Your company is moving to Agile from waterfall, and you want to ensure a smooth transformation that keeps projects healthy. As a scrum master working to transform a traditional waterfall SDLC process into an Agile one, I have learned a few pointers when navigating this transformation. An important concept to keep in mind during this transformation is empowerment.

One of Agile’s core tenets is the value of “individuals and interactions” over “processes and tools”. The idea is to foster a high-velocity decision making process, which hinges on open and honest communication in a co-located environment. However, implementing this change can be very difficult for team members who have previously worked on waterfall projects. You may find employees reluctant to volunteer for work, or hesitant to take on new challenges. Why is this so?

A fundamental lack of empowerment can exist within the framework of waterfall SDLC, and the expectations set in this waterfall environment can hinder your Agile transformation.

The Empowerment Continuum

Empowerment lies on a continuum. If team members are disempowered (i.e., not trusted to deliver an outcome), they will feel unaccountable for the outcome. Someone else will directly answer for why an outcome was or was not delivered.

Naturally, because accountability for the work and performance of the work have been separated, those accountable will manage the workers closely, and the workers will lack an intrinsic motivation to perform well. Resources that need to be managed closely end up costing the organization more.

Disempowerment >> Empowerment Gauge

However, the more empowered a team member is, the more accountable they are, and the more they will want to perform well. If an outcome is or is not met, superiors will look at that individual directly to understand why. As a result, the team member becomes more invested in the delivery of the outcome, and employs more self-management.

Waterfall Projects Reduce Empowerment

Several realities of waterfall projects create a reduction of empowerment:

  • Project managers are directly answerable for all outcomes of a waterfall project, rather than team members.
  • Strict and intricately-defined waterfall processes—rather than lightly documented and faster, face-to-face interaction—lead to a lack of innovation and initiative.
  • A heavy reliance on scheduled status meetings and metrics—rather than staying continuously connected to the incremental health of the project—makes it easy to misread the nuances of projects and reduces trust in team members.

empty conference room

So, as a scrum master, how do you empower team members who are coming from a waterfall mindset?

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4 Steps to Empowering Team Members

1. Trust and Verify

Be transparent. Define the expectations upfront (“You are accountable.”) and explain the benefits and consequences (“You are answerable for both excellent and poor outcomes.”). Verbally grant team members the freedom to follow these guidelines and trust that they will rise to the challenge.

Verify team members are self-managing their responsibilities through daily stand-ups and retrospectives. If team members are not taking their responsibility seriously, explain your viewpoint and work with them before escalating to management.

fist bump

2. Understand Before You Are Understood

Take time to understand the current state of your team member’s day-to-day workflow at a high level. The more insight you have into how work is done, the more effectively you can identify if self-management from a particular team member will be challenging or easy.

If delivery is at risk, understanding the workflow makes it is easier to collaborate on a solution, and avoid creating a new process independently that may not address the root cause.

process map

3. Tailor Your Approach

Not everyone is the same. Some people need more attention than others. As a scrum master, you have a responsibility to be present, to be aware of the state of your project’s health at all times, and to tailor your approach based on new information.

Sometimes this means working extra hours with a team member to understand their process, or cancelling a standup so the team can push extra hard on meeting a commitment. Either way, the message you want to send is: “I am listening. I’m aware of your status. I’m flexible and supportive of your delivery goals.”

team meeting

4. Shift Your Mindset Toward Servant Leadership

Firms undergoing an Agile transformation may chose to repurpose project managers into scrum masters. Ultimately, a scrum master is a servant leader rather than a directive manager. Project managers moving into a scrum master role need to strike a balance between guidance and directive tendencies as your firm matures in its Agile journey.


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