Coaching Hack: Scrum is a team sport.


I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of teams around the globe, one thing I always try to asses: “is this actually a team, or a group of individuals that all happen to report to the same person?” How do you asses that? What’s the difference between a group and a team? Here is the first question I ask, and one of the best ways I’ve found to determine “team-ness”.

“What are you all working on?”

Seems simple enough right? This is where the magic starts, the key to gaining new insights. Not by asking for them, but by making conversation and then gleaning what you need to know from those answers. This question usually get’s answered in one of two ways. Either, “we’re working on this and this..” (yay team!) or “I’m working on this”, “I’m working on such and such” and “I’m working on this..” in other words, each person is working on completely separate projects, goals, timelines. This is not a team.

As my friend David Koontz is fond of saying, “Scrum is a team sport”. Why is this important?

  • Teams reduce your bus factor
  • Teams carry and share the load
  • A team’s velocity is greater than the sum of the people’s individual velocity (or throughput)

What do teams look like?

  • A team has common goals and shared commitments
  • A team coordinates with each other daily (stand ups) and helps each other out.
  • Teams Pair. (see Ping-Pong pairing for more insights)
  • Teams are cross-functional (or at least should be) and are willing to roll up their sleeves to work outside of their area of experience. (note: I like to use area of experience over area of expertise or specialization because we are learning people, not insects with specializations)
  • Team’s check in with each other, ask each other questions, healthy teams are a safe place for the team members to work, make mistakes, and grow.

Does asking this one question, “What are you all working on?”, tell me everything I need to know about the team’s effectiveness, health and maturity – of course not, but I’ve found it to be a helpful shortcut.

Incidentally, another shortcut, if I’m curious about a company’s actual willingness to invest in their development teams: I ask what sort of hardware they’re working with, but let’s save that for another day!

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

What about you?

Have you found any shortcuts or coaching “hacks” when you’re meeting with or getting to know a new team or new organization? I’m really curious to know!


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About Caleb Jenkins

Caleb Jenkins is an international speaker, author and 6 time Microsoft MVP award recipient, he currently works for Solera as a Director of Software Development. An entertaining and informative speaker who approaches software from a fresh perspective that spans UX, agile practices and technologies for enterprise customers from across the globe. Leading UX product design teams, coaching multi-team agile transformations and architecting and mentoring at some of the largest companies in the world, As a long time community leader and former Microsoft Developer Evangelist, Caleb is well known for his engaging speaking style, depth of knowledge and creative energy. Founder and Principal Mentor of Proaction Mentors, former UX Manager and Agile Coach, Senior Architect for Six Flags Corporation, Product Architect on a Cloud Marketing Platform, Caleb has made a career out of empowering others while building products and teams that delight customers and solve business needs. You can follow him on twitter (@calebjenkins) or his blog, and if you're still reading this, then you could also subscribe to his blog RSS feed or sign up to receive updates by email