The walls are glass, but you can’t come in

glass house

Sometimes teams have good times, sometimes they have bad times. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t. No matter how bad things get, it is important that they be transparent, always. The walls around the team are made of glass: information flows freely in and out. But we need to make sure that while they are made of glass, there are actually walls around the teams.

We can never forget transparency

Scrum talks a lot about transparency, and so it should. Transparency is extremely important. It underlies trust, honesty and respect.

Scrum is fundamentally a system of empirical process control. And empirical process control is about transparency (no hiding anything anywhere), inspection (make sure to look at the work at short regular intervals), and adaptation (be prepared to change the scope and manner of work based on transparency and inspection).

I make sure to always be transparent, especially about bad news. You should never hide it. I sometimes tell people joining my teams: “I don’t mind bad news, I hate surprises. If you have bad news, tell it to me as soon as you can, not at the last minute when everything is already pear-shaped”.

Of course, if we are doing visual management, co-located teams, information radiators and stand-ups, then any problems should surface themselves very quickly and not need to be “reported”.

We need to remember insulation

But there is an important corollary to transparency: insulation. The fact that teams should be left alone to solve their own problems. This is implied in the Scrum guide but not given enough emphasis.

It has this to say about the development team: “Development Teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work”. And “they are self-organizing. No one (not even the Scrum Master) tells the Development Team how to turn Product Backlog into Increments of potentially releasable functionality”.

Which is all great. But autonomy, empowerment, insulation: these are not part of the three core pillars of Scrum Theory (transparency, inspection, adaptation), nor are they anywhere in the five values of Scrum (Commitment, Courage, Focus, Openness and Respect).

Teams don’t need meddling middle-managers swooping in to solve problems. They are capable of figuring things out by themselves. And they will learn more and achieve more confidence, wisdom and self-respect by solving their own problems.

Sometimes they have to leave their area and go ask for help – especially when their problems are caused by organisational dysfunctions that are outside their zones of control. In older or larger organisations, this is often the case.

Low-hanging fruit that is within the team’s power to influence usually gets fixed up quick smart, especially if the team is practising Stop and Fix It and real, genuine Continuous Improvement (hint: it’s more than just retros). So sometimes they need to go knock on some doors and ask for forgiveness, permission… or both.

But most of the time, teams can figure things out for themselves. So let them do it. Don’t come in and audit them, don’t send them on training they didn’t ask for, and don’t force some pre-conceived generic tool or process on them that won’t necessarily suit their context.

Summary

Teams should say “we promise that we will be completely open and honest about everything that is going on with our work. And in return, you will promise to leave us the fuck alone.”

The team should be insulated from meddling by outside parties. They can and should be able to find solutions to their own problems. If they are genuinely stuck, and they really need assistance from people outside their influence, then they can go leave their glass house and ask for that help. Otherwise, remember this simple rule: the walls are made of glass, but you can’t come in.

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