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Getting Attention

I heard a story once from Jeff Sutherland about a team that didn’t have a backlog. Their product owner had checked out for one reason or another and the team was left at loose ends with nothing to do. Rather than tolerating this state of affairs, the scrum master decides to send the whole team home! That’s right, everybody go home until we have some work to do. Go surfing! Have a great time! I’ll call you when the company has work for you to do.

Of course, this was a brazen act that caught the attention of the company executives and they jumped right on the problem and fixed it right away. Nobody went surfing.

At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what was happening in this little story. There is almost no way that I could see myself telling an entire team to go surfing! The absurdity of the idea was just too much for me to entertain it seriously. Now Sherman, let’s spin the dial forward on the wayback machine to a few years later…

I’m on a project that is going down in flames. It’s bad, really bad. Teams encounter impediments that bring development to a complete stop. We can’t resolve them ourselves, and dutifully escalate the impediments to executives for help. We meet with the executives, explain the problems and the proposed solutions…and get nothing. It’s like reliving the titanic disaster. Somebody shouts “iceberg!” and the executive team continues to drive the ship right into the berg. We’re all going down together and some asshat is playing a violin the whole time.

As a scrum master I screamed, I hollered, I made noise. I did everything I could to draw attention to the problem. However somehow I failed. I went over it time after time trying to work out what I could have done differently. I felt like Robin Hood Daffy, “Ho! Ha ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!” …and then there is that bit where Daffy Duck gets the quarterstaff right in the kisser. Every time.

Recently I was dealing with another project in trouble. The backlog was empty. Again, the team and the scrum master did a terrific job of identifying the problem and escalating the issue to management for help. Again, it was acknowledged and ignored. Yes, thank you very much, now go back to work. However, this time, after the first pass didn’t fly I had an inspiration: I announced that if the team didn’t have a backlog ready for them by Friday, then I’m sending the whole team home.

Now, did I actually have the authority to do that? No. It didn’t really matter – everybody completely freaked out! Why doesn’t the team have a backlog? This is serious! The problem was sorted out in very short order and the team had their backlog.

I’ve decided that there is something about the common ways we communicate in some companies that makes us deaf. If you need help you can’t just tap someone on the shoulder and ask, because you will very likely be ignored. Dramatic actions like threatening to send the team home can serve a useful purpose within a company by getting everyone’s full focus and attention on an issue. Something about that kind of drama punches right through our collective apathy. That’s what happened in this case. It required a little boldness, a little courage, and perhaps a dash of mischief, but it got the job done.

#engagement #impediment #attention #executive #transparency

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