Stop Failing Your Sprints With Better Coordination – Part 1 of 3

November 10, 20144 min

Marin-Alsop-c-Grant-Leighton-7What is the difference between the Rockettes and Marin Alsop, the woman at the top of the São Paulo State Symphony Ochestra?  The Rockettes excel at producing a dazzling performance through the precise coordination of steps and rhythm while Marin Aslop directs the collaboration of nearly 100 artists to create a musical experience unrivaled in the world.

In Scrum, the goal is to guide a cross-functional, self-organizing teams to high-performance via collaboration.  So if collaboration is so essential to Scrum, what does the word “collaboration” even mean?  What does it even look like in the workplace?  That was a question I asked very early on in when I worked as a ScrumMaster and the place I looked to was Jean Tabaka’s excellent book, Collaboration Explained.

For those of you who do not have time to read an entire book, let’s review the basic definitions of what I call the “Three C’s of Business”.  Each one of these C’s represents one step in the direction of high-performance and a Scrum Team needs to spend time in each state before progressing to the next.  This is very similar to the Tuckman model of team formation.

  1. Coordinate (v.): to work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something. synonyms: ally, combine
  2. Cooperate (v.): to bring the different elements (of a complex activity or organization) into a relationship that will ensure efficiency or harmony. synonyms: synchronize, arrange
  3. Collaborate (v.): to act jointly; to work toward the same end. synonyms: assist, help

The most basic state for any software team is coordination and well-ordered coordination is the goal of good project management.  It is possible to have a state prior to coordination, which I would call ad hoc interactions.  These interactions are not necessarily random, but certainly are not consistent.  When a competent, focused project manager (or leader) coordinates the project activities well, the project stakeholders will achieve a positive outcome.

Unfortunately, coordination at the level needed for software teams requires a great deal of attention from a project manager.  Once the manager begins to pay attention to coordinating the activities of another group, or is removed from the team, the coordination will rapidly break down.  Why?  Because often times the manager\leader is the only one who knows (or cares) about the bigger picture.

IME, systems and projects that heavily rely on management coordination are generally fragile.  Each piece in the project is waiting for their signal from the leader to do their work and looking for guidance on when to make the hand-off to the next person in the value stream.  Once that switching system is distracted, or no longer present, the coordination no longer operates smoothly and we get delays and quality problems.

Coordination is absolutely essential for success with Scrum.  Without coordination, Scrum Teams will not deliver on their commitments and we are back to ad hoc interactions.  Unfortunately, most new Scrum Teams often have difficulty delivering on their Sprint commitments in the early Sprints because they simply have no idea on how to coordinate their work or do not consider effective coordination their responsibility.  This does not mean the Team members are bad, they just forgot how to do this and it is the ScrumMaster’s responsibility to remind them they have skills to effectively coordinate their activities

For Scrum Teams, it is essential to push the responsibility for coordination down to the level of the individual Team members.  The people closest to the work have the most information about the work, so they should have the responsibility for coordinating their interactions.  It is not the ScrumMaster’s responsibility to coordinate the work of the Team, even when there are failures.  While these failures are not pretty and can be stressful and unnerving, the ScrumMaster must remind the Team the coordination is their responsibility and offer ideas, tools and insights to help them coordinate better.

The Scrum framework offers a great deal of techniques to improve coordination – primarily Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Retrospective and the Task Board.  Sprint Planning is the opportunity for a Scrum Team to self-organization around a solution and figure out who is going to do what and when.  It is also the opportunity to discuss the Team’s connections with people outside the Team.  A Daily Scrum is short, time boxed conversation to see if the Scrum Team is on track to deliver or not.  Scrum Teams use this fifteen minute conversation to figure out which parts of the Team need to talk with one another each day.  A Retrospective offers the Scrum Team the chance to reflect on their previous performance and look for ways to improve how they interact with one another.  Finally, the Task Board makes the Team interactions visible so participants can see who needs help and who does not.