By Kevin Korterud
I experienced my first agile project nearly a decade ago. At the time, agile was still an emerging concept. I remember thinking there were all sorts of activities going on that I had never seen on any of my projects. People were standing up for meetings, marker boards were filled with things called “stories” and delivery moved forward under the framework of a “sprint.”
At the center of this whirl of frenetic activity was a person who the team called a “scrum master.” At first, I thought this person was a project manager. But they were doing things that were outside of the traditional project management realm.
Since that first experience, agile has matured and continued to grow in popularity. This trend prompted me to examine the evolving role of the scrum master in complex agile delivery environments. Here are my observations:
1. Agile Delivery is Becoming Mature
Agile delivery teams used to function within isolated pockets. But, as the use of agile—as well as the size and complexity of solutions being delivered—grew, new methods, such as SAFe®, were developed to help orchestrate agile delivery across an organization.
With agile becoming more common in organizations as a delivery method, the overall need for scrum masters’ general process advice diminishes. Agile teams over time—as well as with the support of enterprise framework methods—will become more self-sufficient, which reduces the need for some of the current activities performed by scrum masters.
2. Higher Engagement and Direct Accountability
One of the guiding principles for scrum masters is that they are not supposed to intervene with the team and are not responsible for delivery outcomes.
While a focus on process advice was essential during the early days of agile, today’s larger and more complex solutions demand that delivery quality issues be identified as soon as possible. In addition, there is also a need to ensure on a more frequent basis that the solution being created will yield the desired business outcomes.
Given its proximity to agile delivery teams, the scrum master role is positioned to leverage a higher level of engagement and accountability. In addition to traditional agile process advice, scrum masters should also serve as a durable checkpoint for both delivery quality and alignment to business outcomes.
These checkpoint activities would include reviewing user story quality, monitoring non-functional requirements and checking solution designs against business needs. As other roles in agile delivery possess some form of delivery accountability, the scrum master must also become more engaged and accountable in order to remain relevant.
3. Emerging Project Managers Becoming Scrum Masters
While scrum masters are not meant to be project managers, that notion is preventing project managers from becoming scrum masters, especially earlier in their career. Emerging project managers invariably have some form of solution delivery experience. They know what makes for sound requirements (especially non-functional), designs, testing, quality and implementation plans.
As the level of complexity and scale increases with agile delivery, so does the need for some form of delivery oversight at the agile team level. With the scrum master position in their repertoire, teams would have developed competencies and know-how for scaled agile delivery, release train engineer, program manager, etc.
Scrum masters have played an essential role in the growth and adoption of agile as a practical means of delivery. Their direct interactions with agile delivery teams create a unique opportunity to expand their influence in generating valuable outcomes for end-users, consumers, customers, employees or suppliers. To do so, they need to further extend themselves— both in terms of skills and engagement—to remain relevant in today’s complex delivery environment.
How do you feel the scrum master role has evolved? Are newly minted project managers the scrum masters of tomorrow?
Leaders exert influence for success
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By Peter Tarhanidis
Whenever I’m in a leadership role I try to be sensitive to the level of influence I gain, retain and lose. Influence is a precious commodity for a leader. And it can be disastrous if you lose your team or if tensions arise that reduce one’s effectiveness to achieve a goal.
I recall one of my client assignments where the goal was to ensure a successful integration of a complex merger and acquisition. The team had slipped on dates, missed key meetings and there were no formalized milestones.
I set up casual meetings to discuss with each member what would motivate them to participate. One clear signal was that management had changed the acquisition date several times. This disengaged the team due to false starts that took time away from other priorities.
During the sponsor review, I reported there was a communication breakdown and that no one shared this effort as a priority. At that point, the sponsor could have used his position of power to pressure everyone to do their part. However, the sponsor did not want to come off as autocratic.
Instead, he asked if I would be willing to find an alternative approach to get the team’s buy in.
I realized my influence was low, but I wanted to help improve the outcome for this team. So I talked again with each team member to negotiate a common approach with the goal to be integration-ready without having an exact date.
Ultimately, our goal was to have all milestones met while a smaller core team could later remain to implement the integration when management announced the final date.
A leader uses influence as part of the process to communicate ideas, gain approval and motivate colleagues to implement the concepts through changes to the organization.
In many cases, success increases as a leaders exert influence over others to find a shared purpose.
Tell me, which creates your best outcomes as a leader: influencing others through power or through negotiation?
Great preparation goes into identifying the right project manager for the job—including determining the project’s delivery complexity, defining the role profile, selecting interview questions and validating professional certifications.
However, the interview process shouldn’t end once the new project manager is hired. A recurring interview process ensures project managers remain a good fit. It also helps showcase a project manager’s capabilities to instill confidence among leadership groups, stakeholders and team members—especially if elements drastically change, as they are wont to do.
Not every project manager is a good fit for every project. Original assumptions that lead to the initial acquisition of a project manager may not hold true as the project progresses. And poor outcomes often result from hasty decisions to get a project manager on-boarded as quickly as possible to start a project within a desired timeframe.
Here are three questions that not only ascertain the health of a project, but also the fit of the project manager. Depending on the outcome, you may choose to retain the project manager or replace them with someone who is a better fit.
1. Where are we now?
Being able to confidently articulate and identify the true position of a project and the recent progress velocity to get to that position is a foundation of project management success. Failure to know where the project currently resides puts future progress at risk.
Assisting the project manager in this determination of project position includes schedule and budget performance metrics, resource availability, dependencies, risk, issues and other inorganic position indicators. In addition, a project manager should be able to organically identify the “so what” implications and potential remedies required to create a three-dimensional view of project progress.
2. Where will we be in six weeks?
An old adage says that a point shows a current position, two points make a line and three points make a trend. Project managers should be constantly triangulating their project trajectory from their current position. If they can’t, they’re putting the project’s finish in jeopardy.
This six-week timeframe means a project manager can have a clear vision of the visible road ahead, but isn’t so far where they have to speculate well beyond a reasonable horizon.
Use of predictive quantitative methods and tools and prior project experience can help a project manager confidently state where the project is headed.
3. What changed from the original project scope?
Change is constant. It takes many forms and has diverse impacts. Additions or revisions of functional requirements, technical requirements, different implementation approaches, new expectations, supplier complexity, unfunded mandates and other events make up the aggregate, ever-changing landscape of a project.
While the project manager does his or her best to control identification, processing and action around changes, in some cases the aggregate impact of change can overwhelm.
In many cases, changes—such as leadership changes, new suppliers, as well as portfolio management actions that can merge existing projects—have nothing to do with the project manager’s capability. But when the depth and breadth of project change exceeds the capability of the project manager, it may be time to secure a replacement.
What line of questioning might you use to ensure that a project manager continues to be a good fit for the project they were hired for?
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By Peter Tarhanidis
It is not unusual for project leaders to fill a variety of leadership roles over the course of the many unique initiatives we take on.
As I transition from one client, program, employer or team to another, my personal challenge is to quickly work out the best leadership role to play in my new environment. Therefore, I find it helpful to have some knowledge of leadership theory and research.
Leaders must understand the role they fill in relation to staff and management. That typically falls into three categories, as defined by Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada:
Interpersonal: A leader who is either organizing the firm or a department, or acting as an intermediary. He or she is the figurehead, leader or liaison.
Informational: A leader that gathers, communicates and shares information with internal and external stakeholders. He or she is the mentor, disseminator, and spokesman.
Decisional: A leader that governs and has to make decisions, manage conflict and negotiate accords. He or she is the entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator and negotiator.
During one of my recent transitions, I thought I was a decisional leader, but I was expected to play an informational role. When I acted on information rather than sharing it and gaining consensus toward a common goal, my team was very confused. That’s why it’s so important to know the role you’re expected to fill.
When you start a new effort, how do you determine what role you’re expected to play? How has that contributed to your success?
by Peter Tarhanidis
I’ve served in various leadership roles throughout my career. In one role, I worked with engineers to build and deliver a technical roadmap of solutions. In another, I was charged with coordinating team efforts to ensure a post-merger integration would be successful.
All of my leadership roles ultimately taught me there’s no-one-size-fits-all style for how to head up a team. Instead, the situation and structure of the team determines the right approach.
Traditional teams are comprised of a sole leader in charge of several team members with set job descriptions and specialized skills, each with individual tasks and accountability. The leader in this environment serves as the chief motivator, the coach and mentor, and the culture enforcer. He or she is also the primary role model—and therefore expected to set a strong example.
But, this traditional team setup is not always the norm.
Take self-managed teams, for example. On these teams, the roles are interchangeable, the team is accountable as one unit, the work is interdependent, the job roles are flexible and the team is multi-skilled, according to Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development, written by Robert M. Lussier, a professor of business management at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.
On a self-managed team, each person’s capabilities support the team’s overall effectiveness. While these teams do need to have their efforts coordinated, they spread leadership accountability across the group.
Members each initiate and coordinate team efforts without relying on an individual leader’s direction, according to Expertise Coordination over Distance: Shared Leadership in Dispersed New Product Development Teams by Miriam Muethel and Martin Hoegl.
Effective leaders adjust their style to the needs of varied situations and the capability of their followers. Their styles are not automatic. Instead, they get to know their team members and ensure their teams are set up to succeed.
How do you pick the right leadership style to use with your teams?