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The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about a ninja is the movie “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” – the 1990 version, not the 2014 reboot. Modern culture views a ninja as a sort of super hero. According to Wikipedia, a ninja (or shinobi) was a covert agent or mercenary in feudal Japan. Folklore depicts the ninja as having legendary and often supernatural abilities. Sound like any Scrum Master you know?

The Scrum Master ninja

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted by the team, and also helps those outside the team interact with the Scrum Team in a way that maximizes the value created by the team. Sound like a ninja yet? Well, the Scrum Master also… wait for it – facilitates Scrum ceremonies. Now does it sound like a ninja? No? OK, another key focus of the Scrum Master is to remove impediments and distractions that might negatively impact the team’s progress or results – by any means necessary! OK, I added the “by any means necessary” part, but that isn’t too far off how I’d expect a good Scrum Master to behave. Impediment removal is critical to creating an environment where the team can focus on their work and deliver quality and value. Anything that gets in the way of building teams, developing backlogs and producing working, tested software is an impediment, an enemy that needs to be obliterated! Now we’re sounding more like a ninja.

The enemy – impediments

The enemy (impediment) can take many forms, is able to morph into other forms easily, and can also remain invisible for long periods of time. Some more common enemies may appear in the form of team dynamics challenges, transparency issues, poor communication, and logistical or technical blockers. Sometimes they are as unassuming as poor Scrum practices or mechanics, which are often simple to repair. More often, though, the enemy is a culture or mindset impediment. This type of impediment is frequently hidden behind visible symptoms, or disguised as something else.

Destroying impediments requires different tactics that depend on the enemy’s strength, frequency of attack and other factors. The first step to defeating your enemy is to know who your enemy is. How do we find impediments that aren’t clearly visible?

  • Take Gemba Walks – physically walk around the team and stakeholder areas, observing actions and interactions. Dwight Eisenhower once said: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re 1,000 miles from the corn field.”
  • Pay close attention to non-verbal cues during Retrospectives and other feedback loops – watch for team members rolling their eyes at others comments, shaking their heads, giving heavy sighs.
  • Ask lots of questions – this seems obvious, but we all get bogged down in our daily routines and our own battles that we sometimes forget there are others around us being attacked.
  • Study the Burn-down chart and other lifecycle tool reports and charts – use the intel you have at your disposal to find potential weaknesses or opportunities.

Advanced ninja tactics

Battle plans and a field manual are great tools, but when you come face-to-face with the enemy, experience is what really counts. Here are a few advanced tips from experience in the field:

  • Don’t just focus on removing mechanical impediments of Agile and Scrum (the practices), but also provide guidance on Agile principles that make agility more sustainable in the long run. I once began coaching a Scrum team that looked, on the surface, to have it all together. They had all the right roles in place, their ceremonies seemed to be well run, and their artifacts appeared clean and up to date. But when I started asking questions about how they interact with each other, I found serious distrust between business and technology people, no face-to-face communication (nearly 100% email), and very little transparency or visibility into what the team was doing. Their mindset and culture were keeping them from realizing the full benefits of agility. Teams that possess solid Agile values are less likely to need you to repeatedly remove the same impediment. Ask tough questions about interactions and thought processes.
  • Utilize good questioning methods like the “5 whys” approach. By repeatedly asking the question “why?” we peel away layers of symptoms to get to the root cause.
  • Team up with other ninjas (good Scrum Masters and other leaders) to defeat systemic or enterprise impediments, and increase the effectiveness of Scrum in the organization. Remember, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a team, not a lone turtle.
  • A master ninja multiplies their power by teaching others to be ninjas. Don’t remove all impediments yourself. Coach the person, not just the problem, and they will learn to remove their own impediments better and be able to remove similar impediments in the future. Then, you can focus on removing those impediments that the team cannot remove themselves. Agile teaches people to think, rather than to just follow instructions.

Now what?

A ninja knows their objective and does not stop until the goal is achieved, sometimes running straight into the flaming arrows flying toward them. Attacking impediments requires preparation, courage, and tact. Ninjas are known to be warriors – legendary, almost supernatural beings. Start your journey today to become an impediment-removing ninja Scrum Master. Pick an impediment from your list, choose your weapon, make a plan of attack, then run full speed toward the enemy – victory is yours for the taking!


About the Author

Dwight Kingdon
Program Director - Agile CoE

Dwight Kingdon is an Agile Coach at Mindtree. He is a thought leader in Agile methods and best practices, leveraging many years of software development, analysis, project management and leadership experience. Dwight has 25+ years of project management experience leading complex information technology projects, and over nine years of Agile/Scrum experience coaching and leading high profile, mission critical projects.

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