Trainer, Coach, Mentor, Therapist: Being a Manager for a Scrum Team

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I’ve written a lot about what goes on inside a Scrum team. About teamwork, servant leadership, and empowerment.

I’ve also written about leaders on a Scrum team managing processes not people. How there’s no real “management” in the traditional, authoritarian sense on a Scrum team.

But what happens outside of the Scrum team?

What’s a manager to do?

Managing Your Reports

As a manager, you might have direct reports engaged on a Scrum team. And yet you’re being told not to “manage” them. So what exactly can you do?

The truth is: you can – and should – manage your direct reports on Scrum teams. But you might need to do it differently.

Scrum team members still have career goals, they’re still accountable for their team’s success (and their involvement in it) and they still deserve feedback. None of that has changed. What has changed is your role in their day-to-day activities.

Instead of assigning them individual tasks to accomplish, you’re watching the progression of their teams. You’re watching their participation and engagement. Your “HR assessment” of their performance might combine whether or not they met team objectives with a more subjective analysis of their role within the team.

And in order to provide that analysis, you need to understand the environment they’re in and the challenges they’re facing. You also need to do whatever you can to support them, guide them, and help them overcome their obstacles. Just like any good manager would.

Losing Control

“Won’t that mean I’m losing control?” you might ask.

My emphatic answer is always: “YES!”

It’s hard to imagine an empowered team when a manager retains control over every decision. One of the main strengths of Scrum is that it gets us out of the “command and control” structure. It gets us out of micro-managing.

And why is that so important? I like to define micro-management as an “inversion of responsibility.” When you tell an employee exactly how do to something, you now own the responsibility for the outcome. Since it was your idea and directive, how could a team member possibly take ownership of the outcome? You’ve inverted the responsibility from where you want it to be – in the team member’s hands – and kept ownership of the outcome for yourself (which you don’t want).

That’s why, in Scrum, we don’t tell team members how to perform a task. Instead, we ask them, “How would you solve this problem?” By doing this, they retain control over their decisions on how to proceed. And that keeps the responsibility where it belongs – firmly in the hands of the team.

As managers, our challenge is to support our Scrum team employees by offering help, advice, and perspective – not direction. In doing this, I see four main roles that we, as managers, can fulfill:

  1. Trainer
  2. Coach
  3. Mentor
  4. Therapist

Managers as Trainers

As a manager, you’re responsible for employee development, and that includes training. For a Scrum team member, your first goal is to make sure they fully understand the Scrum process. Then dive down deeper into specific areas as they need it, whether it’s estimating user stories, planning production sprints, or the roles and responsibilities of the team.

You might also be called on to provide training for specific business processes, tools, or technologies. Or even communication skills and teamwork. Whatever training your employees require, it’s up to you to make sure they get it.

Managers as Coaches

As a manager, you’re also a coach. You want to encourage your employees, push them when needed, and provide positive reinforcement when appropriate.

The best coaches do three things:

  • They teach you what you need to know
  • They keep you motivated and focused when the going gets tough
  • They challenge you to achieve your peak performance

You can do the same for employees on a Scrum team.

Managers as Mentors

As a manager, you fill a natural role as mentor for your employees. Members of a Scrum team can sometimes feel “cut off” from the normal activities of a company, so the role of mentor becomes that much more important.

Scrum team members need to see that what they’re doing “fits in” and has value to the organization. They need reassurances that their career goals are being advanced. They need advice and guidance to navigate not just the challenges of the Scrum team, but the corporate environment itself.

Managers as Therapists

As a manager, you may find yourself acting as a therapist from time to time. Working in a tight, close-knit group like a Scrum team is going to have its ups and downs. Just like a family, there will always be interpersonal issues that need to be worked out. And sometimes your employees may need to vent.

Being outside of the Scrum team, you can provide an objective ear to the issues they’re facing. It’s also important that you keep those conversations in confidence, just like any therapist would, or you’ll risk losing their trust.

Whether they need actual advice on a situation or simply someone to listen, you can help them through it – and strengthen your relationship in the process.

Using Your Authority Wisely

Within a Scrum team, it’s all about servant leadership. No one person is “in charge of” anyone else.

But as a manager, you are in charge of your employees, whether they work on Scrum teams or not. And while servant leadership is still an important piece of any manager’s game, there’s more to it than that.

In this article, I proposed four main roles a manager should play: Trainer, Coach, Mentor, and Therapist. What do all of these have in common? They all derive their usefulness from a position of authority.

As a manager, you need to wield that authority. But how you do it will make a huge difference to your employees, especially for those on Scrum teams. That’s why Ascendle doesn’t just provide coaching and training for Scrum teams – we also help your management learn how to effectively manage within the Scrum team environment. For more on how we can help you navigate through these challenges, contact us today.

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