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  • Writer's pictureKatie

Navigating challenging team dynamics during a scrum event

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

In this post, we explore a scenario where challenging team dynamics surface during a planning event and how you as a scrum master can help the team find a way forward during and after the event.

It’s the bi-weekly scrum planning event. As scrum master, you’ve been facilitating these events for months and you’re starting to see some concerning trends. This week is no different and there is obvious tension in the room.

In the room with you are four other people; Joan the confident pessimist, Ross the quiet thinker, Barbara the team player, and Lee the ambivalent. Conversations are happening but collaboration is low.

During the meeting, Joan is quick to confidently dismiss ideas raised by others, particularly Ross who rarely speaks up. However, Ross’ ideas are well thought out and his quiet personality hides their well founded nature. Barbara supports Ross and also brings her own ideas forward but challenges Joan often. Lee is constantly checking his phone and is disengaged.

Situations like these can be extremely challenging for a scrum master whose goal is to create a collaborative and open event. There are many side conversations occurring and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to keep the team engaged and focused on the planning goals. When the tension suddenly raises to an uncomfortable level, you decide to call a five-minute break. This time allows you to reset and plan your next facilitation steps. It also allows the team members a chance to reset by shifting their focus away from the event.

It’s important to remain neutral as you navigate next steps. While everyone is on break, you decide the best course of action is to re-establish the purpose and goals of the planning event. The intent here is to slowly restart the conversation by engaging people first individually, then in pairs and finally as a group. You may recall this as being a modified “1, 2, 4, All” from Liberating Structures.

You restart the meeting and break the team out individually and ask them to write down the purpose and goals they think are important for this meeting. After a sufficient amount of time, you direct them into pairs to share and discuss. After the pairs have discussed, you bring it to the broader group encouraging each individual to share their insights and find commonalities with others on the team. The commonalities will be used to facilitate the conversation moving forward. The purpose of this step is to have the team focus on the common goals and not individual opinions and perspectives, while building engagement.

With a shared understanding and a set of goals, you further encourage the team to prioritize these goals. To accomplish this, you could use dot voting, thumbs-up or another quick voting method. As a scrum master you choose this step to create opportunity for all individuals to have an equal voice in establishing priorities. This further engages all team members, even those who might be disengaged.

Now that priorities are established, your goal as scrum master is to restart the conversations with a new perspective and prioritization. As the team continues the conversations, you as facilitator are able to remind the team of the particular goal when things get off track. This doesn’t single out an individual but reminds the team of their collectively agreed to goal.

When Joan is quick to dismiss Ross again during the discussion, you simply ask Joan to reframe the “yes, but” statements to “yes, and” statements. This allows Joan to step away from turning down an individual perspective and shift the focus instead to being open to an idea. The simple “yes, and” provides space for an idea to be explored.

Although these steps have defused the situation between Joan and Barbara and engaged Lee, Ross still remains quiet. As facilitator, it’s important to recognize all voices in the room. One technique to engage Ross is to call for his opinion directly. Making a conscious effort to engage with Ross throughout the rest of the planning event will ensure his voice is represented.

As scrum master, you come away from the planning event satisfied the team was able to plan and prioritize work for the next sprint. But, you know there is still work to be done. There are deeper rooted team dynamic issues that will need to be addressed moving forward.

On reflection, you plan to review the team agreement at your next retrospective. The goal being to surface the team dynamic issues as a whole, to allow the team to explore and reframe how they work with and support one another. This is your first step in helping your team to inspect and adapt their way of working. You see many iterations of activities going forward to support your team in resolving the team dynamic issues at play.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution in situations like these. With practice you can build a toolkit that will help you to navigate challenging situations as a scrum master.

Some afterthoughts for you:

Can you think of a similar situation you’ve experienced?

How would you approach the situation?

What tools would you apply?

Are there other tools you would consider?


Image credit: Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

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