Scrum Teams Come Together Like a Banana Split 

 February 4, 2021

By  Anthony Amos

The Toppings Makes it Complete

Before You Get Started

Take a close look at a banana split. Before you eat it, can you see a Scrum Team? Maybe I’ve indulged in one banana split too many, but I see the banana as the Scrum Framework. And the ice cream? They are team member skills. Teams need to be cross-functional, so vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry seem to take care of that. Ah, but banana and ice cream alone do not make a banana split. This dessert is not complete until we add toppings.

What are the toppings on this Scrum Team banana split? Team character. Scrum has transformed how teams and organizations work, but teams frequently overlook the fact that Scrum is a framework. The Framework is an excellent starting point, but it is the bare minimum, and Scrum is not complete until we add the toppings present in team character.

What is a Scrum Team?

The Scrum Framework defines team structure, but more importantly, it defines team characteristics that lead to success. Consider this paraphrased definition of a Scrum Team:

A small, cohesive unit of professionals focused on one objective at a time with no sub-teams or hierarchies.

This fundamental definition is further buoyed by Scrum’s overarching principles of Focus, Openness, Respect, Courage, and Commitment. Teams that follow this definition and embrace these principles are off to a strong start. Then, Scrum adds a little more to the framework by including a few guidelines, which are:

  • Ten or fewer people on a team, including the Product Owner and Scrum Master
  • Shared accountability, so the entire team is responsible for outcomes
  • Cross-functionality, so that it has all the skills necessary to create value in each Sprint
  • Self-organization which gives the team the autonomy to manage its own work

There’s your banana and ice cream, gratifying but incomplete. Team character, or the team’s collective character traits, create toppings. Interestingly, evidence shows that certain character traits directly influence team performance. In fact, studies of successful Scrum teams have increased awareness of these characteristics.

Teams, just like individuals, do differ in character; and certain character traits contribute to better team performance. So the team is right to expect that its Scrum Master will also help to lift their performance. Therefore, Scrum Masters should be aware of beneficial character traits.

Character Traits of Successful Teams

Scrum.org and McKinsey & Company collaborated in 2018 to publish “How to Select and Develop Individuals for Successful Agile Teams: A Practical Guide” which found that team members possessing three capabilities were important contributors to team success:

  • Handle ambiguity without losing focus
  • Concentrate on outcomes over processes or outputs
  • Possess a sense of pride in the product

These character traits represent the Scrum banana split toppings. A banana split has essential toppings. I prefer chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and cherries on mine (feel free to substitute your favorites). Similarly, this report acknowledges a Scrum Team’s essential traits. 

Handle Ambiguity without Losing Focus

The Scrum framework addresses adaptive solutions for complex problems. Complex problems naturally include uncertainty, so ambiguity and uncertainty walk hand-in-hand. People who struggle with ambiguity will have more difficulty on a Scrum team, and this difficulty could impede team performance. People who are able to handle ambiguity with an open mind tend to thrive in agile teams.

Managing ambiguity requires team members to focus on goals and to prioritize activities in line with those goals. This combination of open-mindedness, focus on goals, and prioritization will help guide the team toward a practical solution. The solution may not be perfect, but the Product Owner may want to seriously consider whether perfection is a necessity or an enemy. Managing ambiguity covers most features and functions, so it serves as the whipped cream.

Concentrate on Outcomes over Processes or Outputs

Outputs are the things we deliver. Traditional project management encourages processes that emphasize the production of outputs; assuming that more output equals greater productivity. Unfortunately, more output does not equate to more value unless teams produce the right output, which can be hard to define. So Scrum does not promise to increase output; instead, Scrum encourages improved outcomes.

An outcome is a different state of operation, existence, or efficiency. We expect that this different state will be more valuable than the prior state. Therefore, truly effective Scrum teams aim for improved outcomes, not necessarily more output. Therefore, when targeting outcomes, we emphasize quantifiable improvements, typically through Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) which are designed to provide clear evidence of value. Outcomes are prevalent in every action, so they are the chocolate syrup. 

Possess a Sense of Pride in the Product

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich frequently used a tool he called the “pronoun test”. When visiting a company, he would ask employees some questions about the company and then listen for the pronouns they use in their response. Do they refer to the company as “they” or “we”?

The “pronoun test” can also be an effective team pride barometer. Listen to team members as they speak. Do they use “we” or “they”? References to “we” reflect a team connection, which indicates team pride. This person will more likely value product pride over work pride. The product itself becomes more meaningful because the product itself represents an outcome.

The Scrum.org/McKinsey report also reveals that product pride brings with it three broad team performance benefits:

  • Product quality becomes natural rather than forced
  • Team members are organically motivated
  • Innovative ideas happen

Pride in product and team truly represents the cherry on top of this banana split.

Each team’s unique character should be recognized and encouraged, for it is this character that influences how the team functions. At the same time, there are character traits that make a team more inclined toward success and cannot be overlooked. These traits, when combined with team skills and framework adherence will influence outcomes, reliability, creativity, and innovation.

Ultimately, Teams best serve the organization consistently delivering value and changing outcomes; so a Scrum Master’s insight should help to encourage or inspire character traits that help teams to excel. This leads to better team performance and growth while forming unique toppings for this banana split. In closing, I do apologize for any cravings caused by this article.

Anthony Amos

Anthony started creating software in 1981 when he curiously picked up the programming manual for a Wang OIS Word Processor while deployed with the US Navy. He had never seen a computer before, but he taught himself how to write programs that made his Navy work easier and more accurate.
After his honorable discharge in 1986, he began creating financial and analytical software for diverse organizations including Verizon Wireless, JP Morgan Asset Management, GoldenTree Asset Management, NASDAQ, Prudential Insurance, AT&T Capital Corporation, Lehman Brothers, Ernst & Young, and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of New Jersey.

Demonstrating his commitment to the principles and values of Agile Software Engineering, Anthony is a recognized SAFe® version 5 Program Consultant and holds many of the most challenging and difficult to attain Agile certifications. His practice is grounded in Agile Frameworks as he leads clients to implement Scrum, Kanban, Scrum with Kanban, Scaled Scrum with Nexus, and Scaled Agile Framework. He believes in using the framework that best fits the organization's cultural and business direction while maintaining disciplined processes.

Tony Amos

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