Scrum Does Not Need Heroes


Scrum Does Not Need Heroes


knight's helmet

We all know one: the person who rushed in to save the day or rescue the project. We know the people who work late into the night to finish the presentation or fix a problem with the website. Or, perhaps we have been the “heroes” ourselves. I myself was one for a while. At least, until I understood.

It’s easy enough to see how the opportunity arises for a hero to rush in and save the day. Judging from the expectations some of my clients have had, Scrum is (supposedly) about filling up a sprint with stories and then having the team literally sprint to the finish. For various reasons, when this does not work out and the project is in peril, they cry out for a hero to save the day. Who will answer the call?

A Culture of Hero Worship

In fiction, the hero has a lot to live up to. It is as if fiction writers with a conventional concept of a hero know that their heroes ultimately cannot keep up with the idealistic image that people project on them. They do not grow beyond their own sacrifice, leading to many stories ending with the heroic act itself or the death of the hero.

Think of Frodo from the book series “Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. After his long and heroic journey to destroy evil once and for all, he does not return happily to his life. Instead, the story ends, with a vague reference of him sailing away to an unnamed country to spend the rest of his life there.

While this can make for intriguing cinema, should we not be allowed to question this cultural concept of a hero when it comes to real life?

In reality, the real work only begins after the “heroic act” has been performed. We must ask ourselves, “How did things go so wrong in the first place? How can we prevent a similar disaster in the future?”

Standing in the Way

Put yourself into the shoes of the lead developer. You are the one who knows the ins and outs of the entire system. If you are working on the issue, it gets done twice as quickly. You are that good.

You fear how the team would perform if you were not available or on vacation, so you tell them you are always available and that they should call you whenever there is a problem, no matter the time. Essentially, you think they are not ready for the world.

But, after a while, it slowly dawns you that your team cannot meet the challenges because you never actually let them try to do so. You are the reason they are standing still.

Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl.

-Peter S. Beagle, “The Last Unicorn”

As a manager, you need to understand why it is crucial not to cry out for a hero. The heroic act does not change the person doing it, and the accolade of those around him or her will eventually end. After the situation has been resolved, the hero usually returns back to ordinary work---disenchanted, since he or she cannot keep working at the same pace on his or her own outside the team.

What these heroes are left with is either pride--which can turn on its head by causing them to become more defensive, less transparent and less of a part of the team--or a sense of abandonment, if they feel their contribution is no longer valued when it’s not urgent.

If you praise heroes by their sacrifice in the face of emergencies, you no longer differentiate tasks by their value, but by their praiseworthiness and visibility. Important but less visible half-finished tasks will be dragged along through several sprints until they cause a fire---with the hero again coming to the rescue, and the vicious cycle repeating itself.

Aim for 100% Completion, Not 100% Exhaustion

  • Rather than demanding heroism and sacrifice by adding more stories to a sprint than the team has pulled from the backlog (or would have, if you had let them!), I recommend setting a goal of sustainability. This helps the team to become more confident in their abilities by removing the need for the “hero” of the team. It might even make the “hero” more productive by having her abilities focused not on putting out fires, but on his or her own strengths.
  • Instead of looking at the hero as a self-sacrificial super-human, I recommend learning to get comfortable with the real hero as someone who can break conventions and who speaks openly instead of purposefully running the project into the ground just to prove a point.

There is no need, in a productive team, for one person to carry the weight of the world on his or her shoulders. We do not have to feel responsible for everything that is happening, only to then complain that we cannot manage it on our own. If the actual result is more important to us than social recognition, we have a simpler option to improve the world without having to sacrifice ourselves: We can focus on our strengths and help others in the team to reach their full potential.

Are Scrum Masters the True Heroes?

Even if you do not have a hero in your team, management might think you do, or that you should. Some clients even see Scrum Masters as a type of “team motivator” whose main task is to whoop the team into shape and reach new levels of productivity. If you do have a “hero” on your team, you might be better off either moving the person into a technical support role outside the Scrum team, or developing that person into a Scrum Master.

But, keep in mind that even the Scrum Master does not fit the image of a traditional hero. His or her main task is to oppose false heroes or paradigms within the company. Sure, the responsibilities of a Scrum Master also include identifying, analyzing and removing impediments, but that does not mean that the Scrum Master takes over tasks the rest of the team could just as easily work on themselves.

Summary 

The traditional image of heroism does not fit into the Scrum team. A Scrum Master needs to be aware both of a culture of hero worship within a company and individual team members who are engaging in self-sacrificial behavior at the cost of long-term sustainability. 

The real heroes are the ones who break conventions and stand up against false heroes. They will be the ones who contribute to the success of your project and your team.

How do your team members share work among themselves? Do you have specialists, like a “super-programmer”? Have you seen evidence of hero worship in your company’s culture? Please let me know in the comments section below.  



 

Clemens Lode is the founder of LODE Publishing

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