What does a scrum master do if the team simply can’t get the job done?
It depends on what we mean by ‘the team can’t get the job done’.
Is it that the team can’t achieve the sprint goal they committed to in sprint planning? If that is the case, you don’t need to panic. In the early days, that is often the norm rather than the exception.
Not achieving sprint goals consistently
Your team are still learning how to estimate correctly, and they are learning how to solve problems that have never been solved before so there is going to be periods where the team struggle to reach their sprint goals.
As a scrum master, you would facilitate a conversation that includes the developers and the product owner and work through the areas that aren’t going to receive attention or resolution within the sprint.
In some cases, those items will simply be returned to the backlog and prioritised for the upcoming sprint whilst in other cases, the product owner and product stakeholders would need more data and information on why the items are not being addressed or solved.
The product owner needs to be informed so that they can update product stakeholders and others within the organisation on any roadblocks and impediments to progress. It may be that the problem is just too hard to solve at this time and it will simply take more time. At other times, it may be that the team are incapable of solving the problem and the item needs to move into the ‘wish list’ and be addressed when the team have the necessary skills or resources to successfully solve the problem.
You don’t want customers and stakeholders arriving for a sprint review and there is nothing for them to see or review. That isn’t a fun or productive place for anyone. You want to make sure that people are informed of any challenges and help the team manage expectations.
If stakeholders are able to help the team solve challenges, fantastic, invite them into those conversations and make use of their help but if they are simply there to observe progress and review whether the solution fits their need, it is best that their expectations are managed by the product owner.
So, at a sprint level, not achieving sprint goals is not catastrophic. It is going to happen.
All that you can do is acknowledge what can’t be addressed, inform the people that need to know, and the work simply returns to the backlog for upcoming sprints.
Time-based Product Goal Failure
If the team simply can’t get the product to where it needs to be, that is different.
What a scrum master needs to do is start looking at why the product goal is in jeopardy. They need to have tough conversations with the team and understand why the team are unable to achieve the product goals and what the underlying reasons for this are.
If it is a matter of time, for example, the product goal is two months away and yet the team estimate it will take approximately four months to achieve then the product owner needs to be informed ASAP and take on the responsibility of communicating challenges to product stakeholders and customers.
When a team encounter a problem that has never been solved before or are asked to create products and services that have never existed before, it is inevitable that estimations may prove inaccurate, and the team will require more time than originally planned.
It isn’t great but it isn’t the end of the world either.
Active communication and regular conversations around the challenges that are being overcome should solve the pressing issues for you and help you manage stakeholder expectations.
Work with your team to understand whether the dates on your timeline are ‘deadlines’ (serious consequences if you don’t reach that goal) or ‘wishlines’ (something we would love to have in place by then but offers no real consequences to anybody if that goal isn’t reached by that date).
If you are dealing with a ‘wishline’, great, the team can simply request more time to achieve the goal and propose a more realistic timeline for delivery. If you are dealing with a ‘deadline’, then you need to explore options with your team.
Most scrum masters would be loathe to bring in another team because of how it impacts team dynamic as well as productivity, but it may be the only solution available. It may require that certain individuals stop what they are doing and ‘swarm’ on the problem to make the ‘deadline’.
You could explore whether everything on the backlog is necessary to meet the deadline. Tough conversations could reveal that 60% of the backlog is absolutely necessary but the other 40% is not that essential.
Great, you now have room to manoeuvre and can potentially nail the deadline by delivering the essential 60% of work that has been prioritised.
A great scrum master will also work with the team to break chunks down into smaller pieces to understand where the most value can be extracted using the least amount of effort.
Knowing where you can achieve the greatest returns on team investment will help you make great decisions about what you can and can’t deliver and ensure that product owners and stakeholders are getting the highest value within the shortest amount of time.
The trick is to do the least amount of work necessary to satisfy the customer.
If the team are able to consistently satisfy the customer, you will have opportunities to refine your processes and acquire new skills that will empower you to achieve more work within shorter spaces of time in the future.
If your team are new to refinement, you – as the scrum master – will be facilitating workshops and educating teams on how to break items into smaller items. You will be actively demonstrating how they can achieve the goal of doing the most valuable work in the shortest amount of time.
In a worst-case scenario, it would require that you get agreement from the product owner, product stakeholders and where relevant, customers, that you will not meet the deadline and negotiate a new deadline based on what the team can realistically deliver.
So, we have multiple options available to us if the problem is time related.
Skills based Product Goal failure
If we are unable to reach the product goal because we don’t have the skills or capability to achieve that goal, breathe, that is going to happen. It is inevitable that a team are going to need to acquire new skills in order to meet complex, challenging product development goals.
As a scrum master, you need to remind your team that this is a learning process and as the team learn new things, about the product or the environment or about what they don’t know, they are going to need to invest in skills development and skills acquisition.
You are going to facilitate conversations with the team that identify where the skills gaps are, how critical that shortfall is, and how the team plan to acquire the necessary skills.
Sometimes, that may mean acquiring a new team member that is in possession of those skills or it may mean investing in training and coaching to acquire those skills for current team members.
Your role is to help the team identify what will be the best solution for them and to actively make a decision and take the necessary action to resolve the problem or exploit the opportunity.
You can help the team run experiments and explore their way out of the problem zone and into new territory that uncovers new possibilities and opportunities.
If your discovery sessions reveal that the problem is impossible to solve and you have hit a wall that defies the laws of physics, then your product owner needs to call it and act based on the evidence.
That may mean communicating alternative opportunities to stakeholders and customers or it may be as simple as gaining agreement from everyone that the idea or concept needs to be canned.
If it simply isn’t possible to achieve, it is worth calling it as early as possible and giving the team, as well as the stakeholders and customers, an opportunity to create alternatives that are possible.
Remember, product development is a messy process. We don’t move from point A to point B, we often move in a myriad of directions as we explore opportunities, identify the problem we are trying to solve, and discover new ways to create and produce solutions.
It is going to be messy. You are going to hit brick walls. You are going to miss deadlines.
As the sherpa, it is your job to guide the team as best you can through all the opportunities available to them. Sometimes that is facilitating conversations whilst at other times, you will need to actively coach people to help them achieve clarity and identify the best way forward.
The team may need to experiment a great deal and they may need to try out a number of different options before they discover the best solution. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes a great deal of focus and a willingness to fail quickly and early in order to discover the best way forward.
These would be my recommendations if you worked with a team that was consistently failing to achieve their goals and objectives. Have conversations, conduct workshops, facilitate conversations between the team and product owners/stakeholders, and actively coach individuals to help them discover the best way forward.
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