What Everybody Knows

An important part of the Certified ScrumMaster course I teach is the question and answer session. Typically held near the end of the second day, it gives attendees a chance to ask questions about specific issues they are experiencing with Scrum in their own organizations. It also gives me a glimpse, as a Scrum trainer, of attitudes and ideas that may hamper the fledgling ScrumMasters as they work to introduce this new framework in their companies.

Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I got this question in class:

“So, everybody knows when you have a team of five software engineers, you are inevitably going to have four hard workers and then one guy who just coasts and makes everyone else pick up the slack so…” This attendee went on to ask for specific advice on how to spot and correct the “slacker” but I will admit I was stuck on the first part of his question. Everybody knows there is a lazy person in every group? Was that a true statement? I certainly didn’t think so. And, if it was not true, then why did the student in my class believe with such certainty that it was?

My newly-minted CSM who was vigilantly on the lookout for his lazy worker was using a mental construct psychologists call a cognitive shortcut. Such shortcuts allow humans to quickly assess new situations and stimuli and make generalized assumptions about their characteristics. This ability can be useful in many situations. For example, if you are in a strange airport and not sure how to find flight connection information, you may choose to ask for help at an airline courtesy counter. You don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the actual individual behind that counter and his relative knowledge of flight schedules, because you have a mental model or schema for “airline counter personnel” that allows you to trust what he tells you more or less without question.

While cognitive shortcuts help us navigate the world in an efficient way, they can also limit what we are willing to “see.” I once served on a jury judging if a young man was guilty of assault. The jury consisted of two women (one being me) and four men. Being an analytical person, I asked for extra time to read the court’s definition of assault, to ensure I was making an accurate judgment. At which point the other female juror said “There you go – women judge with their hearts and men with their heads.” I was completely baffled as to how wanting to have a clear understanding of a legal definition was “heart”-oriented but it was clear my fellow female juror had a mental schema that said women act from emotion and saw my behavior in that light.

My courtroom experience was harmless enough, but that is not always the case. Stereotypes are examples of cognitive shortcuts that may cloud our perception of others’ behaviors and motivations. At worst, we may find ourselves attributing meaning to actions in a completely inaccurate way and creating self-fulfilling prophecies. As my friend from the CSM class was sure to discover, if we are “certain” there is a slacker in every group, we will see that behavior in an individual, even if we have to make it up.

When teams begin to self-manage, they often make mistakes. They may misjudge the amount of work they can complete in a sprint, underestimate the time required to solve a problem, or neglect to mention a critical dependency until it becomes a blocking issue. Fortunately, Scrum has numerous inspect-and-adapt cycles built into the process to examine these errors and decide how best to correct them in the future.

Trust is crucial in Scrum. Managers can help their teams succeed by both believing in them and holding them responsible for improving the quality of their decisions. One without the other simply does not work. And above all, managers must guard against any tendency to pigeon-hole teams or individuals. Scrum can and often does bring out the best in team members, particularly those who chafed under a micro-management style. But it can only do so when a team as a unit is given an honest chance to learn, grow and succeed.

It can be difficult for managers who view their role as one of directing and monitoring to embrace the idea of trusting team wisdom, but doing so pays big dividends. Teams begin to realize the company is counting on them and their collective intelligence to help the organization to succeed. They know their failures will be viewed not as “bad” but as learning experiences that can create new innovations.

In this way, having faith in the wisdom of teams becomes a kind of positive, self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, my CSM class participant can build a new schema called “successful Scrum team member” and can begin to look for the positive behaviors expected from such an individual. And – surprise! – those positive behaviors often manifest themselves once they are anticipated. People rise to the occasion for the very reason that someone exhibited a belief they could do so. And as everybody knows, believing something is possible is half the battle.

Notes
Carlson, Neil R., “Psychology: The Science of Behavior”, Pearson Education, New York

Hoffmann, Michael G., “Logical Argument Mapping: A Method For Overcoming Cognitive Problems of Conflict Management”, International Journal of Conflict Management, 2005, Vol. 16 Issue 4

Download the PDF version: What Everybody Knows

Angela Druckman

Angela Druckman is an agile coach and Certified Scrum Trainer. She specializes in Agile Transformation, helping teams and organizations all over the world improve their competitive position and effectiveness through agility. Whether working with tiny start-ups or Fortune 100 companies, Angela’s experience and guidance have helped her clients achieve extraordinary and measurable success with their agile practices. Angela is the author of 30 Days to Better Agile.

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