Leader-less Scrum?

Is your Scrum vocabulary missing the word “leader”? Is the idea of recognized leaders something you think belongs to the waterfall world, not agile?

Some people were trained that in Scrum the only acceptable uses of leader refer the Scrum Master’s servant leadership or Dev team members’ situational leadership. Do you have a vague sense that calling someone a leader somehow violates agile principles?

In a way, this is understandable: the word leader only occurs once in the entire Scrum Guide, and then only in reference to servant-leadership. That might imply that agile teams shouldn’t have recognized leaders.

We value servant leadership and support members taking on situational leadership–AND we also believe these can’t be the only kinds of leadership on a team. A high-performing team also needs a recognized leader.

We agree that in a Well-Formed Team[1], each member is willing and able to step up to situational leadership as needed to “take point” in confronting an issue

However it’s unrealistic to expect a new team, or a team that’s just undergone significant membership or Mission changes to smoothly flow into situational leadership

In fact we’d argue that a team’s agility can be impeded if we overload them with the expectation that they act without the support of a recognized leader

Hypothesis: An agile team needs effective, designated and recognized leader(s), in order for the team as a whole to gain the maturity necessary for situational leadership to take root and flourish

Corollary: The development of agile teams and the development of individual leaders go hand-in-hand.

  • Agile methodologies like Scrum aim at developing Well-Formed Teams, described in detail in Our White Paper
  • It’s easy to recognize a Well-Formed Team: it’s a team that responds collaboratively and creatively to new, challenging situations.
  • It’s not easy to create a Well-Formed Team: they don’t just pop up spontaneously. No matter how smart and committed individual team members may be, they won’t spontaneously self-organize into a WFT without certain key ingredients
    One of them is effective leadership: this is something we discuss in detail in Our Leadership White Paper
  • Think about how teams mature. Think of what it takes to guide a soccer team in growing from a collection of rookies who don’t know each other to a well integrated unit capable of flowing up and down the field in response to the shifting rhythms of play, switching positions when needed, tracking movement up and down the field.

Nobody would think about greeting a collection of new high school players on the field on the first day of training, handing them the NFHS soccer rule book, and wishing them luck in self organizing, and walking off the field to leave them alone. Nobody would imagine that a sports team will spontaneously self-organize without a great deal of attention, support, and discipline from a leader called a Coach.

The same is true of a Scrum team. And just like a good Coach evolves his or her role as their team matures, the same is true on a Scrum team. Depending on your organization, the Coach might be the team’s Manager, its Scrum Master[2], or its Product Owner[3]. It may be someone playing more than one of these roles! The Manager and Scrum Master may co-lead to Coach the team forward.

My point isn’t your particular organizational design: my point is that for the team members to focus on refining their individual skills, and then to begin developing collaborative skills, requires someone to “own” keeping the big picture in mind and providing guidance, orientation, and ensuring accountability. And that’s the leader. For more details, read Our White Paper!

Notes and Sources

1-3 “Well-Formed Team,” “Scrum Master,” “Product Owner.” Accessed June 26, 2019. https://scrumdictionary.com.