Successful Team Performance with SCRUM: The Way to More Efficiency and Good Work Culture

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Ms. Wirtz, you are an experienced SCRUM project coach and long-time manager. How can you steer a project so that it runs successfully?

In my opinion, the big issue is always communication – because only when you talk about things and agree can the common goals be achieved.

Whereby even the goals should be talked about first, right?

If you assume that the objectives are part of the project and self-explanatory, you will sooner or later be shipwrecked – I see this time and again.

So you have to define and discuss everything in detail beforehand? I imagine that would be exhausting …

I’ll elaborate a bit more so that it’s clear what I mean: On the one hand, what inhibits the development of a project is too much need for coordination or even a lack of clarity about who can make the decisions. It is also problematic to want to clarify all ambiguities in advance. On the other hand, if a project is simply managed without defining the objectives, no one knows exactly where the journey is going. As you can see, it’s not that easy to find a good middle ground in communication without thinking about it beforehand. But communication is essential: I have made the experience that projects very often fail because of the different realities of the people involved. And because of hidden, ego-driven agendas. People at the management level are often not aware of this.

How does that translate to SCRUM?

SCRUM is a framework that allows you to move forward incrementally. SCRUM regulates communication by keeping units small and hierarchies flat. If done properly, SCRUM defines a unique product for each team to work with in an agile way.

And what’s the catch?

Of course, it always depends on the implementation. Unfortunately, I have experienced in many implementations how SCRUM, used incorrectly, only functions as an empty shell. The concepts and structures were adopted, but alienated from their meaning. For example, the values, the self-organization, the clear product idea, the value for the customer or the awareness of what the customer actually wants were missing. It is often said that one lives SCRUM, but then in the implementation one does not find the basic elements that belong to it.

So you should only use real SCRUM professionals, ideally certified SCRUM masters, right?

Yes and no. Professionals, yes. People who have understood and internalized the principle. An official certification is something nice, but in my opinion not absolutely necessary for a project to work. A good SCRUM Master does not need a certificate, but social competence. And some humility, because he/she has the task of making him/herself supposedly superfluous. Curiosity is also important: to look where fears are hiding and where one’s own ego stands in the way. A SCRUM master who cannot let go, who watches over the team like a mother hen, slows down the success of the project. Whereas a good SCRUM Master can really push team performance.

Assuming we now have a perfect SCRUM master with a highly motivated team, what else does it take to make a project a success?

It may sound trivial, but: a tangible product idea that delivers value. Unfortunately, this does not exist in many projects. Too much is developed that has no discernible value. Successful product development therefore includes coordination with customers and the ability to constantly work out and reassess the value. For this, I need a functioning, self-organized team with flat hierarchies. If only one person has too big an ego, for example in a team of developers, this already inhibits the performance of the team as a whole. A team’s ability to learn and innovate are also important keys and impulses that drive the project forward.

What hurdles must be overcome to motivate employees to adopt new ways of thinking?

One of the biggest hurdles is the fear of losing individual advantages and jeopardizing one’s own position. To overcome these fears, a secure framework must be created. A framework in which one is also allowed to fail and in which the desire for something new is awakened. The fear of some employees of a new direction is usually very great. Only as a team can it work to get everyone to overcome their uncertainty and follow suit. This also requires understanding for more conservative thinking and less enthusiasm for innovation – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Slowing down a bit can also lead to more certainty and stability as the project progresses.

Agile projects thrive on flat hierarchies. What role do managers play in this?

Good leaders have always known how to keep their team agile and motivated. There is currently a lot of discussion about whether I even need a leader in a SCRUM team. I say: yes! We always need a charismatic leader in the team who is able to lead the way and motivate.

What does a good leader need to bring to the table?

He or she must be close to the team and be able to assess and understand the team’s performance. Only then will she gain acceptance as a leader. If I as an employee recognize that the manager sees and understands what I am doing, I can accept praise and also criticism and take the decisions of this manager seriously. I know project managers who always like to praise. That’s meant nicely, but it can be counterproductive if the impression is created that the supervisor doesn’t actually know what it’s all about.

So the role of the manager basically needs to be redefined?

In this context: yes. This is also confirmed by the fact that many managers do not see what role they are supposed to play in an agile team and retreat to the role of personnel organizer. The bite of a leader, the willingness to pursue topics over the long term and to make the team understand again and again what has been achieved so far and what the goal is, is extremely important for a team and for the success of a project. For this role, I need someone with courage and experience, especially in larger structures.

Can you give us an example?

At Payback, I led a self-organized team and went on vacation with peace of mind, knowing that no one would need me. When I returned, my employees were relieved that I was back. When I asked what they had been missing, they replied, “There was no one there to decide.” That authority to listen, understand, and then say, now we’re going to do this, had been missing from the team. As a leader, I need to be aware that the solution is usually already in the team, but someone is still needed who believes in the team, listens, and asks long enough for the team to stand behind a decision.

What is the greatest value of agile methods?

For me, the most powerful tool is a regular retrospective that needs to be well prepared. Where are we coming from and what have we already achieved? You quickly lose awareness of this if you don’t keep reminding yourself of the answer to these questions.

What are the possibilities for making the team aware of goals and successes?

As a new manager in a team with high turnover and low motivation, I once did an exercise that seemed banal at first. We asked ourselves the question: What are the wishes of each individual for the team? We hung the result on a glass wall and left it there for a year. After one year we came back to it and after a new look at the glass wall we were totally amazed, enthusiastic and motivated for our further cooperation. Why? We could see what problems we had solved and what we had already achieved. We realized what successes had occurred that were only vague dreams a year before.

SCRUMKITCHEN is your own concept. How do we imagine such a SCRUM cooking workshop?

Always different. We tailor the workshops to the needs and issues of the group we are cooking with. But generally speaking, you can experience there in an unfamiliar and therefore inspiring environment how effective Scrum is as a method, for example, in retrospectives. The first sprint is always a bit chaotic. But already the second sprint shows how quickly a team finds each other and how much joint retrospection helps to handle the next process more effectively. The performance of the team can be experienced.

Would you recommend SCRUM cooking as a team event?

Yes, absolutely. The participants keep confirming to me how valuable this event was for them. On the one hand, to grow together as a team, and on the other hand, to understand SCRUM. They all experience how cooking in a group is fun and connects. Crying your eyes out together while chopping onions definitely brings them together (laughs). But the great thing is: very few of our participants are enthusiastic amateur cooks. And conjuring up an entire menu is really something great. Our participants are proud of their achievement and excited about the shared experience. And there is none of the stress that creeps in when you want to prepare something really special and perhaps have invited guests. SCRUM-Cooking allows a completely new view on things like teamwork … And that, although or just because SCRUM is used. When a delicious meal is created from workflows that still seemed bulky and tough and perhaps confusing during the meeting, the concept suddenly becomes tangible, understandable and – you could even say – easy to digest.

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