Intercultural Scrum Clinic, huh?

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn, December 16, 2017.

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Intercultural. Scrum. Clinic. I know this sounds really weird and it looks like here is an unlikely marriage between partners of at least two very different worlds. Well, yes, but it makes sense. And it works.

Here is how to make it work, in nine meditations.

1.

A clinic is where you get your vaccinations. The clinic staff knows exactly what kind of health hazards loom over you, in the particular season you are in, and seen the current circumstances. But do not worry, for the clinic has the perfect antidote. The clinic prevents you from getting ill.

Or, a clinic is where you go to when something is the matter. In the matter, there is no guilty party. The great thing about a clinic is that it is a place where you are safe and there won't be a fight. There is no blaming your tummy for hurting you - nor blaming you for hurting your tummy. It hurts, it gets diagnosed, it gets treated, period. And in the end, maybe, you somewhat alter your behaviour, because you have learned.

And, yes, throughout the process, you grow and you become stronger, and wiser (I hope), and better equipped for whatever is coming your way.

2.

Everyone can read the Scrum Guide. It is online. Here are three excerpts from #theScrumGuide:

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.

The essence of Scrum is a small team of people. The individual team is highly flexible and adaptive. These strengths continue operating in single, several, many, and networks of teams that develop, release, operate and sustain the work and work products of thousands of people. They collaborate and interoperate through sophisticated development architectures and target release environments.

Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team.

... But most of all ... Scrum is simple. ... Scrum is difficult.

3.

It is clear that Scrum is all about teams. And teams should be cross-functional, because this is, among much else, what optimizes flexibility, creativity, productivity, velocity.

Now, cross-functionality is a specific form of diversity.

Hey, wait a minute. Come again? - Cross-functionality is just a specific form of diversity, because diversity is not about minorities or gender or physical ability or sexual preference or belief system or ethnicity or national background.

Diversity is about culture. All of us have culture: it is the product of our upbringing, our environment, the people we have met with and lived with and conversed with, our experiences, and the values and rituals that have come to settle deep within us as a consequence of all this and more. In this sense, culture is a very personal matter, different for every individual and existing on a level far deeper than conventionally thought of or even imagined. Culture, it turns out, is much less about belief than it is about experience and practice, and less about geography than about communities and circles.

Now, cross-functional teams contain members from a variety of (educational, professional) circles. This variety is considered to be wholesome. Raise the variety, increase the wholesomeness.

Thus, diversity is a power engine of the Agile team.

4.

However, when working in a team, cultural diversity sometimes really hurts. For this reason, conventionally, cultural diversity is identified as an impediment. Or even as a problem. Impediments are those things that we want to get rid of - and problems are pieces of nastiness waiting to be solved.

This is not what an Intercultural Scrum Clinic is all about. Rather, the opposite. An Intercultural Scrum Clinic helps the team members discover that cultural diversity is neither an impediment nor a problem. Cultural diveristy is an opportunity. Cultural diversity, in fact, is essential to an Agile team.

An Intercultural Scrum Clinic can be set up in any team. It is a format that thrives on the team's intercultural competencies in order to get better at Agile, and makes liberal use of concepts and components of agility to get better at intercultural competencies - always keeping in mind that intercultural agility enhances velocity, and therefore output.

5.

But first things first. Before running a clinic, we need to study diagnostics. We need to describe "culture". Describing culture, however, is tedious, sensitive, and prone to endless debate. Through the years, I have come to utterly dislike, and therefore avoid, the traditional culture-in-business categories and denominators (Hofstede, Trompenaars, tah-tah-tah): they are top-down, they tell people what and how they are or what and how they ought to be. They are divisive, oppressive - and shamelessly generate or thrive on stereotypes. Worse: they define culture purely geographically, if not nationally. In Agility, like in the real world of human communities, there are no (national) borders.

Ideally, teams come up with their own cultural waves - taken from their own team dynamics and business practice. Most of the teams I have been working with are very intercultural, often the product of outsourcing ventures with consultancy firms in and from India, always absolutely multi-lingual and sometimes affected by a history of being challenged by location, dislocation and distribution. To facilitate identification of a team's cultural waves, I use a variety of so-called liberating structures, often inspired by or taken from Games for Actors and Non-Actors by the late maestro Augusto Boal (London: Routledge, 1992) - a true classic, for the activities in which Boal coined the unforgettably attractive word gamesercises.

Typically, after some time and cautious but purposeful facilitation, teams end up with something that might look like this:

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Cultural waves are journeys between extremities. The team members have jointly identified a set of these, thought to be relevant in their work. Sometimes, a little help of the facilitator is needed in order to translate stories into concepts. Quite on purpose, this is not a "we value what's on the left but prefer what's on the right" kind of story. For now, let free choice rule. Every position is a valuable position.

In the above cultural river, there are nine concurrent waves, and every team member is enabled to have a view on where her individual position on each wave would be. Of course, there are many more possible waves - the idea is to create a workable set. In a set of nine, as above, for every team member there are 9! or 362,880 possible combinations - but in reality there are many many more, since a wave is not a binary concept with an on/off button, but a fine-mazed grid. The point is that each individual has her own unique cultural river section, a highly personal ID card of who he is, how she works, how he interacts, what she expects.

6.

An intriguing by-product of working with cultural waves is their mappability on organisational cultures. I often ask the teams I work with to gain practice with these mapping possibilities in the context of receptivity to Agile, for this provides great additional insight, both in the concept of culture and in what Agile is all about.

Here, for instance, is how a team in Brussels decided to combine the cultural waves of context sensitivity and time orientation with mechanistic, linear systems versus complex adaptive systems - representing the paradigm shift introduced by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) and re-discovered for agilists and scrummers by Tobias Mayer in The People's Scrum: Agile Ideas for Revolutionary Transformation (San Francisco: Dymaxicon, 2013).

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From mapping exercises like this, team members learn to understand their own feelings and emotions in an Agile world - and they learn how to deal with colleagues who are ostensibly "different".

7.

But about difference, there is more to learn. Working in a team, even if on a common journey or for a common goal, always generates friction - and friction always has a cultural aspect to it. As said, the idea of the Intercultural Scrum Clinic is not to ease the tension using some kind of external cure, but to transform the cultural part of friction, from within, into velocity-enhancing opportunities, into relentless and continuous improvement, into forever kaizen. To achieve this, we use Agile - or more in particular we turn to the five core values of SCRUM (#theScrumGuide).

  • Focus - for, sometimes, the hardest part on the road to continuous improvement is being able to identify situations to be improved upon
  • Openness - for there is no point in visiting a clinic and then refrain from showing who and how you are
  • Courage - for sometimes matters of culture are sensitive and one might think it is easier to avoid discussing them altogether
  • Commitment - for continuous improvement is impossible without the team members being strongly committed to this idea
  • Unconditional respect - needed to practise conversations among equals, without pressure nor desire to change one another, but both working towards ever better agility in coping with and responding to change (of whatever nature, including changes in our Self)

This might all seem very nice and straightforward and well - but reality has taught me it isn't. So many members of SCRUM teams have never even heard of such a thing as #theScrumGuide, let alone the values it propounds. As it is, this step often needs a facilitator with quite a bit of imagination. In my experience, an active, sometimes confronting storytelling workshop combined with metaphors taken from the team members' family life, is a good first attempt to get the values in place. And in place they need to be, for we are going to use them intensively during the next step.

8.

The Intercultural Scrum Clinic proper is a template for proximity dialogues with disseminating power into the team. It took me a whole lot of experimenting and practice to come up with a fitting choreography for these dialogues. But after some time a pattern gradually took shape: a series of quick, short iterations, each with a particular conversational assignment, disseminating intercultural competencies and Agile kaizen with the speed of ... (wrong word!) ... a virus.

Where the assignments are chosen and the dissemination process is choreographed by the facilitator, and while the conversations are performed by the team members, the general kaizen pattern follows a particular structure, comparable to (but not identical with) the #improvementkata as described by Mike Rother in Toyota Kata (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2009)

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In this, excitedly working together ideally is a True North; the current condition is a (culturally defined) story lived by the participants in the dialogue and identified by them as to be improved upon; the bumpy road represents the journey towards improvement; which is impeded by a treshold of knowledge, in other words: our limited knowledge and understanding of each other's culture, the yellow border of which needs to be pushed forward in order to liberate the participants from them being oppressed and locked-in by stereotypes and misunderstandings. Pushing forward the treshold of knowledge enables space in which to experiment with re-assigning cultural obstacles into cultural opportunities - allowing the participants to describe a viable and attainable target condition en-route to the True North.

9.

The Intercultural Scrum Clinic process, if launched timely and sensibly, and when introduced by a keen and interculturally skilled Agile facilitator, has proven to be a very powerful tool, enticing Scrum teams towards unexpected levels of self-organised intercultural maturity and fun, with demonstrable impact on velocity and quality of shipped products.

Moreover, here is a fitting answer to the well-documented "diversity conjecture", still thought of, and taught, as holy scripture in many a business school or university college ("non-diverse teams perform well sooner, but diverse teams perform better after some time"). In fact, the diversity conjecture has never been more than just that - a conjecture: an educated guess. (I have written more on this here)

With Intercultural Scrum Clinics up and running, the diversity conjecture can be sent packing. As of now, diversity is neither a problem nor a conjecture. Diversity, at last, is shown to be an essential feature of any truly successful team.