Thought Leadership

Can Agile (or Scrum) Work in the Land of Minnesota Nice?

The terms Agile and Scrum have become synonymous with creating innovation and fostering competitive advantage. Drawn from the game of rugby, Scrum (the most popular Agile framework) requires people to work closely together in a transparent, focused way to get priority items accomplished.


Doesn't sound so tough, right?


If you are a born and raised in Minnesota, you may have some questions about how close people are expected to work together. And what does transparent mean? And do I have to actually say what I mean?


Like most lifelong Minnesotans, I learned to smile and nod and not say what I was really thinking until later when I was away from the people in question. Then I’d say what I wanted to in the company of friends and family at lunch, coffee or happy hour but not to anyone directly that I was venting about.


When I started working with Agile, and more specifically Scrum, I realized that this behavior was not very helpful. Scrum values Openness, Respect, Courage, Commitment and Focus. Saying what I really wanted to say behind someone’s back isn’t really demonstrating Respect, Openness or Courage. Those behaviors also posed a delay to reaching Commitments and posed a lack of Focus. Venting might feel good, but it’s not helpful toward reaching a goal. It creates unnecessary distractions, drama and delays.


The Daily Scrum event requires team members to transparently share what’s not working or any impediment they see towards making goals for time boxed Sprints. Sprint Retrospective events require team members to be honest about what’s not working in the process and to propose ideas for improvement. No team will be able to improve with Agile or Scrum if there’s an unwillingness by the team to speak up.


But what about Minnesota Nice?


Yes, we are nice people in the upper Midwest compared to other parts of the country. But if we’re being honest, sometimes this just means passive aggressive. Some Minnesotans will say, “but that’s rude, that’s not nice!”


Isn’t it nicer to be honest and eliminate wasted time, drama and distractions?

I’m not suggesting that in being honest we deliver messages in a rude or hostile way. It is possible to be honest and direct without inserting negative emotions or inflammatory language that.


Whether at Daily Scrum, during Retrospectives or just in the moment, here are some tips that will help Minnesotans have necessary conversations that are vital for moving anything forward:


Edit your Mental Story. Author Cy Wakeman advises to “edit our own mental story.” We each have an Ego that streams an internal voice to us all day long. If we can omit unnecessary adjectives or withhold judgement and just focus on the facts, it will help us have fact-based conversations.


Create a Pool of Safety. In the Crucial Conversations training course by Vital Smarts, participants learn that the best way to have a productive, honest conversation with others is to invite them into the "Pool of Safety." This pool is created by allowing participants to fully feel and express whatever they are feeling in the moment. This also involves the person initiating this conversation to put aside their story, or belief about the other person's intentions, and be open to whatever interpretation the other individual has of the conversation. This does not imply that anyone is "right or wrong," simply that we need to acknowledge each person's individual experiences and interpretations of a situation.


Factor in “Minnesota Nice” into Timeline. Considering "Minnesota Nice," the invitation to this pool of safety could take a longer conversation to ensure that a real, honest conversation occurs. A first step would be to honestly explain to the person the facts of the particular situation you are discussing and your honest interpretation of that situation. This is meant to be done neutrally and without blame. If the other person becomes defensive or tries to shut down, it is important to ask open ended questions on their experience of the situation. If the person becomes defensive or shuts down due to the type of conversation, it is important to keep everyone focused on the facts of what happened and work backwards from that point to discuss the type of outcome that is needed.


So, can Agile and Scrum work in the land of Minnesota Nice? Yes, but it will take some work to learn new habits. The better question is who will have the courage to start implementing those changes in their workplace?


About the author:

Angela Johnson is a Certified Scrum Trainer and Certified Less Practitioner and Scrum@Scale Trainer. In 2010, she founded CoLead Teem to provide education and coaching to clients adopting Scrum and Agile. Prior to founding the company, Johnson was an independent Scrum Master consultant to a variety of companies including Jostens, Wells Fargo, Thomson Reuters and Best Buy. A graduate of Hamline University (B.A.) and the University of St. Thomas (M.B.C.), Johnson resides in Wayzata, Minn.