When Should a Chicken Dive in with the Pigs?

I started talking about the manager’s role in scrum as facilitating a series of conversations between the team and the larger company.

The first of these is the product owner and the team.

As a manager, I have to constantly remind myself I’m a chicken, not a pig. My main responsibility is to deal with issues escalated to me by my scrum master. I also coach around practices. This is often about challenging team members to find their way towards our expressed values and principles.

On occasion, I do intervene in the dev room. This is dangerous ground. Innovation springs from the ability of an organization to surprise itself. Such creativity finds its source in autonomy, accountability and necessity.

Software development doesn’t proceed down straightforward path. For each unexpected problem there is a wealth of possible solutions. Ingenuity can add wasteful complexity or differentiate and define a product. You want a team to keep momentum but you want them to think deeply.

I need my team to be open to the problems before them, purposeful and playful in devising solutions but determined to release. This takes more than good work for good wages and it’s profoundly more than good leadership from managers. Project success has to be the individual team member’s success. Tomorrow’s intellectual property is not code yet to be written, it’s the inventive potential of the coders.

If I step in therefore it should be to maintain personal investment and esprit de corps rather than to reverse any individual decision. I have a scrum master and I rely on him to maintain morale and productivity in sprint reviews and planning. Still, with my experience as a developer and unique observer role, I’ll intervene in conversations between the product owner and the team to:

  • dispel misinformation
  • surface contradictions
  • flag intractable disagreements

Misinformation is toxic to the product and individual accountability. A misinformed team builds the wrong product. A pattern of misinformation leads a team to lose trust. They will focus on not failing in their narrow scope of execution rather than a successful business outcome. Playing safe eliminates surprise and invention and ultimately leads to failure.

Contradictions create opportunity. A solution that addresses both a value and its antithesis such as high quality and low cost can differentiate a product.

Some disagreements cannot be solved by conversation. Time and more information may resolve the conflict. Sometimes disagreements simply need to be acknowledged. In the spirit of “any decision is better than no decision”, the product owner or scrum master needs to be encouraged to move in one or other direction despite dissensus in the team.

All of this assumes the project in question is healthy. Intervention into a troubled project is a different animal [see my earlier post on stopping the line].