2 September 2016

What and Why You Ask Is Very Important!

I was shouting "do not give out the solution"! The worst part was that I shouted right at the beginning of the meeting. I felt like I was derailing the meeting even before it even started and I wasn't very happy about it. Before getting into what happened consequently to make me do this, let me tell you the whole story.

In a meeting that I was part of, the facilitator was asking participants to make a fan. It wasn't a norm for people to make fans while in meetings at an IT firm1. Most people looked confused, they were just looking at each other and no single sign of creating fans was on the horizon. At that moment, one of the participants took the initiative and started to guide the others on how to make a fan. Let's call him Strive. Strive was telling people in detail what they need to do; That they are going to pick their favorite color paper, any color that they want, fold the papers, glue them together and then glue a piece of stick to them; and the result would be a fan.

Don't we all like being told what to do? And in detail? This was when I felt the urge to say something. I raised my voice to stop Strive on providing one of the possible solutions. Then I brought out my cell phone and loudly said to myself: “I don’t know how to make a fan… but I am going to search how to make one.” This was followed by one of the participants asking if they are allowed to use their phones. The answer was yes. The crowd then became busy, everyone with his/her own style of coming up with a fan. Fifteen minutes later, everyone made a fan. I think it’s important to mention that not even two of them were the same. One person used staples instead of glue to make fans2. Another one didn't fold the papers at all. One person decorated her fan with drawings, another one used a prototype on a plain paper to test his skills and the outcome before committing to creating the fan.

The followings are some of the fans created by the individuals.

Let's think what would have happened if Strive continued leading the participants on. People in the room probably would have followed his instructions or most of them at least. I predict that most of the fans would have looked similar to each other as a result of following same steps. What about taking ownership and being proud of what you’ve created? Would you think that they could have been proud of what they have built? Proud of the thought and craftsmanship they put in? Would you ponder if there is any pride following the instructions blindly?

What has happened in the room was magical3. Everyone have been given the freedom to explore, try and come up with what they think a fan is and to create one. Every person came up with a solution, which to them was the ideal one. No one was feeling confused on what to do or how to follow the instructions. You could have seen people asking questions from each other and bouncing back ideas. At the end, everyone presented their fan with a happy face and took a group photo with their fans running!

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that you have asked the team to create a fan with detailed instructions instead of telling them why you need the fan? What do you think you are losing in that process? What are the drawbacks of telling them the detailed instructions of what to build versus telling them why you need something and let them come up with a solution?

Have you ever considered what the collective brain power of a team can accomplish? The participants demonstrated that they could all create fans in different shapes and forms individually. If put together, with good facilitation techniques to harmonize and to help them brainstorm in order to build on top of each other’s ideas, they could have created a fan they could all be proud of. That's the power that which comes from and relies upon the team; I am calling it team thinking.

People that we are working with are all intellectuals, thinkers, capable of making judgments, criticizing and innovating. What makes us great is the power of relying on, trusting and understanding each other’s needs. And it’s only then that we can use our greater collective team thinking to make something exceptional.

This article is a great life example of why Product Owners are being asked NOT to provide HOW in writing user stories (i.e. product backlog items). The HOW was the detailed instructions provided by Strive. Let the team know WHY and WHAT you are looking for and they will creatively provide you with the HOW. WHY could be that you are hot and WHAT could be that you need a hand-held device4.

1 At a financial IT firm, to be more precise.
2 This might have been a result of the glue gun becoming the bottleneck.
3 Please note that I am not saying it is hard to achieve.
4 Can you even leave the WHAT to the team? Is it enough to give them WHY you need something?


  1. (Disclaimer: I have my CSM certificate which does not a Scrum Master make. I also have not yet had the privilege to work in an Agile environment or on a Scrum team. If there are significant pieces of the puzzle I am missing here please educate me.)

    Interesting post Shahin. I am curious where does the concept of Shared Vision between Product Owner and the development team come into play in this example and to what level of conceptual granularity do you drive to? There is a lot of freedom for creativity in the example you lay out here. I think there is significant danger of waste here also. One of the risks in defining a vision is that of the vision creator not bringing out of their brain enough of the picture so that there is a Shared Vision. I think the facilitation skills of a Scrum Master can become very valuable in in Vision Creation or at least, the connection of Shared Vision between the PO and the developers.

    In your example of "WHY could be that you are hot and WHAT could be that you need a hand-held device." Does the source of the "hot" need to be addressed, as there are a wide range of implicit assumptions in using that term? If the source of "hot" is that the heater is on, then the solution will be totally different in form and intent.

    How do you navigate these waters to ensure enough clarity and at the same time provide enough room for creativity and magic? Does the Scrum Master even have a role in this process? Does the Scrum Master facilitate some aspects of creativity or just make sure the team stays within the rails of the Agile mindset?

    1. First of all, I am very glad to hear that a CSM does not make a good Scrum Master. It is just the beginning of a journey and not the end goal. I am very happy to hear you are looking for learning and becoming not a good one but a great one.

      I would say that Vision is one of the most important tool for a product owner. He/She needs to make sure every actions he/she makes or any actions taken is aligned with the Vision.

      It is very important for the team to have a clear understanding of the Vision. I do agree, that transmitting the Vision to the team, will definitely benefit from someone who is expert at facilitation. If the team understands the Vision, they feel more empowered. It will then help them to eventually feel more like players than pawns. It is a great path for create a high performing team (side note).

      In this specific example, I left if vague on what the Vision is. If the Vision is to make our customer more comfortable in their environment, then having a fan might be one option. As you mentioned, another option could be looking at the source of heat. Even, one might change the location of the customer, that might be a more convenient solution. It takes care of the heat and also add to the user experience.

      It’s a delicate task to navigate these waters. That’s why is very important to have a neutral person by your side (e.g. an Agile Coach). He/She can help with pointing out if you are telling the solution instead of letting the team come up with the solution. Remember, there is no innovation comes your way, if you tell what exactly you want. However, if you trust your team and communicate the Vision to them, you can rely on them to come up with a solution for your needs.

      I hope that this helps.

  2. Thanks for the response and feedback. I like the option of "change the location of the customer" which is a more holistic point of view.

    Is Scrum Master and Agile Coach the same thing in your mind? They are not the same for me. SM has a narrower focus, AC has a much broader focus. Do you see facilitating the communication of the vision to the team as an appropriate role for the Scrum Master?

    Might you have any tips or resources that would help me improve my neutrality skills? I do not have any formal facilitation training.

    1. Not at all, I am glad you find this discussion valuable. In Scrum there is no Coach role, if you follow it by the book. However, in reality, there are so much changes need to happen that you need to focus one's efforts on the team and another person to the leadership outside of the team with a broader organizational focus. That's where your analogy of AC has a broader focus comes in play.

      On facilitating the communication of vision, the Scrum Master can help. He/She needs to make sure to stay neutral on communicating the message. The better approach will be to help the visionaries (e.g. Product Owner) to deliver the message to the team. The role of the Scrum Master (or an Agile Coach, if the Scrum Master is new) would be highlighted in this situation to empower the people to build new capabilities and skills.

      You can look at the resources section of my blog @ http://go.sheidaei.com/agileresources (There is a really great book listed called Facilitate with ease)