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This post is from the CollabNet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated Jan 10, 2009 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

Is My Boss On The Scrum Team?

Enterprise Agile Planning

The impressive thing about self deception is the way it covers its own tracks. That is, we deceive ourselves about how much we deceive ourselves. If I have amazing powers of observation, I might catch a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye. Did you know only two percent of college students think they are below average in leadership ability?

One of our favorite self deceptions is denying how concerned we are with looking good.

There’s a fun science experiment involving a cup of water, a sprinkle of pepper, and a bar of soap. You can try this at home, or at your local pub (if you normally bring soap to pubs…). Sprinkle pepper on the surface of the water, spreading it evenly. Then touch the soap to the surface, and watch the pepper zip out to the outer edge of the cup. The pepper’s organization changes radically because of something barely visible, but quite influential — the soap altering the surface tension of the water.

Improvisational theater guru Keith Johnstone and animal behaviorists have observed there are no status free transactions. (There are also no gender-free transactions.) Status is always there, often just below the threshold of awareness.

What does this have to do with self organizing teams?

A high performing Scrum team organizes itself around the Sprint Goals. Status and leadership flow between individuals from situation to situation according to the wisdom of the team. The experienced software architect may have major influence when the team is deciding what persistence framework to use, the brilliant intern is suddenly important to the team when they’re setting up the new tools, the old timer leads when questions about institutional knowledge arise, the person with the most QA experience might have greater influence when the team is figuring out how to build for testability, then a personality conflict may occur and the less technical person with the better soft skills emerges as the leader.

Everything not driven by Sprint Goals is muda.

What happens if one of our “team members” controls which one of us will get a promotion, which one of us will be downsized in the event of a layoff, which one of us will be have a warning in our personnel file if we frequently disagree about how to accomplish goals. Now we’re at least slightly concerned with looking good for the boss, which is a different driver than accomplishing the Sprint Goals.

This invisible force, essentially a parent/child rather than adult/adult dynamic, distorts our self organization and colors our interactions with each other. 10% of this will be obvious to you, but I’m more concerned about the 90% that is not. We’ll still get our work done and probably mildly exceed expectations, but fall far short of what our team could do.

Perhaps you’re one of the vast majority of people who have an above average relationship with your boss. I won’t blindly prescribe that your boss not be on your team. I do suspect the cost is greater than you think.

I remember stepping in as Scrum Master for a team whose previous Scrum Master was also its Product Owner. And he also happened to be the boss. He was a really nice guy and an inspiring leader who later led the whole company through an Agile transformation. But when he walked into the development team room to, um, help out, the conversation shifted, subtly, invisibly. All the pepper moved to the outside edge of the cup. Just as we rarely detect our own scent, bosses sometimes forget that invisible gun is always with them.


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