Scrum of Scrums – A Communication Thermometer

January 20, 2014

I’ve noticed that a lot of organizations seem to have problems with Scrum of Scrums. Some coaches refrain from recommending them altogether while others might use them with low expectations. Without making too many generalizations I’d like to describe one of my more positive experiences using Scrum of Scrums – as an indicator of our ability to work together.

My assignment was to coach a Scrum project with ~100 members and seven development teams distributed over three countries. One of the pains that were brought to my attention early on was how dysfunctional the Scrum of Scrums was. All the ScrumMasters and the project manager would have a teleconference three times a week where the ScrumMasters would take turns giving status reports(!) and complaining about the problems they had. I was approached by some of the ScrumMasters asking me if we shouldn’t have the meeting less frequently since “nothing new is being said. The same problems are being brought up in every meeting.”. I asked them if they thought the real problem was the frequency of the meetings or their inability to solve problems between the meetings. They kind of recognized my point and agreed to continue with the three weekly meetings for a while longer.

Meeting

Meeting

We began to move away from giving status reports and I also suggested that they started to write down the issues that were being brought up and make sure that unless someone claimed responsibility for actually working on an issue, they wouldn’t be allowed to keep complaining about it in this forum. My idea of writing down the issue was to create an excel-sheet or something similar in a shared folder but apparently in this organization, there would have to be a JIRA project to store such information. It also turned out that it would take about a month to create said JIRA project.

Since I had a hard time seeing that JIRA would be the way this problem got resolved, I also started working on other things in parallel. The first thing we did was to get all the ScrumMasters together to get to know each other. I managed to get the funding to fly all ScrumMasters to one of our sites and hold a retrospective and some other workshops. It was a great day with people getting to know each other but it still wouldn’t be enough. When, towards the end of that day, I asked if everyone in the room had everyone else on speed dial, the frightening answer was that no-one had anyone else’s phone number in their cells. Getting this problem solved was easy, the problem was to get everyone to use the phone numbers.

After this day together, I began requesting from each ScrumMaster to call all the others’ on a daily basis. Whether they had an issue to talk about or not, they should at least make a social call to see how the others’ were doing. This didn’t happen immediately; most thought that they’d get away without making the calls but I kept asking them about it in our one-on-one’s.

I can’t tell exactly when the transformation happened, but before the new JIRA project had been set up, I noticed that fewer and fewer issues were being brought up during the Scrum of Scrums. Instead people were having social discussions and talking about problems in a past tense. When I started inquiring about this I learned that there were still a great deal of issues but now they were being solved outside of the Scrum of Scrums. The teams (or at least their ScrumMasters) had begun caring about each other. One team even offered to send some of their developers to another country to help one of the teams there before the other team had worked up the courage to ask for external help.

In a little more than a month we went from having a meeting that didn’t help us coordinate any issues or solve any problems at all, to holding a meeting where there were no issues to coordinate and no problems to solve. This made me realize that the daily stand-up and the Scrum of Scrums might not really be any solutions in themselves, but rather indicators of how well we communicate within our teams – outside of the meetings.

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