“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” -Viktor Frankl
A couple of months ago, my Agile coach gave me some constructive feedback (aka criticism) that really humbled me. It led to some positive improvements in the way I coach; I hope I am better for it.
Agilists are sticklers for continuous improvement. I would argue that principle number twelve of the Agile Manifesto – “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly” – is my primary focus as a scrum master. If I do nothing else for my current team, I hope that I foster a culture of inspection and adaptation. But while I stress this practice for the team, I often fail to apply it to myself.
Pride Before the Fall
What was the negative feedback? I had become an evangelist, and it wasn’t going well. I had pushed my team too far beyond their comfort zone by encouraging them to fail faster and do more experimentation. My attitude was clashing with the culture and the environment where I worked.
I have a particular brand of Agile that I encourage my teams to aspire to. I try not to compromise on this ideal; it can make me quite stubborn. My desire to be right and my certainty that I knew better blinded me to the fact that my team was not responding well. I was doing more harm than good. Without realizing it, I had drifted far away from the scrum master’s primary role – to serve the team in whatever capacity needed. I had been failing to meet them where they are.
Negative Feedback Hurts
Honest appraisals can be painful. At my current engagement, we spend a lot of time discussing the value of feedback; we stress that when receiving negative feedback, it is nearly impossible not to take it personally. Thankfully, this feedback was delivered to me on a Thursday afternoon, and I had the luxury of a long weekend to reflect on the new information and decide how to respond. I thought about John Boyd’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop, and decided to take my time processing before I changed my behavior.
Growth Comes in Your Reaction
When I arrived back at the office on Monday, I had a new strategy. Rather than assume I knew what the team needed, I would ask them. I met with the leaders to find out what they most wanted from me. The answers I got made me think of a graphic from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor:
The graphic is meant to guide us toward “Partnership,” but in trying to avoid “Micromanagement,” I had become more “Absentee.” I lacked sufficient curiosity because I was too focused on my own approach; I was ignorant of context. A scrum master is obviously not a manager, but there were strong parallels with my situation and the graphic. I had been insufficiently curious and collaborative. I had not tailored my methods to the current situation. That is the route I am trying to follow now.
Agile thrives on early and continuous feedback. Every Scrum ceremony integrates with an inspection and adaptation loop so that we can continuously evolve our way of working and make it a better fit for our context. Moments like this – when I receive critical feedback and build upon it – are my opportunity to similarly improve myself.