How Are You ‘Protecting’ Your Team?

Growing up in my small, Texan town, I didn’t really have a care in the world. I played with G.I. Joe figures and crude lightsabers, but the world around me was very serene. Half a world away, Zainab Salbi was faced with a much different environment in Iraq.

As a child, “I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of explosions,” she said. “Everything was shaking.”

Salbi’s story, similar to many stories that we are hearing more of all the time, paints a picture of growing up in the midst of war. “I grew up with the colors of war,” she told NPR for TED Radio Hour.

Can you imagine trying to live a normal life in the midst of all of that?

Her mother, trying to shield her children from what was going on around them, created a parallel world. “In the middle of the sirens, would have all these puppet shows with her hands. Making all of these jokes, and we are just having fun actually.” It took a while for her to realize what all of those sounds meant.

While I can’t ever understand or compare what Zainab grew up in to anything I know, we see the colors of conflict every day around us on teams. The turmoil surrounding deliverables and deadlines aren’t physical explosions, but I can see the whiplash it can impose on teams I’ve led previously.

Scrum masters are called to protect the team from things like this, but as I listened to this podcast I wondered if we resort to puppet shows with our hands when pressure builds. Are we guilty of building parallel worlds around our teams to “protect” them?

How then can we truly define protection?

Would you be surprised to hear that the Scrum guide does not include the words “protect” or “shield” in any section? The closest reference is in the section about Scrum masters: “The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t.”

Neither do the 12 principles. It does reference a conducive environment, which could include this principle: “The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t.”

Since our holy scriptures don’t specifically call it out, how then are we to truly detail what healthy protection involves?

Default to less hand-holding.

This is the often over-used discussion of micro-management. Mike Cohn has encouraged us to “check in, not check up on” our teams, but that seems rather binary to me. I’ve experienced it to be more of a scale between the two ideas. Some situations call for standing back and letting the conflict happen, while others dictate a decision.

Self-organizing teams don’t always need a leader to stay in the background. As much as I like to stand back and let team members have it out over an issue raised during the stand up, eventually I have to step in. Sometimes this means adding fidelity to team deliverables and timelines. Others might involve suggesting what backlog items to address next.

I just don’t default to this stance in the beginning.

If you come in heavy-handed with a clear and defined method of working agreement, it doesn’t allow your team to put their personality and stamp on things. In a way, I feel like heavy hand-holding on teams communicate that I need to protect them from themselves. I’d rather step in only as a last resort.

Make conflict open, not in silos.

This list of ways to protect the team from NFL coach Pete Carroll makes absolute sense, but they all boil down to a single idea: pulling team strife out into the light.

I get that sometimes we don’t always personally like ever team member, so I appreciate individuals feeling safe enough to come to me with their issues with others on the team. However, I don’t feel right letting them gripe without consequences.

That means forcing them to repeat all of this to the other party. It means calling out strife during retrospectives. For sure it includes asking them to identify what their part is in the conflict.

Granted, this conflict must stay within the confines of your own team space. Airing laundry is fine in the midst of your own crew, but they will never talk to you again if you go running to their boss the entire time. That’s why, if conversation needs to be elevated  I let them know that up front.

Protecting the team needs to include partnering with management to level up all our careers, as long as you make that clear.

Protect the team from you.

Funny how this topic keeps coming up for me.

Earlier this year, Allison Pollard and I spoke to the Dallas Agile Leadership Network and Dallas Tech Fest about changing organizational mindsets. When it was announced that I was doing this at my company, many had questions. One manager even asked me what the 30-second version of talk was. Could I sum up how organizations are changing successfully today?

“Simple: own yourself and your own change if you want your company to,” I said.

Many leaders want to have a checklist of ways to protect teams, when most of the time they don’t see themselves as the biggest impediment to team safety. Outside stakeholders might pose threats from time to time, but are you creating some of your own?

If I can focus on delivering what my team needs from me every day — and stay out of their way at the same time — I’ve often done all that I need to keep them safe.

Protecting the team is inherent to leadership. Just make sure you’re creating a reality that’s real to do so.





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