Soft Skills – What Do They Have to Do with Scrum?

On my Danube blog, I really try to stick to Scrum-specific topics that will help our clients, the software community, and other interested folks navigate the challenging process of Scrum transformations. In my daily life as a Scrum advocate, I encounter many misinterpretations of Scrum and I hope that, through my blogs, I can contribute to a better understanding of Scrum’s simple yet powerful parts and principles. That said, I responded to a question on my LinkedIn profile earlier this week and received some personal responses about how helpful the answer was, so I thought I would post my thoughts on this “sort-of-Scrum-related” subject here.

Scrum, in my opinion, is a framework that allows the best of human nature to emerge and, consequently, it yields more effective teams that build better products, ultimately generating more value for their organization. I don’t have an advanced degree in organizational psychology, but I do like to think about those more abstract concepts, so please don’t misinterpret this as expert advice. When Syed Mohammad Qasim asked, “Which are the 5 most commonly used soft skills and how can one perfect them? Please share practical, interesting examples,” I responded with the following:

Begin answer…

“I don’t have any evidence to support whether these are the most commonly used, but the five soft skills I think are most important are as follows:

1. Well Developed “Theory of Mind” – It’s important for an individual to be able to attribute mental states to themselves and others, so that they can identify, predict, and influence likely behavior. Whether in a personal or professional relationship, we’ve all encountered someone who completely disregarded our current mood or circumstances and reacted in an inappropriate way. The ability to identify and act on accurate “theory of mind” assessments is vital to human relationships. I believe one can improve this skill by trying to listen and by asking questions before reacting.

2. Value Orientation – This is not about religious or moral values, but, rather, individuals understanding what things, experiences, people, and concepts are important to them. Once someone described this to me as orienteering with a map and compass. I don’t care if you have a plan for every obstacle and detour you might encounter along the way. I just want you to have a general destination in mind – a tree in the distance that is on the vector of the mountain you’re trying to reach. Strong value orientation aids in the predictability of an individual’s behavior and also helps you identify common ground with someone moving in the same direction. Ultimately, this boils down to an individual having the ability to come up with a general mission statement for themselves.

3. Clarity of Communication – Expressing a message in a way that is concise, direct, clear, accurate, and appropriate is vital to quality professional and personal relationships, but is extremely difficult to do in real life. I value immensely a person’s ability to quickly tell me what is going on, without triangulating through other people, hiding other messages, or using passive aggression.

4. Transparency – In addition to the ability to communicate, I think it’s valuable for individuals to have the willingness to communicate, at least in terms of what they’re legally allowed to do. Protecting knowledge out of anxiety and insecurity alone happens so much in business and in personal matters as well. Lack of transparency is sometimes used as a tactic to make others feel less valuable, less “in the know,” or generally nervous. Confident people are transparent, at least as much as they can be without getting in trouble.

5. An Open Heart – This is my only somewhat “fluffy” soft skill, but I think it’s valuable nonetheless. We are all going to get scarred in life, whether it’s business or personal. Many of us shut down and become cynical and less trusting, even when trust is the right thing to do. I admire individuals who, despite these spills, can continue to invite opportunity and new connections into their lives. If a bad experience is going to break you, it may as well break you open.

In terms of perfecting these skills, I think the only recipe is constant striving. No one is an expert.”

That’s the end of my answer…

When I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking about Scrum at all. But now that I read it, I see parallels. Do you see any commonalities?

Have a great weekend everybody!

Download the PDF version: Soft Skills and Scrum_blog

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One comment on “Soft Skills – What Do They Have to Do with Scrum?
  1. stevemcgee99 says:

    It does seem that Scrum makes more room for individual strengths to contribute than typical ‘command and control’ management. And, to allow individuals to work in their own way, negotiate amongst themselves, encourage and monitor each other, ‘soft skills’ will be essential.

    The ‘theory of mind’ concept is a great way to explain the need for some kind of model to frame behavior and provide a suggested response. Like any ‘teaching tool’, behavioral models seem most effective after they are mastered. I compare this to people learning tennis – only a beginner thinks about how they are holding the racket. Masters use the techniques but apply their other experience and skill to perform well. So, in learning old models like the MBTI or newer ones like EQ or MindOS, the best performance comes once the model is so familiar it is forgotten.

    As far as ‘open heart’ being ‘fluffy’, I’d say it’s ‘fuzzy’ as in fuzzy logic. There is research and theory behind this topic, however. It has to do with ‘psychological boundaries’, which can be adjusted by skilled people in ways that not only make themselves more effective, but others around them, too. A great manager uses her or his boundaries very effectively.

    I think one of the points of resistance to adopting Agile practices is in the increased need for the team and organization to use their soft skills. Traditional organizations assume people are all the same and interchangeable (think Microsoft ‘people icons’ in ppt). Predictability comes from an assumption that human ‘resources’ can do what they are expected to according to plan. Paradoxically, by allowing space for individuals to manage themselves, within the framework provided by a vision, success is often more likely and sustainable.

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