Building High-Performance Teams: A Scrum Master’s Guide to Addressing Organizational Dysfunctionality

Practical insights to help your team work effectively, avoid common mistakes and foster a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement.

Hrishikesh Karekar
6 min readMar 3, 2023

As organizations grow and change, they can often become dysfunctional. Teams need help to work together effectively towards common goals and stated objectives. As a Scrum Master, it's your job to identify and address these signs of dysfunctionality. In this article, we'll explore the top signs of organizational dysfunctionality and the steps a Scrum Master can take to address them.

Top Signs of Organizational Dysfunctionality

1. Poor Communication

Rita spots a potential challenge with the story Adam is working on as he talks about it in the daily scrum. She does not say anything as it's not "her story". Adam discovers the issues only after three days, which results in the team missing the sprint goal.

When team members struggle to communicate openly and effectively, it can lead to misunderstandings, mistakes, and delays.

2. Resistance to Change

When team members resist change, it can be difficult to implement new processes, tools, or methodologies that could help the team work more effectively.

Tom has been with the team for quite a while, and the current design templates are his brainchild. With the team looking to move to leaner documentation strategies, the design template is a critical bottleneck as it captures a lot of information that may not be relevant in an agile approach. However, Tom has been protecting the template with his life.

3. Lack of Clear Goals and Objectives

There is no real attempt between the team and the product owner — Suzanne, to define a sprint goal. Sprint planning is an exercise in capacity planning for the stories decided to be picked up by the product owner. More often, they are a crazy mesh of unrelated priorities.

When team members don't have clear goals and objectives, they may struggle to prioritize tasks effectively or to understand what they are working towards. The team often struggles with tradeoffs since the sprint goal is unclear.

One or more of these signs are often present and indicate dysfunctions within the team that need to be addressed. Given that a Scrum Master's primary role is to coach the team for high performance, these cannot be brushed aside.

The Scrum Master must make a concerted effort to address them.

Steps a Scrum Master Can Take to Address Dysfunctionality

1. Improving Communication

As a Scrum Master, regular team meetings like the daily scrum, sprint planning and others are an excellent place to coach the team and nudge towards better communication patterns. It also helps to encourage the use of collaboration tools like Mural or Miro for improved transparency and establish team norms around communication. Using team working agreements helps establish team norms around communication, especially if there are a lot of conflicts in the team with no immediate resolutions.

You should also request support from leadership to help establish and communicate the importance of communication throughout the organization.

2. Addressing Resistance to Change

If the team is new to Agile and Scrum, you should educate them on the benefits an agile approach brings and especially the importance of working with the right agile mindset.

They won't transform overnight. You need to start with minor changes to the team's processes or tools and be open to feedback from the team on these changes. Chart the course together with them.

It would be best if you also worked with leadership to help establish a culture of experimentation and continuous improvement throughout the organization. With their active support, the team can move forward.

3. Establishing Clear Goals and Objectives

Clarity is one of the five keys to a high-performing team, as identified by Google. The team needs clarity not just on what they need to achieve in the short term (sprint's goal) but also on the overall direction the product is taking. They need to be filled in on the big picture.

You must work with the Product Owner and other business stakeholders, including leadership, to ensure they actively engage with the team to share business vision and priorities as they evolve. Regular retrospectives help to reflect on progress and do any adjustments as needed.

The dysfunctions will not disappear immediately and magically. It will require understanding, persistence and constant nudging of the team towards better patterns to emerge from their dysfunctions.

The Pitfalls that are better avoided

1. Micromanaging the Team

Avoid micromanaging the team or dictating how tasks should be completed. The Scrum Master is not a ringmaster. Your role is to help them help themselves. You need to worth with leadership if required to ensure the team is empowered to make decisions and find their own solutions to problems. Please resist the urge to spoon-feed them !!

2. Not Addressing Root Causes

Avoid addressing only the symptoms of dysfunctionality rather than the root causes. Take the time to investigate and understand the underlying issues before implementing solutions.

Tom was very protective of the design template, and it was his source of pride. His pushback to the new template subsided when he was invited to participate in the group deciding on the new lean templates. It allowed him to contribute while uplifting his image as a software craftsman. He became one of the key ambassadors for the new lean templates.

Understanding and addressing the root causes is critical.

3. Overcommitting the Team

Avoid overcommitting the team or setting unrealistic goals. Work with the team to establish achievable goals and prioritize tasks effectively.

Suzanne, the product owner, was known for her ability to be a hard negotiator and a pusher. The scrum master has to work closely with her to ensure that the team is planning realistically based on history and available capacity.

One strategy that worked well for him was to give relevant comparisons to similar stories when Suzanne would argue about the effort required to finish a story. Relative sizing was intuitive, and it was easier to convince her with that rather than getting into arguments around detailed estimations that were always tricky.

4. Failing to Foster a Collaborative Culture

Be sure to foster a culture of collaboration and trust among team members. Work to establish an environment of openness and respect.

When Sarah joined the team as the new Scrum Master, she noticed team members were reluctant to speak up during meetings. Sarah encouraged open communication and collaboration by starting each meeting with a question — what is our biggest challenge today, and who can help? She used to work post the meeting to ensure that the team members got help from others by motivating others to help. Over time, the team members began to trust Sarah and each other, resulting in a collaborative working environment.

5. Neglecting Continuous Improvement

Avoid neglecting continuous improvement. Facilitate retrospectives and encourage the team to embrace the continuous learning and improvement mindset.

It does take effort to keep the retrospectives fresh and fun, and it cannot be the usual — what went well, what did not .. all the time. has tonnes of exciting ways you can conduct retrospectives.

At the same time, people lose interest in retrospectives because nothing comes out of them. As a Scrum Master, you need to ensure that 1–2 concrete actions are generated in the retro that is within the team's sphere of influence. Solving world hunger is not one of them (unless you work at the United Nations ;) )

The Wrap

As a Scrum Master, it’s important to be aware of signs of dysfunctionality in your team and take steps to address them.

By improving communication, managing resistance to change, and setting clear goals, you can help your team work more effectively towards achieving success.

Avoiding common pitfalls and creating a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement can benefit your entire organization. Don’t forget to enlist leadership support to reinforce these values.

Let’s nudge gradually but keep steering them towards becoming a high-performing team!

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