Great ScrumMasters Help Teams SWAT Their Actions

April 16, 2024
Great ScrumMasters Help Teams SWAT Their Actions

"My team don't complete their retrospective actions"

Failing to put improvement actions into practice is something I hear a lot about from team leads, ScrumMasters, even team members themselves. They invest their time in a meeting to identify improvements, they bravely explore their areas for improvement and then commit to doing something about it...but then don't.

"How can we stop this happening?" is something I get asked a lot.

I've found that great ScrumMasters have a number of tactics to help their teams be more effective in taking action and, as a result, get into a habit of continuous improvement. Teams are much more likely to act on their actions if they SWAT them:

  • Specific
  • Written down
  • Attractive
  • Tell somebody

You can get a video version of this blog post here

Make Them Specific

Lots of teams come up with something like "We should communicate better" and that's great. Better communication is almost always a good thing but that statement is too vague.

"Who do we need to communicate better with?"

"What do we need to communicate better about?"

"When do we need this communication to happen?"

These questions make this a lot more actionable and increase the likelihood that it will happen. Other questions that could help a team here are:

"How will we know communication is good enough?"

"What might stop you from being able to have this communication?"

"What's the smallest thing you could do to make progress in this area?"

"What could you do tomorrow?"

Once we have the specifics, great ScrumMasters tend to ask teams what they want to do with this - do they want to put it in the sprint backlog so it's not forgotten about?

Get Them Written Down

During their efforts to tackle areas of waste in the National Health Service (NHS), researchers made an interesting discovery about the power of ownership. Robert Cialdini discovered that General Practitioner (GP) offices could reduce the number of DNAs (did not attends / no-shows) by 18% simply by asking the patient to personally write down the appointment date instead having of the receptionist write it [Ref: Influence: Science and Practice, Cialdini, R. B., 2001, Pearson Publishing].

It turns out that patients are more likely to keep their commitments if they are actively involved in making them. The physical act of writing it had a material effect on them keeping their commitments. Cialdini attributes this to peoples' desire to act consistently with their view of themselves.

Scrum teams are no different. I’ve noticed that Scrum teams who write down their actions are much more likely to abide by and hold themselves accountable to them. Great facilitators are aware of the "power of the pen" and ensure they aren't the one always writing things down - especially when it comes to commitments. If I write down what I am going to do then that is a commitment I have made. If someone writes it down for me, then that is a commitment they have made for me.

Make Sure They Are Attractive

One of the biggest factors that affects the chances of teams taking action is the lack of understanding about the value that this effort provides. In short, why should they bother doing it? Changing habits, behaviours or practices takes time and effort - both physical effort and mental effort (sometimes emotional too). So there must be a benefit to doing so.Great ScrumMasters ensure that teams, and individuals, are clear on what's in it for them.

  • "What do you hope to achieve from improved communication?"
  • "Tell me about a future sprint where communication is perfect. What happens? How do you feel about that?"
  • "Tell me the story of the next sprint if you make no change. How will you feel if you come to the next retrospective and you haven't made the change?"
  • "Who else stands to benefit from you making this change? Why is that important to you?"

These are some example questions that great ScrumMasters ask their teams to help them clarify why doing something is important or why doing nothing is not a great idea.

Tell Somebody

"My word is my bond"

Making a verbal commitment to improvement actions increases the likelihood of them happening. If I say out loud that I am going to do something, I'm more likely to do it. Part of this is down to feeling accountable to that individual (even if that person has no authority over us) but part of it is a sense of personal responsibility to live up to the kind of person we believe we are.

Are you the kind of person who keeps their word?

This feeling is increased dramatically if the person we are verbalising our commitment to is someone I care about and whose opinion of me I respect. For example, when I was undergoing physical therapy after my knee operations I was required to do multiple exercises every day. I hated doing them and so would probably have skipped doing them if it were not for two things I did. Firstly I wrote out my schedule of exercises and secondly I told my two children that these were the exercises I needed to do in order to fully recover quickly and when I needed to do them. I asked them if they would keep me accountable - and of course they loved having the opportunity to tell Daddy off!I didn't want to be the kind of Daddy who appeared lazy or who didn't keep their word.

Of course the keen-eyed among you will notice that by doing this I also made it more attractive to myself. By explaining to my children why I needed to do them, I was also explaining to myself why it was important.

Great Scrum Masters are great facilitators.

Great Scrum Masters know they cannot rely on authority or forcing people to do something. They also realise that people WANT to improve but sometimes it is hard and we forget, or other things happen so they work out ways that teams can make it easier for themselves to do what they want and need to do.

You might also find this video about Coaching For Change helpful.


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