Strategies for Managing Interruptions…for Reluctant Scrum Teams

summer-sunshine-alcohol-drink

Stop me if you have heard this before. No, really, please stop me. So there I am working to get a team launched using Scrum. They’re good folks, but frankly, they’re just doing what the boss said.

“We’re using Scrum. Tom is going to show you the ropes and get you started.”
“Right boss.”
“Training room down the hall on the right. 9:00AM sharp.”
“Got it boss.”

And so a rather wary-eyed crew shows up the next morning. As they sidle into the room we eye each other cautiously from across the conference table. I’ll admit it: I’m not feeling so hot. Combine all the glories of travel with a night in a Motel 6 and it makes a mean recipe for a mean trainer. I’m trying to guess if they are feeling as lousy as I am. Hard to tell. Maybe they always breathe through their mouths like that. I can already tell this is going to be a challenge.

So this is the part of the morning where I introduce them to ‘Satan’. No, it’s not what you think. Satan is what I call my trusty 300 page powerpoint deck that I use to break the will of my students and introduce them to the glories of Agile development. Here, have some pipe cleaners to play with while I’m talking. You can make a tiny little gun out of them and try to blow your own brains out before I finish these slides. Don’t say I don’t know how to have a good time in a meeting. Now where were we? Oh yes, here we go, slide 1…

Fifty shaky, sweaty minutes later (Dammit, where’s the coffee?), and the room full of 9 adult men is starting to look like something out of Glen Gary Glen Ross: The best thing these guys are going to get is a set of steak knives. The mood is getting ugly. We’ve just gotten to the part where I tell them that they are now part of a committed team. I can see their eyebrows shoot toward their hairlines when I say it. That’s right Judith, you only work for THIS team now. Nobody else.

The place immediately lit up like someone spitting cheap vodka on a campfire. In hindsight, I really should have seen this coming: a lot of these guys are from the operations team (for those of you new to software, operations is the software equivalent of the galley where we keep our slaves). Those guys work hard. Like breaking rocks hard. They’re interrupted so frequently, they’ll eventually get a new variety of Attention Deficit Disorder named after them. It’s merciless. If you don’t like it, no problem, we’ll find a replacement just like you.

So there I was telling them they have nothing to worry about, just tell the old boss that they’re Agile now. Yeah, tell ‘em Tom sent you. Agile teams are dedicated and can’t be pulled apart just for firefighting. Here I was, telling them that the nightmare was going to end. You’d think they’d thank me! Perhaps it was the hangover, but I just wasn’t picking up on the mood in the room with my usually alacrity. Note to self: next time stick with tequila.

So I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they fully expected to get pulled off of their work during the sprint for any number of unanticipated reasons. That was just the way things worked at this company. Managers felt perfectly entitled to pull you off a team any time they liked (after all, you were still “theirs”). This was the status quo here. It wasn’t unusual to have people who were over allocated by several hundred percent!

That’s right, it’s not just my poor alcohol addled recollection failing. These folks were expected to work simultaneously on 5 or more projects at any given time. Ouch! As I tried to tell them that was crazy, I could hear an all-too-familiar edge of hysteria creeping into their voices. Right then, it hit me like a pole axe between the eyes: I was explaining this to the wrong people! Finally sensing the disaster I was in danger of perpetuating, I did the only the only sensible thing one can do in a situation like this and beat a hasty retreat. That’s right, I needed to run away. Time for a distraction.

“Hey! I Know what to do! Let’s play a game!”
You see, when you need to distract a class and bail yourself out of a tight spot, nothing works quite as well as a game. As the team struggled to comprehend the arcane rules I’d just arbitrarily made up (I swear to God there was a beer game just like this in college) I racked my brains for ways to help these poor bastards out.

I was only confident of two things:

1) Talking to the managers would serve little or no useful purpose. Besides, I’d done that already. Just between you, me, and Machiavelli: it’s a total waste of breath. Most managers (and I speak here from experience) are normal, perfectly well meaning people, who have had the learning centers of their brains completely erased by the non-stop firefighting, infighting, and general chaos of their jobs. The average manager’s brain is like the surface of a cheap George Foreman grill: nothing sticks. But don’t despair quite yet, because there is a ray of hope…

2) Managers can be trained. I know: I used to train rats.

You see if they won’t willingly change their behavior, you can always change your own behavior. This is key to understanding change and cultures. Something has to change if you are going successfully introduce a new process (wow, that’s so utterly obvious I just got a sharp pain between the eyes). The bad news is change is hard – wicked hard. I think need a drink just contemplating change sometimes (I guess that makes me either a change agent or an alcoholic). But rather than obsessing on how to change the other guy, focus on changing yourself. Then you let them figure out how to react.

Re-energized, I finished the “Intro to Satan” for the day, kicked them out of the office, and went to do some thinking. I needed some inspiration.

Fortunately the bar wasn’t far away. Using that little epiphany as a starting point, I sat down and started writing a list of all the things that the team could do to help deal with their interrupting managers on the back of a beer coaster. It went a little bit like this (I started with the hardest one first):

  1. Say ‘No’: Yeah, I can’t say it either. It takes some practice. Repeat after me: NNNNnnn…uh,nnnuhhhhh, Nuuh, Nuuuoooo, Noo! Come on now, I know you can do it!
  2. Use Buffers: Use a time honored way of protecting schedules and buffer the heck out of yours. As soon as they figure out what you are doing, they’ll leave you alone. Well, if they are smart they will. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Use your Sheepdog: You have this wonderful creature armed with a mouthful of sharp teeth that lives to protect you from outside influence: the scrum master. Use ‘em.
  4. Cover your Buddies: If your team mate is in danger of getting nabbed, stick up for them! A chorus of “No!” is much more powerful than a piteous lone ‘no…’
  5. Escalate: Hey, use the bureaucracy for what its really good for: aggravating others.
  6. Abnormal Sprint Termination: this is a curious bit of scrum geekery that you don’t see very often, but it could work. Threaten sprint termination. Better yet, let the scrum master do it. They LOVE that kind of thing. Makes their whole day.
  7. Automate, Automate, Automate: Did I mention automate?
  8. “Tom said…” That’s right – blame it on me! It’s my fault. I admit it. I told you to say “No.” So go ahead, fire me.
  9. Working Agreement: OK, admittedly this is the most tepid offering of the bunch. But it could work, right? Put together some sort of working agreement with the managers in question. Of course that would involve communication and cooperation, and I hate the idea already. But it might work.
  10. illegible…note to self: never rest your beer on your work.

So here’s the bottom line:
Sometimes if your managers won’t change their behavior (and frankly, why should they?) then you may need to change your own behavior. You’ve got to give ‘em a reason to change. That’s what these suggestions provide – small changes in your behavior that will require changes in the organizational response.

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