Why pushing ideas onto a team is a recipe for disaster

If you’ve ever worked in a scrum team, perhaps you’ll relate to this little tale.

Picture this: A fresh, eager scrum master named Jane joins your team. She’s brimming with optimism and bursting with revolutionary ideas to streamline the team’s workflow. In her enthusiasm, Jane starts pushing her methods onto the team without soliciting their input. Here’s where things start to sour. Team morale wavers as Jane’s imposed strategies fail to resonate. Resistance mounts, productivity dwindles; Jane’s steadfast approach appears to do more harm than good, adding friction instead of fostering collaboration.

The Power of Collaboration: Working Together for Success

Imagine you’re sat in a meeting, discussing a new version of a work management tool that you, as the Scrum Master, think will greatly benefit your team. You’ve spent hours researching, attending demos, and even playing around with a trial version of the software. You’re convinced this is the tool that’ll take your team to the next level, streamline their workflow, and enhance overall productivity – what’s not to love?

Only, when you present your findings to the team, they don’t respond with the same level of enthusiasm. They question the need for a new tool, the time it’ll take to learn, and express concerns over data migration. You try to explain the long-term benefits, but resistance continues. This is a classic example of why pushing ideas, processes or tools onto a team can be problematic and counterproductive.

What’s happening in this scenario?

  1. Despite your good intentions, you have inadvertently undermined the team’s autonomy. They may feel like bystanders in decision-making, and this can lead to disengagement.
  2. Your team feels ambushed by a change they didn’t ask for or anticipate, which can create unnecessary stress and resistance. Change is often met with apprehension unless individuals understand the ‘why’ behind it.

The Scrum Master’s role isn’t to enforce or dictate, rather it is to facilitate and support. It’s about enabling a team to make decisions collaboratively, equipping them with the tools and knowledge to navigate their way towards continuous improvement. Also, remaining consistent with the Agile principle of ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ is essential.

To be a successful Scrum Master, resist the urge to take a prescriptive approach, no matter how tempting the benefits appear. Rigidity can discourage experimentation, a key component of Agile methodologies.

Of course, suggesting improvements and sharing knowledge are still vital aspects of the Scrum Master role. The challenge lies in the delivery. Consider framing your suggestion as precisely that, a suggestion. Invite feedback, encourage discussion, and listen to your team’s opinions. This inclusive approach can enhance team cohesion and likely lead to a decision that everyone supports and owns.

The Anecdote: A Lesson Learned

Liam, a seasoned Scrum Master, learned this lesson the hard way. Despite being hired for his expertise, Liam found that his tendency to dictate strategies and processes quickly met resistance from his team. They felt unheard, and their performance began to suffer.

Recognising this, Liam needed to change his approach. Instead of imposing his ideas, he began presenting them in team meetings as suggestions and encouraging open discussions. The team would then vote on which ideas to implement, instilling a sense of collective ownership and collaboration.

The result? The team’s performance improved and they began to work together more harmoniously. The team was happier, communication improved, and the projects they delivered were more successful. This direct experience instilled in Liam a lasting understanding of the importance of respecting team autonomy for overall organisational success.

The power of collaboration lies not in driving changes but fostering an environment where ideas are shared and decisions made collectively. This approach not only empowers your team but also significantly enhances their motivation and productivity. Never forget, as a Scrum Master, your mission is to support your team on their journey, not to steer them along a pre-determined path.

Respecting Team Autonomy: Allowing Ideas to Flourish

As a Scrum Master, one of your cardinal responsibilities is to build an environment that enables your team members to unfurl their expertise and skills without constraint. What’s crucial here is team autonomy – a state where every team member is empowered to make their own decisions and solutions.

If we delve a bit further into the anatomy of great Scrum teams, they exhibit one major trait – the truly powerful and effective ones are self-managing. When you dictate every move or action to the team, you smother this vital ecosystem, inhibiting individual creativity and collective progress.

But how can you master the art of striking the right balance between guidance and autonomy? Let’s explore.

“The role of leaders is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead.”

– Bill George

Nurturing Team Autonomy

Encouraging ideas to blossom comes from an environment where team members feel free to think, discuss, and experiment. Scrum refers to this as a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment. This is not about accepting failure but treating it as a learning curve, an opportunity for growth.

  • Building Trust: Show your team that you trust their abilities. Trust is the vital ingredient for fostering autonomy. When a team feels trusted, they become more engaged and proactive.
  • Encouraging Decisions: Encourage your team members to make decisions. While some may hesitate, fearing mistakes, remind them it’s better to learn from a wrong decision than not to make one at all.
  • Respecting Opinions: Converse with your team members, encourage a free exchange of ideas, and respect their opinions. Even those differing from your own can bring fresh insight and encourage innovation.

By doing so, not only do you treat your team with esteem, but you also bolster their transformation into active contributors rather than passive participants.

The Damaging Effects of Imposing

Accustomed to traditional forms of project management, a Scrum Master might fall into the trap of impositions. Even with the best intentions, it can unintentionally stifle team autonomy and engagement, eventually leading to decreased productivity.

Here’s why pushing ideas, processes, or tools onto the team can bring more harm than good:

Firstly, let’s illustrate our point with a metaphor. Imagine a cooking contest. Every team is given a basket of ingredients. However, instead of letting the teams decide what to cook, the judge dishes out specific recipes to each team. The autonomy and creativity to use the given ingredients in a unique way vanish instantly. The contest, ideally intended to showcase the culinary skills and creativity of the contestants, loses its spirit and becomes a paint-by-numbers exercise.

Now, transpose this scenario into an agile environment. As a scrum master, when you push strategies or tools onto your team, it resembles the overbearing judge in our metaphor. The team’s freedom to explore, innovate and come up with best solutions is significantly hampered, potentially taking a toll on overall productivity and, ultimately, results.

Setbacks of Forced Directions

When you enforce certain tools or processes onto your team, their perspective shifts from delivering quality work to simply following directives. This could lead to the following adverse effects:

  1. Stifling Creativity: Team members may forego creative ideas that could provide more efficient and innovative solutions in favour of adhering strictly to imposed methods.
  2. Lower Engagement: When individuals are not allowed to contribute their ideas and make decisions, enthusiasm wanes. This generally leads to disengagement and decreased productivity.
  3. Reduced Accountability: When people are merely following instructions, they often disengage from taking responsibility for outcomes.

In the evolving agile landscape, the role of the scrum master morphs from a controller to a facilitator. As scrum master, you are responsible for fostering an ecosystem where a team’s full potential can flourish, and imposing hard and fast rules typically hinders this progression.

The Long-Term Impact

Let’s delve into the long-term implications of adopting a push approach. Over time, enforcing ideas and decisions can subtly erode a team’s motivation, autonomy and efficiency. As the Scrum Master, if you’re constantly dictating the course of action, your team might develop a dependency on your directives. This could lead to a subtle atrophy in their problem-solving and decision-making skills – abilities crucial to the success of any agile team.

Moreover, imposing ideas might also lead to a decline in innovation. When team members feel their ideas are constantly overruled, they may simply stop generating new and innovative approaches, leaving your projects stuck in a cycle of uniformity and stagnation. This could result in decreased productivity and a lower quality of output.

In addition, your relationship with the team might deteriorate over time. A constant push approach can foster resentment or apathy among team members, damaging team dynamics and making collaboration difficult. In the worst-case scenario, team members might opt to leave, seeking environments where their input is valued.

Ultimately, the long-term impact of implementing a push approach can be detrimental to the overall health of the team, with far-reaching effects on the success of the products and your organisation.

Moving Towards a Collaborative Approach

The solution is to refocus on a shared vision, foster shared leadership, and collaboratively create solutions. A scrum master needs to set the stage, encourage open dialogue, and ensure the team buys into goals, strategies, and processes.

“The scrum master should place the team at the heart of everything, offering guidance instead of issuing commands, igniting curiosity instead of stifling innovation, and becoming a servant leader. The hallmark of a truly effective scrum master is the ability to facilitate, not enforce.”

As scrum masters, we need to nurture a culture of autonomy, impact and ownership within our teams and let the team members bring their full, engaged and creative selves to their roles. This sets the stage for success, both in terms of delivering innovative solutions  and fostering an enthusiastic, impactful work environment.

Tips to Avoid Push Approach

  1. Create a safe and supportive environment: Encourage open conversation and ensure that everyone feels heard. Allow room for everyone to express their thoughts, increasing the trust within the team.
  2. Be an active listener: Understand what your team has to say, acknowledge their ideas and efforts and ensure they are empowered to make key decisions.
  3. Adopt a ‘pull’ method instead: Instead of pushing things onto your team, provide them with the necessary information, and allow them to ‘pull’ the one most suited for the task. This not only respects the team’s autonomy but also enriches the problem-solving process.

Ultimately, the role of a Scrum Master isn’t to command and direct. It’s to guide, support, and help the team cultivate their own unique synergy. Confidence stems from autonomy and for that, they shouldn’t feel pushed but rather, feel inspired and empowered to pull collectively towards the goal.

Embracing Autonomy: The True Role of a Scrum Master

In this piece, we have unraveled the real essence of being a Scrum Master, highlighting the importance of promoting an atmosphere of collaboration and respect for team autonomy. Rather than being authoritative, great Scrum Masters understand the power of fostering a nurturing environment that encourages free thought and independence.

Seeding Collaborative Growth: The Way Ahead

Imposition only stunts the growth and innovation within a team, ultimately jeopardising the success potential of an organisation. Instead, encouraging teams to take ownership of their ideas, processes, and tools can be much more meaningful and instrumental in achieving remarkable progress.

Therefore, Scrum Masters need to constantly remind themselves that the mantra to success lies not in pushing, but in inspiring and empowering teams to excel. Let’s revolutionise the conventional narrative and begin nurturing a culture of shared success and shared growth. Remember, as a Scrum Master, your influence is most effective when you don’t push, but rather guide, and unlock the full potential of your team.

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.
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