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Can Scrum Team Thrive with Hierarchies?

There are many indicators of team growth. The ability of developers to communicate their ideas, help other team members, proactively find creative solutions.

Combination of the Old and New

Over the last decade, many large companies in the telecommunications, banking, oil industry acknowledged the urgent need for digital transformation, if not of the entire organization, then at least of its IT.

Attempts to digitalize organizations in parallel with introducing modern agile frameworks such as Scrum or SAFe create some difficulties. The most painful of which is maintaining existing management methods while giving way to the new agile practices. This draws the attention of top managers, senior executives, even IT professionals looking for answers to situations where the theory does not work.

Scrum without Agile

Scrum without Agile is quite a common paradox in modern organizations. It is still possible to place Scrum into an organizational culture driven mainly by the old management beliefs:

  1. Slicing an organization into smaller groups with a direct chain of command increases the chances of achieving ambitious KPIs.
  2. Variety of titles and ranks (senior, middle, junior) motivates people and teams to work harder to get a promotion.
  3. Separation of skills helps people to stay focused on their job.
  4. Vertical control provides a transparent input for an informed decision.
  5. Horizontal communication is the fundamental cause for the potential chaos and confusion.
  6. People cannot manage themselves effectively.

You can continue the list on your own, but these beliefs are enough for skeptics to say that to be truly agile in this setting is barely possible. And this is not far from the truth. Launching a scrum team without changing the traditional management system means little room for creativity, improvement, initiative, and innovation.

Threats to the Old Paradigm

Agile is not just about transforming an approval process to make a decision pass faster from higher levels to actual specialists. Authoritarian, directive, patriarchal, and similar management styles stifle initiative and innovation at all levels of the organization and prevent people from realizing their potential. Interestingly, the organization itself should be interested in continuous improvement! However, the firm grip on the parking brake prevents positive change. Agile coaches are trying hard to transform the managers’ leadership style, but this is still perceived as a threat.

Here are just a few examples of how Agile Coach or Scrum Master can pose a threat to your organization:

  • In the meeting, the Agile Coach interrupts a manager and invites others to share their opinions.
  • Scrum Master encourages to challenge the rules set by senior staff.
  • Scrum Master coaches his team and product owner to say “NO” when stakeholders want something extra to be done in a sprint.
  • Scrum Master allows people to openly speak about psychological problems (envy, oppression, low self-esteem).
  • Agile Coach works with all managers at all levels.

Hyper Performing Teams

Jeff Sutherland insists that scrum teams should strive for the highest productivity, which has the following benefits:

  • Delivering more value within one sprint;
  • Saving time by minimizing work NOT DONE;
  • Creating increment of an exceptional quality
  • Optimization of costs by minimization of waste (context switching, delays, defects, etc.).

In his book “The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” Jeff Sutherland argues that the highest productivity in a product development team can be attained only when the team is guided by the values of Scrum, one of which, for example, is mutual respect. What kind of mutual respect can we talk about when an older brother with the appropriate “senior” rank reigns over everyone and suppresses the initiative of the “juniors”?

Scrum offers a unique philosophy of maturity that helps to achieve the pinnacle. Everyone wins. In life, the members of the scrum team are different, and in work – professionals. We promote new scrum roles as a distinctive profession: “Professional Scrum Master”, “Professional Product Owner”, “Professional Agile Leadership”, etc. Being “professional” means that once in a scrum team, a team member leaves their old habits, cultural, social, and other differences, including hierarchical, patriarchal, or even vertical thinking like the “Petrel” model.

“Petrel” vertical management model
Arrived → yelled → left a mark → flew.

The Petrel style should have to be replaced with more servant leadership approach if we seek twice the work in half the time.

Case Study. Top-10 Investment Bank

Let’s move on to practice. A real case from my experience and surprisingly successful. The customer was a bank that was among the top-10 investment institutions in the world. Management wanted to speed up the development of the post-trading processing of the equities in the new markets. The customer was well acquainted with scrum at scale and helped us form a new team, each member of which was quite a mature specialist.

I used to work in traditional projects, where you would find one or two “seniors”, a few “middles”, the rest are “juniors”. There was nothing wrong with that, as “seniors” were accountable for the outcome. The seniors, of course, felt confident and authoritative.

This time team setup turned out to be entirely unexpected as there were six developers in one room, and all of them were “seniors”. I thought it should have been a battle of lords for a mace. Fortunately, the Scrum Guide doesn’t say anything about the mace, so there’s no need to fight for it.

In fact, it was an example of an effective horizontal structure. We reached a level of productivity beyond expectations. Within just several months, the customer trusted my team the entire business area and delegated full accountability to develop and support the clearing & settlement processes of the new markets.

We succeeded thanks to the synergy of the team members. Whatever we call this phenomenon – the chemistry of friendship, a team of like-minded people, the magic of competence, but the team soon demonstrated high degree of maturity in terms of scrum practice. Only later did I realize that this was an exception to the rule. To achieve such synergy, you need to work hard.

For more information on the levels of the scrum team maturity, see in our article “Five levels of transition to Agile: self-managed teams“.

Cross-cultural Issues

As you know, Asia is famous for its hierarchical values. In China, the younger ones must respect the older ones. In Singapore, the state’s success is closely linked to Lee Kuan Yew, the creator of Singapore’s “economic miracle,” who built a compelling business culture where everyone respects the rules set by senior managers. And no one will argue against them.

There are plenty of other examples of social differences. The one who has more weight in society or earned a better degree, or achieved a higher position – has more power and influence over all processes and decisions. It is easy to predict some problems that may naturally arise when a scrum team consists of people with different backgrounds.

Horizontal Model in Scrum

One of the main features of Scrum is a horizontal team model with a straightforward structure. It consists only of a scrum master, product owner, and everybody else is a developer. Moreover, a scrum master or product owner is not higher or better than a developer. To take away at least one of these roles (in Scrum, there are no “positions”, but roles) means to waste Scrum.

A scrum master should understand the importance of building these horizontal relationships, knows how to work with people, show empathy, respect, care about others. For example, an experienced scrum master can quickly detect a situation where a team begins to lose enthusiasm or individual team members become passive.

There are many indicators of team growth. The ability of developers to communicate their ideas, help other team members, proactively find creative solutions. The role of the Scrum Master, in this case, is to train soft skills among them that it would help each individual to find a common ground with colleagues faster, convey information more clearly, and communicate one’s opinion better.

The need for the role of the Scrum Master is not accidental. In the domain of the complex technology products, there is usually a high level of expertise in technical subjects, and at the same time, “lame” work with people. One of the basic skills in the horizontal model is communicating with other team members tactfully and showing respect for each other. The Scrum Master should set an example and develop communication skills among beginners. For more information on the Scrum Team, see in our articles “Scrum role model” and “Scrum role model: how it originated and why it is important.”

“Professional Scrum Team demonstrates quality to listen to each other, actively share their thoughts, and collaboratively make informed decisions “.

Slava Moskalenko, Professional Scrum Trainer, co-founder of Agile.Live

Key Points

  1. Hierarchical models still work in some areas. Scrum is shining in the complex domain, where hierarchies are unacceptable, at least within a product team.
  2. Scrum is not for everyone and not for all cases.
  3. Regardless of old habits, cultural and other differences, a representative of a scrum team is first and foremost a professional. This implies a high level of responsibility and teamwork.
  4. By themselves, teams will not be able to transform from vertical to horizontal. The transition requires support from Agile Coaches or seasoned Scrum Masters.
  5. The Scrum Master plays a fundamentally important role in the process of team coaching.
  6. To “do twice the work in half the time” demands a mature scrum team.
  7. Managers should hire experienced and competent scrum masters who can grow a proactive team to achieve the highest productivity.

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