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From Scrum Nanny to Scrum Master

Written by Damaris Caniparu - 05 January 2017

Damaris Caniparu
In theory, agile teams are self-organized. But we’re not born knowing how to do this, so what does it take to get there? When can we say that we are fully self-organized and how do we know what steps we need to take? I don’t have an exact recipe, but I promise to get back to you with it when I do. In the meantime, I’ll share my ideas on how to start using the Scrum Master role to help your team get on the right track instead of jeopardizing the process.

Yes, that’s right, the SM can get in the way of self-organization when turning into a nanny, by overdoing the helping part and by being a boss instead of a leader and coach.

In my experience, I have found that a team is not self-organized from the start. Along with the work styles and attitudes of team members, a self-organized team requires some sort of maturity, which can be reached step by step. It’s not the Scrum Master’s job to get the team to be self-organized; it takes the combined effort of him/her, management, and every other individual involved. What I know for sure is that the Scrum Master has a big role in this because he/she is the one who should offer support and coaching to help the team work as a whole and deal with their everyday challenges.

When things start to go wrong

scrum nanny scrum master

The problem is when we, Scrum Masters, turn into the nannies of our teams. When I became a Scrum Master, I was busy trying to serve the team rather than leading it. I knew more about serving than I knew about leading, so I did what I knew best. Nobody complained and I actually liked doing things for people in the team. But at the same time, some team members misunderstood my role and saw me more like th

e secretary in charge of booking rooms and doing other administrative tasks, or like a boss who made sure that everyone obeyed the rules of Scrum and was responsible for the results; or like a foster parent responsible for everything that happened to them. Some kept complaining about other team members without trying to solve anything by themselves, others expected me to give them things to do, update their tasks on the board, fill in Capacity sheets for them or even try to fix issues which were theirs to fix. What do you do when team members come to you as a child comes to his mom and asks you to do things they should be doing themselves? At a certain moment I realized that if I serve beyond the limits of my role, I would end up being the Scrum Nanny of the team.

I also saw Scrum Masters who reached the Super Nanny level: they prepared the Sprint backlog, estimated each task in hours and assigned them to whoever seemed suitable for the job. And I’m sure they had good intentions, but this is definitely not Scrum, nor is it healthy for the team.

Take action

If you are a Scrum Master and think that your team isn’t self-organized enough, then it’s time to take a step back and pay attention. Are you the one constantly doing things they should be doing themselves? I know it can be hard to realize that, but your team isn’t dead without you; they’re actually old enough to take care of things when you’re not around. If you recognize yourself in this situation, you might be in the nanny zone. If you try too much to do things for them, you might reach a point beyond which you could do more harm than good in the long term.

Instead, try to encourage people to do things themselves and choose their own tasks. Try to avoid saying ‘Don’t worry. I can do that for you’ unless it’s necessary. More than that, encourage their initiatives when they come up with new ideas. Or why not empower them? You could, for example, give another team member your role when you have to miss a day of work or go on holiday. Or you could let another team member be the facilitator of a meeting, when suitable.

Showing people how to do things and reminding them about things is ok; doing it for them again and again is not. For example, you can show them how to update the burndown in case they don’t know how. You can also remind them about it until they get used to it, but if you keep doing it for them, they might never start doing it on their own. The same applies to your relationship with the PO: help them, but don’t get used to doing PO work.

Try to protect the team from interventions from management in their sprint backlogs, if you think it’s necessary. But also let them know that all results are the team’s responsibility and not just yours.

There’s also something very important you can do to get out of the nanny zone: request feedback from the team and if you have a bossy attitude, then drop it. Start listening. Start coaching. Start encouraging good intentions and initiatives. Promote early communication and continuous teamwork. Look for improvement. Lead; don’t drag the team along. This is going to lead to a good outcome in the long term.

So what do you, as Scrum Masters, do to encourage your team to be independent? So how much do you serve and how much do you lead? What did you, as members of a Scrum team do to become a self-organized group? And what did you do to keep the team on the self-organizing track? Please share your ideas; I’d like to benefit from your experience, as well. When you’re done reading, please look for the comments section of the page and share your thoughts.

About Damaris Caniparu

I started learning programming from a totally non-technical background and I realized that’s the best thing I could have done. I’m now a Developer and a Scrum Master learning how to write better code, be more Agile and be a better leader every day.

When I work on something I don’t just want to have something that works in the end, I want something good, something that doesn’t need to be improved or done again later. When developing, we should have the same goal: deliver the best possible version of everything. That makes customers happy and gives us satisfaction.


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