Evolution of a Scrum Team

Posted by Keith McMillan

January 14, 2016 | Leave a Comment

I’m once again coaching teams using the Scrum process for agile development, and it occurs to me that many of these teams go through an evolution, similar to the “Five Stages of Grief.” I thought it might be interesting to present here for you a coaches view of team evolution, in the hopes that it might prove useful to another coach, or to a team that is particularly introspective and interested in the journey.Stage 1: Hubris

The first stage I encounter on many teams I will call, for lack of a better word, hubris.  In this stage, teams think “We’re doing great, we’re being really agile!” when in fact they have some agile trappings, but have missed some of the deeper practices. I see this a lot with teams that are coming to agile from an even less structured approach (or no approach at all) to software development process. This stage is a little tricky for a coach to distinguish from a truly evolved Scrum team, but a deeper inspection of the practices of the team will reveal whether the team is in the stage.

Some indicators of the hubris stage are teams that have sprints, but perhaps they are varying lengths. Teams in this stage are typically not performing some of the standard Scrum ceremonies or practices, or if they are, they aren’t effective. For instance the team may not be estimating their stories, or measuring their velocity. As a result, they can’t predict very well, and their release planning will be a major indicator. Teams in the hubris stage may not be having retrospectives, or if they are, typically will not be identifying significant changes to their own ways of working to improve their effectiveness (because “hey, we’ve got this!”).

I’ve had success coaching teams out of hubris with gentle guiding, asking questions such as “ok, well, how’s your velocity?” or “what did your team identify as changes to their behavior as part of the last retrospective?” This will typically bring a team in Hubris up short, as they realize they haven’t been looking at this information, and so can’t answer the question.  Teams in this stage seem to respond well to the coach “making some incremental changes” to help them, which when the coach focuses on and improves the deficient practices, reveal to the team what they’re missing. Another technique is to bring to the team “what others in the industry are doing” as a way of illustrating what may be missing. Relying on the Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto, and asking how the team is acting relative to them, is also a useful technique.

Stage 2: Adrift

The adrift stage is characterized by a team that needs a fairly large amount of guidance around the standard Scrum practices. This may be a team that is new to Scrum, or one that has moved out of Hubris and needs some guidance on particular practices. Teams in this stage are characterized by the phrase “How do we…” for instance “How do we decompose a story to fit into a single sprint?”

Teams in the adrift stage tend to need a firm hand and I advocate stricter adherence to “typical industry Scrum practices” at this stage. Teams in this stage are still learning the practices, and while they may learn to customize without doing harm later, in this stage they should stick with the industry standard.

Stage 3: Asking Permission

Teams that are beginning to understand agility may pass through the stage of needing permission to change. This stage is exemplified by the phrase “Can we…”, for instance “Can we have our retrospective the day before the end of the sprint, in order to account for off-shore resources?” A team in this stage understands what’s being asked of them, but not if they’re really allowed to do it, or if they way they think it should be done is acceptable. Teams in this stage are responsive to coaching, because they are looking for permission, and the coach can provide that permissions. Based on their experience and knowledge of the industry, the coach can also provide guidance on whether the teams suggested approach is in keeping with Scrum practices, or not. As they gain understanding of what the implications of the practice are, they will naturally evolve into the next stage.

Stage 4: Asking Guidance

Teams that reach the asking guidance stage are characterized by the question “What would happen if we…” These teams have assumed the responsibility for making their own changes, and understand the process well enough to make these changes successfully. They may ask a coaches guidance to understand if other teams have tried what they are considering, and what the outcomes might be, but can act in the absence of this input to make changes. This in my experience is the highest level of evolution of a Scrum team.

Much like the stages of grief, the evolution of Scrum team is not linear, and teams may move backwards as well as forwards. Coaches should look at the indicators to adapt how they coach the team, as the approach will vary based on what stage the team is currently in.


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