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Author: Bob Woods

Agile Facilitation: More Than a Project Manager, More Than a Scrum Master

As we see more and more organizations adopt Agile principles and the frameworks that support them, there is an interesting scenario playing out in the Agile community.

There is a flood of certificates being handed out for a role that increasingly requires a very distinct ‘persona’ to successfully fill.

Think of it this way: getting a degree in medical science will get you a lot of knowledge about the body and disease, but it doesn’t instantly make you a great doctor. The knowledge itself will only take you so far.

When it comes to the folks we consider team facilitators, team stewards, and scrum masters, there is a similar distinction being made. Having knowledge about a process doesn’t mean you have the people skills and “bedside manner” to be successful in that role.

At each session I teach surrounding Agile, servant leadership, team facilitation and being a scrum master, I always bring up the analogy of a dogsled team. Play this little game with me.

Take a look at a picture of a dogsled team; complete with the dogs running out front and the musher on the sled. When you see this picture, think of a typical team facilitator/scrum master/project manager type. Which part of this team do you consider that person to be?

Let me guess – one of two answers generally.

The lead dog you might say, or the musher on the sled perhaps?

Out of the hundreds of Agile sessions I’ve done those are the two answers I always receive. To best understand that role, think of this person as the harness on that team. Paint a different picture now?

Related Article: Project Management is All About Trust

Without that harness there the team will tend to scatter; going their own ways. Ever worked with a team like that? With a weak harness, the team will perceive that weakness and either cater to the weaknesses or pull against it knowing it will break under the stress.

If the team is in a race, and the harness breaks, the weak harness will get blamed for sure. If the team wins, the harness gets no credit. But its goal is to continue to help the team move forward as a team, remain in unison and stick to the path.

There are always lead dogs on these teams in one form or another. Who is the musher? The person with the vision, direction and goal. A.k.a. Product Owner. They step off the back and the team either keeps going where they think they should, or if they are well trained, they stop all together knowing something critical is missing.

This analogy doesn’t even take into account the skills needed to create relationships outside of the team in order to remove impediments. Develop rapport. Observe the team for good and bad habits; highlighting the first and strategizing the latter. They should understand dissolving tense situations and facilitating relationship building. This all plays into the strength of the harness.

A strong harness gives the team confidence in their own success. The team will sometimes even mirror the personality of the one playing this role. Have someone who tends to be low energy, the world is against me, and I don’t want to have to talk to people? Guess what the personality of the team will be?

But if this person brings an energy (not just enthusiasm…that’s different), develops confidence in the team, is perceived as a leader without the title or authority and helps them improve over time? You’ve found the right person. Certificate or not.

Make no mistake, it’s not easy to find this person. I’ve seen the diamond in the rough effect where they rise out from the team itself. I’ve seen some organizations simply hire this person onto the staff. In many cases, though, I see it assigned randomly to someone perceived to have the time to dedicate to it or took the two-day class and passed the exam.
How do we know we have the right person?

Think of the harness. Are they strong enough emotionally to work with difficult personalities and inspire? Can they take criticism by the neck and yell in a very Mel Gibson-esque way “I shall apply you in order to be better next time!” as opposed to cowering in a corner rocking back and forth quietly muttering the Agile Manifesto? They need to be able to understand, and help the team adapt their processes. But more important than simply being a process coach, they are a team coach. Influence without authority.

Not everyone can play this role so don’t be discouraged if you are in the role now and feel misplaced. Conversely, if you feel like this describes who you are now, congrats because diamonds are extremely valuable and in big demand. You can try and create them in a lab, but in the end, the natural ones are of most value.