The Danger of Steamrolling Emotional State

A manager who is considering implementing Scrum might say, “I’m concerned about the loss of predictability in Scrum. Right now I can predict what the team is going to be doing six months from now because I have a Gantt chart that tells me what they are going to be doing. But once the team becomes self organizing, I lose this predictability.”

A Scrum coach might respond, “Actually, you can’t predict what the team is going to be doing six months from now. How often have you been surprised in the past? How often do you have to change the Gantt chart? You don’t have predictability; you just have the illusion of predictability. Scrum is more honest about how much you can predict. You should feel more comfortable when you convert to Scrum.”

This is an answer that I have given in the past. I’m rethinking it. I now think it’s wrong.

First, my answer denies the current emotional state of the manager. The manager is telling me that he’s comfortable. But I am telling him that he should not be comfortable.

Second, it also contradicts the manager’s feelings about working with Scrum. The manager says that he is concerned, and I am saying that he should not be concerned.

Third, it fails to really respond to the manager’s implicit request to address his concern. What do men or women want when they describe an emotional state?

In the absence of a specific statement to the contrary, I believe that he or she wants acknowledgment and acceptance. He or she does not want to be corrected or educated or argued with. If I steamroll the manager by telling him that there is no logical reason for concern, his negative emotional state remains. This is akin to telling Joe, who is afraid of flying, that he should not be afraid because planes are safer than cars. His fear of planes does not dissipate, no matter how illogical it might be.

I believe that one of the major reasons why Scrum implementations fail is that, feeling smart and righteous, we often steamroll expressions of emotional state. But these emotions remain. Their persistence creates hard-to-parse impediments to the success of Scrum.

Michael de la Maza

I am an agile coach and an angel investor. As an agile coach, I have consulted and trained at dozens of companies. Major agile coaching engagements have been with Paypal, State Street, edX, Carbonite, and Symantec. I typically begin with culture first and then proceed to process improvement and business results. I believe in a non-confrontational, non-coercive approach to change in which people are invited to be and act in a new way. This takes the pain out of agile transformations.

With Rob Rubin, an online education pioneer and the Founding VP of Engineering at edX, I recently created, an online agile education portal that we plan to grow until it has the best agile content and the best learning platform.