to, you know, challenge that um, maybe the Scrum Master can identify somewhere that he or she thinks that the team can go. Right? So we talk about servant leadership a lot and we talk away much about servant hood. I have a Master’s degree in English. Can you tell?

Dan Neumann: [17:05]  You talk pretty, Sam.

Sam Falco: [17:05] So we talk a lot about the servant portion of servant leadership, but part of servant leadership is not just doing what the team wants, but seeing where the team should go. Pointing the way, here is where I think we should go having that vision. So maybe there is time to take a little bit more activist of a role and say, I think we can do this. Uh, I think we can go here. I think we can improve this aspect of our performance or the way we work together. What do you think? How could we get there? So maybe the Scrum Master needs to become a bit more visionary and lead a little more than surf.

Dan Neumann: [17:48]  Yeah. And the challenge of that is leading in a way that is not pushing or bullying or harassing or you know, because ultimately the Scrum Master’s outnumber every organization I’ve been in.

Sam Falco: [18:02] Yes, but, and that’s why when I say visionary, I don’t mean just coming up with grand ideas or grandiose dreams, but the visionary is someone who not only sees a better future but can articulate it in such a way that people want to follow, they want to, to go along. We talked about that a little bit in the terms of the Product Owner role when we did the Product Owner deep dive. The Product Owner has to have that capability, but so does the Scrum Master. It’s not enough to just go in and say, Oh, by the way, remember that your daily Scrum is supposed to be 15 minutes and here’s the time box for this and facilitate things one asked. But to come up with really compelling vision for where we could go as a team, where we could go as an organization.

Dan Neumann: [18:43]  Yeah, as you were mentioning that a couple things crossed my mind. One is change and improvement can take a long time. And I think that’s something to keep in mind. Um, we have a podcast that’ll be coming up, um, in the near future with Che Ho who I met at the agile 2019 conference and he was talking about the County of Santa Clara, California’s agile journey and it’s been a couple of years to get where they are. I mean, it’s not a, um, it’s not our rapid change that that’s going to happen. It’s, it’s a lot of slow change over time. So part of it might be striking that appropriate balance with, with pace and patients. And then the other thought that came to mind on there is sometimes as a Scrum Master, you’re not quite in the tribe of developers. You’re not slinging code. You may not have the um, the uh, the reputational authority or the, the Goodwill of the team from a, from a developer standpoint. And there may be somebody in the team who can be a bit of a, um, an ally of sorts and maybe it’s planting some seeds with them and having them demonstrate and show and lead by example on, on some of the continuous improvement activities. Cause it’s a rare teamwork. Everybody wants to improve. But a lot of times there’s somebody in there who can model the behavior and lead through attraction.

Sam Falco: [20:12] Yeah. Find out what you know, who wants to facilitate and lead themselves. Um, maybe, maybe it’s time for the Scrum Master to step back and work on the rest of the whole rest of the organization because the team’s doing fine. In learning. In education, there’s the concept of the plateau where you, you learn a certain amount and then you really aren’t learning more, you’re just honing the existing skill or knowledge. And so maybe this is, these are teams that have reached a plateau and they need to spend the time just honing what they’re doing well before they try to improve something else.

Dan Neumann: [20:47]  That’s interesting. And in that spirit of, of plateau and learning, the rest of the podcast topic with Che is about Shuhari. So for people interested in that model, uh, Che is a, um, a martial arts instructor. And so it was really interesting for me to, uh, to get that insight from him. And so enough plugging that future episode. Let’s come back to this one. One of the examples that comes to mind recently of changing how things work, we were coaching a team and the challenge of the way they do file management, locking and check out, check in et cetera, came up and was really an impediment to the team’s ability to swarm on a particular bit of functionality. And, and one of the developers, I had no idea had this background said, Hey, you know, we can, uh, we can switch to this merging approach versus locking up the files and do some reviews and things like that. And so just kind of posing the challenge of, Hey, here’s, here’s a challenge. We can’t have multiple people collaborate. Well what is it about our mindset or our practices that’s in the way and how might we, how might we remove that, so we uncovered a gem of, of knowledge in the team when just kind of posing some of those, those challenges. So we’ve, we’ve talked about a few different ideas and it’s kinda tough without, you know, Scrum has feedback, we would love feedback and from other listeners as well. And, uh, but we’ve kind of surmised a few ideas here. So let’s get to the, what are we reading? Um, I went to the Agile + DevOps East conference and, uh, Linda Rising did the keynote and she mentioned one of the Harvard business review articles called the Experience Trap, which is essentially, uh, a summary of some studies that showed that leaders who have experience still demonstrate a failure of learning and applying their observations when the situation gets complex again. And what do we do in software? It’s complex environments. And we have experience a lot of times, but we’re still demonstrating a failure to learn. So we’ll put a link to that in the show notes and if people aren’t interested in that topic and they give a few tips on kind of how to avoid it, then uh, you know, maybe that’ll help a few people learn from their experience. How about you, Sam? What’s on your learning journey here?

Sam Falco: [23:11] I actually don’t have a book recommendation this time. Um, this week I have been doing a little bit of reading and research on enterprise architecture and how that fits into a Scrum world because the instinct for a lot of people is say, well, let’s build out a platform first, and then, uh, then we’ll let the team, you know, Scrum on, on that and build things on that. And of course, the danger there is you could spend some time building a very pretty architecture and then the project gets canceled. You’ve no business value whatsoever. Instead, we want to see teams build the architecture as they go a little bit. Obviously within guidelines. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on that. A fascinating subject because while I have some technical background but that ain’t it and it’s all learning. I’m learning some new things myself.

Dan Neumann: [24:03]  Yeah. It’s interesting where teams are like once we do X then we can be agile. Once we nail the data model, once we nail the Framework once we et cetera. Yeah. Um, and actually another upcoming episode of Steven Granese is on why Scrum and so we talk about um, the why of Scrum and the complexity and uncertainty. So stay tuned for that one too. Okay. So good. Excellent. We’ll look forward to maybe more enterprise architecture conversations in the future.

Sam Falco: [24:29] Sounds good.

Dan Neumann: [24:30]  All right, well thank you for joining Sam and thank you to our Netherlands listener who sent us a question on the topic. If you have one, you can email them to podcast@agilethought.com.

Outro: [24:43] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner Podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

Stay Up-To-Date