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Bringing a Dev Team Together with Glue and Sparkles – Ok, Not Really

Let me start by saying that I am super perky. Not simply a “morning person.” Not just that one person that sings Happy Birthday the loudest over the cake and gets the card and gift bag with the most glitter on it – although both those types do apply to me. No, I mean, I am the kind of chipper that has been described as “constant,” “unshakeable” and on one particular occasion for a different blogpost, “insufferable.”

With my first team that I joined as Scrum Master, I came in knowing nothing about their product and mostly nothing about their client. But I was optimistic, of course, and was ready to inundate them with my motivating cheeriness. After all, I had a management background. I knew how to bring a team together and to coach individuals to improve. I assumed this experience wouldn’t be much different.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time digging through data and learning about the client from sales and the program managers. For the Scrum team, I cheered achievements that I didn’t have a full appreciation for and introduced a lot of clapping during stand-ups.

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This is basically me in every meeting.

Eventually, I realized I was being mostly useless and – I’ll say it – too loud. I was learning about their work as if I was two levels removed from it; I was instigating changes that overall would snap us into shape and get us some organization, but we still didn’t feel like a fit.

So, while I kept applauding our progress, I began observing not just the team, but each team member and his relationship to the other. We started out as a scrappy bunch: three developers and a QA analyst. The team had been formed before I started, but there was no cohesion. I realized that, when I joined them, I was not alone in feeling new and awkward. My entire team was trying to figure out how to…well…be a team.

Before my gig as Scrum Master, I spent most of my professional career in management, head down in progress reports and monthly goals, head up through tough conversations and mitigating customer heat. But my favorite part, as you might have guessed, was the team. Everyone had their own goals, their own personalities, and, as luck would have it, a fierce loyalty and protectiveness of each other. We developed this over time and through some very stressful transitions. For my new Scrum team, they had their share of difficult transitions and high, borderline impossible expectations on them, but there was a lack of trust and foundation. There was definitely camaraderie and a sort of unity borne from their frustrations, but that was not the best thing to build success upon.

So, with the help of a mentor and the team’s own willingness to try new things, we decided that we needed to expose all the things that we were trying to ignore or hide: hidden work, old tickets, hours lost, incomplete requests, training needs that were not addressed, etc. It was all out there for us, the business stakeholders, senior management and the program management team to see. This was who we were: a group of highly skilled, overworked people  with too many demands on them and no confidence in the teams outside our own.

Looking back to my other roles, I think I did a fair job as a manager. I enjoyed helping people with their KPIs and studying their progress. I was fine in discussing monthly and quarterly goals handed down from executives or senior managers. I didn’t even mind the reviews and reports. But my Scrum Team taught me how to lead. They taught me that there was more to it than stepping into the chaos and throwing all of it on a KanBan board or changing iterations in TFS. Even though the board had fantastic avatars on it and the stories in TFS were riddled with motivational exclamation points, they needed more from me than a cheerleader and an organization guru. They needed a voice and open eyes that called out victories and failures alike to all teams, baldly and promptly. They needed more than “Let’s Consider This an Opportunity” talks and reports showing how hours were getting eaten up by a single project. So, after probably too much time, I realized this. I listened. I changed what they needed changing and argued with them and laughed with them and nerded out with them about upcoming Marvel movies. We became a team, and because I was extremely lucky, we became good friends too.

I thought I knew what leadership was before I joined my Scrum Team. I thought management and leadership were the same, or at least similar. But I was wrong – not because they’re different, but because in the end, it isn’t up to me to decide that I am a leader. It’s up to them. It’s up to the team. In so many things, from how they get the work done to where we go for happy hour, it should always be up to the team.

Glitter certainly helps, though.

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