Dynamic Scrum Team Leadership

The most popular post in this blog, by far, is “Scrum Teams Have a Team Lead.” The hits from Google indicate that many people are trying to figure out the role of team leader when applied to Scrum. I have had one comment on the post expressing a negative opinion of not having a single person designated as team lead.

Let’s explore this discussion further in the context of last month’s (April, 2010)  Phoenix Scrum User’s Group meeting.

PhxSUG Meeting

We announced the meeting would be a participatory simulation of a Scrum project. About half of the people in attendance had never been to one of our meetings before and many of them were very new to Scrum. We were gratified that some came specifically to experience a Scrum simulation!

We started with a brief discussion of the Scrum framework, with it’s roles, cerimonies and artifacts. With that foundation set, we dove into the activity. The project was five Sprints of the Ball Point Game (PDF)

(Here is a video of the game in action. If you have not tried this game, I highly recommend it. If you watch the video, don’t say too much when you play the game the first time. Don’t give away the secrets too soon!)

All of the meeting attendees are one team. The goal, or “product,” of the team is to transfer as many balls as possible in the two minutes of a Sprint. Between each sprint, the team reviewed performance and planed the next sprint. We had great fun and the team successfully transported all but two of the balls on the last sprint!  We then did a bonus sprint with some “cheat codes” from me, the coach, to optimize the process.  We succeeded in getting all the balls through in the time allotted!


In our discussion after the game, we found some interesting points:

  • Changing even small things between sprints effected performance of the team in bad or good ways.
  • High communication was paramount.
  • Keeping a rhythm of movement in the whole team was important.

There were several other things learned, one of them was around leadership.  As the team was first getting organized for the first sprint, there was some chaos. Lots of people talking, pointing and throwing out ideas. Suddenly one of the participants spoke up and began speaking authoritatively about how the job should be done. The team followed, with some discussion, and the first sprint began. So, suddenly the team had a leader. Not by assignment but by personal energy and willingness to step up.

Dynamic Leadership

During the first planning period between sprints something interesting changed. Another participant pointed out a weakness and suggested a change to cover it. The team followed this suggestion as the previous “lead” blended into the team to make way for a new leader. This passing of leadership continued from sprint to sprint with different individuals teaching the team their ideas about how to improve and others volunteering into key roles. It was natural that the “Team Lead” changed as the needs of the team changed in the quest to improve.

This is dynamic changing of team leadership also happens in a Scrum team. Depending on the goals of a particular sprint, the team may look to the database administrator to lead or the user interface designer. Story to story, sprint to sprint the expertise needed by the “Team Lead” can alter. A team working well allows the currently needed leader to come to the front, and then fall back in favor of a new leader who has the talent or experience to handle the next focus.

When a team has an assigned Team Lead, this leadership adaptation is less likely to happen. Team members will not want to “attack” the assigned lead’s authority by stepping up. The team lead may not want to reveal “weakness” in a knowledge area and so will not allow another team member authority. Once a hierarchy is established, especially when established by higher authorities, it is very hard for those within the structure to alter their expectation of command and allow a better leadership pattern to emerge when needed.

In short, assigning a Team Lead and expecting that person to be appropriate in the role for the entire project is a form of “Big Design Up Front.” There are great Team Leads and managers that know how to foster leadership from team members. I am not denying that such excellence is possible. I am saying that such people are rare and anyone in that position must constantly push and pull against the cultural expectation that they are Lead and therefore must have the answers.

And The Team Shall Lead Themselves

Let the Team be the team lead. Then, the right leader will emerge at the right time as the team naturally strives to accomplish their work. I’ve seen it happen, just as it did the night we were throwing balls around, learning while laughing!

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