One of the interesting parts of my job as a Agile Transformation Coach is the shift from command and control cultures (that created waterfall as a way of delivering software), to an Agile way of working where free and informed choice is assumed and solutions are created using what everyone knows (rather just the single perspective of one expert).

It is the shift from hierarchy and compliance to autonomy and commitment and it is a hard, hard shift to make as it involves how we interpret the world.

In Agile this plays out in many different ways. If you aren’t into the world of Agile, what I am talking about is probably happening In your space as well, only the roles involved have different labels, so please read on.

The role that gets a lot of focus in the Agile works is that of the Scrum Masters. At the risk of triggering Scrum experts, my understanding of a Scrum Master is as a facilitator and leader who focuses on supporting the team to deliver and so allows them to focus on getting the work done. How they do this differs based on the maturity of the team they are working with and the landscape that team is delivering in. My context isn’t a mature, self- sustaining world – we are still very close to our waterfall past with many structures and processes still in play from that past, so the Scrum Master is required to be the primary voice of the team, bringing information into the collaboration structures. We can’t easily have meetings with 10 feature teams at a time, so we have meetings with one rep from that team and who is the most obvious candidate for this ? The Scrum Master.
Which brings the focus from a team of people to one person and raises the question remains – how do we shift accountability from one person (the leader) to the people who are doing the work ?
Until we can shift how people are accountable, we will have roles like Scrum master and RTE (Release Train Engineer) thinking they are responsible and accountable and so showing up as micro managers. I would! If I am going to be judged on my team’s ability to deliver I would want to control how they deliver to the last degree.

So what creates this ? Not an easy question to answer as it involves so many different aspects. Some are easier to see – like supporting structures and leadership. Others are near impossible to observe unless you are looking for them – things like how people interpret what they hear and see through old cultural filters, so when a leader asks a scrum master to share where the team is, they hear ‘I will be blamed if they aren’t on track’, when in fact they were really being asked to be nothing more than a mouthpiece, a conduit into and out of the team (because how else do you get a team of 8 people to share this info ?)

Is it all about the Structures .
The most easily observable of the contributing factors, embedded hierarchy is actually more difficult to avoid than you think. I am toying with the idea that it is impossible for us as human beings not to interpret structures as hierarchies. Why ? Because we see the world through a filter that imposes hierarchies where there are none. For example, the SAFE diagram showing the structure of SAFE teams. I am in. I way a SAFE expert, but I have looked and have not been able find anywhere that explicitly states that there are reporting lines from the release train to the feature teams or from the RTE to the Scrum Masters. Yet without fail when people see that diagram they automatically see a hierarchy – for no other reason than the RTE is above the feature teams and the Scrum Master is above the feature team and we have been taught to read lines and vertical position as hierarchy! You can have the best structure in the world and people will use the physical position of roles and teams in a visual representation to mean hierarchy and they won’t even know they are doing it.
A more powerful question to be asking here is, “How are people interpreting the structures you have in place ? ” followed by, “Is it the really structure or is it the people ?” Or you could just get lost spending time refining the structures and wondering why you keep on getting the same results, must be the structure, we need a new structure!

Is it all down to the Leaders ?
Another popular belief is that if my Scrum Master is showing up as if he owns delivery it is because the Leadership is expecting this. Perhaps, and then again, perhaps not. One of the arguments for this is how senior leaders speak to people in larger, co-ordinating sessions like a Scrum of Scrums. If the leader asks the Scrum Master by name a question around delivery then it is assumed they are holding that Scrum Master accountable for delivery and so off the Scrum Master goes through own and control the process.
I am not bought into this explanation. Sure the leader has referred to the Scrum Master by name, how else would they do it ? We are individuals and we have names, do we really want to create a system where I can’t be referred to by name simply because we have strong cultural conditioning to interpret that as I am going to be blamed ?
I would like to suggest that the question here is as much about how our leaders are engaging as it is about how the people are listening.
Are people hearing command and control where there is none ? Are you ?

Is it down to how people are interpreting their space ? Are People Hearing Command & Control where there is none ?
If we focus only on what is easily observable (structures and leaders) we may miss a more valid reason why things aren’t changing and why Scrum Masters believe absolutely that they are accountable and responsible for delivery and so must control everything.
For me the real reason isn’t outside the Scrum Master, it is the Scrum Master! If they believe that they will be blamed, judged and punished by the performance of others then they will control others performance. No matter what structures or Leadership is in place. They will find proof of this, even where there is none.

If someone believes that they will be blamed, judged and punished by the performance of others then they will control others performance, regardless of whether or not this is true.

What you believe will always overrule reality, always!

How are your Scrum Masters interpreting their world ?

If you are a Scrum Master and you believe this to be true, have you taken the time to list the reasons why you hold this belief ? What are you seeing and hearing that confirms this belief ? Oh and, how recent are these reasons ? Because I have spent hours with people who are adamant that they are right and when they tell me why, I find out that they are basing their current experience on something that happens 5 years ago – they haven’t noticed the changes and can’t, because all they see is the past.

So if you are living with this problem of Scrum Masters over managing their teams, start listening for how these individuals are interpreting their world.
How are you creating conversations around accountability and how people are creating their beliefs ?

How are you creating gentle, safe spaces for people to unpack what they are living as true so that they can see for themselves if it is all still valid ?