The Hardest Challenges of Implementing Scrum, #1: Developing Self-Organizing Teams

April 21, 2014

Developing an empowered, self-organizing, and self-examining team is essential to Scrum success. So how do you do it?

As I wrote in my first post in this series, the hardest things to do well in Scrum are also the most crucial aspects of the methodology:

  1. Developing a truly empowered, self-organizing, and self-examining team
  2. Embracing rapid iteration
  3. Adopting prioritization by business impact
  4. Applying realistic but practical estimation
  5. Maintaining lightweight meeting schedules without losing transparency

I cannot overstate the importance of the very first item on my list — getting the team to self-organize.

The Mental Switch

What we need to recognize about Scrum, or Agile methodologies in general, is that it is not a magical process that will solve all of the issues that arise when teams work on complex projects. One of the most difficult things for new adopters to grasp is that Scrum really isn’t about changing your process as much as it is making a mental switch.
Unlike traditional project management methodologies that expect team members to follow instructions, hit deadlines, and generally be mechanically predictable, Scrum is a framework that requires everyone to be their own boss and an integral part of the team’s decision making. Most radically, Scrum presupposes that the team knows how to best get the work done, and more importantly, how to best organize and manage itself.
In other words, the team has to be its own boss. That’s because Scrum disassociates the manager-subordinate relationship from the project manager-team member relationship. In fact, there is no project manager. Instead, there is the product owner — (typically the person who is asking for the work to be done) and the team.
By itself, the rituals of Scrum do not guarantee unqualified success in any project. Rather, the methodology helps teams achieve incredible productivity and success by putting people in a very different environment, and forcing them to adopt a very different mindset about the project. By doing so, it liberates the creativity, productivity, and agility that traditional project teams simply do not posses.
A lot hinges on how well the team can self-organize and self-manage itself, and as indicated, that is something that is extremely hard to achieve. It starts with flipping that mental switch, and for many of us, that requires us to go against many of the things we’ve been trained to accept since grade school — you can do your best by following set instructions, there is typically a single right or wrong answer for any situation, decisions and options are limited to what is presented to you, etc.

What Needs to Be Done

Everyday in Scrum, people have to make their own decisions for themselves and for the team. That can be difficult, but also empowering. They can choose what they want to work on and how they do so. The only thing they are responsible for is what they “pull” at the end of the sprint. There is less manager-subordinate tension and a lot more creator-creation bond being formed here.
Just as importantly, Scrum’s success is dependent on the team’s ability to self-examine itself and to continually seek improvement. In order for Scrum to truly be effective, each team member needs to be embrace the following:

  • they are self-empowered (they know what needs to be done and have the means to do it)
  • they are willing to take on the responsibility of self-organizing and self-examining
  • they are ready to let go of their individual egos and differences so that the team can function together

The ScrumMaster’s Role
Often, managerial hierarchy can get in the way of self-organization. But even when that isn’t the case, it can still be difficult for teams to effectively manage themselves. Ultimately, the responsibility for bringing this out of the team falls on the ScrumMaster. But the ScrumMaster should not mistake his or herself for a surrogate manager. His or her role is to resolve the more deep-seeded impediments to the team’s self-empowerment. He or she has to provide a tremendous amount of time and effort to properly motivate each team member and impart on them the essential skills of self-examination. It is the ScrumMaster’s duty to really push the team hard along the steep learning curve.
Many teams will easily fall back to their old mental framework, even as they mechanically carry out Scrum activities. After all, the old way is a lot easier! It allows team members to drift along in “worker mode,” following predefined plans and fitting themselves in well-defined roles. Scrum, by contrast, forces them to take responsibility and actions into their own hands, and rely on other team members like never before in order to improve.
Therefore, it is very important that Scrum teams be aware of the deeper reason why they practice Scrum, and seek proactively to identify and eliminate the seeds of self-doubt, lack of confidence, and resignation or intellectual laziness that can always creep back in if you’re not careful.
Has your team struggled to be self-organized? Need some help? Describe your situation and I will try my best.

  1. Introduction: The 5 Hardest Challenges of Implementing Scrum
  2. Challenge 1: Developing a truly empowered, self-organizing, and self-examining team
  3. Challenge 2: Embracing rapid iteration
  4. Challenge 3: Adopting prioritization by impact
  5. Challenge 4: Applying realistic but practical estimation
  6. Challenge 5: Managing Effective Scrum meetings

Chief Business Officer at UserTesting

Tien Anh joined UserTesting in 2015 after extensive financial and strategic experiences at OpenView, where he was an investor and advisor to a global portfolio of fast-growing enterprise SaaS companies. Until 2021, he led the Finance, IT, and Business Intelligence team as CFO of UserTesting. He currently leads initiatives for long term growth investments as Chief Business Officer at UserTesting.