Scrum Hacks – Team Culture

The underlying theme of this series on Scrum is to provide tips and suggestions to improve the efficiency of your Scrum processes. While many of the suggestions that you’ll see are tangible and  process related, there is a less tangible but equally effective element to Scrum that can definitely improve the overall experience, sprint velocity and product quality: team culture  Sometimes overlooked, often taken for granted, having a great team culture can make the difference between looking forward to another week’s work on a Monday morning or crawling reluctantly out of bed to face another week with deep misgivings.  

Many companies have come to recognize the value in having a great team culture. In these companies, culture is cultivated through HR-sponsored processes or events, along with organic activities within each team.  Companies like Google have invested time and resources to research this (Project Aristotle), and a recent Harvard Business Review article used these findings to conclude that great teams are not just about skills but personalities as well. However, in our opinion, one does not have to wait for HR or be a large company like Google to recognize this or foster the conditions for a successful team. As Scrum teams, we are empowered to be self-organizing and we believe we are the change we want to see in our workplace.  We have identified several low-effort practices  that can have a big impact on improving team culture. We have no doubt that these are probably being practiced in some form or the other at most companies. In the paragraphs below I’ll share the following:

  1. Onboarding new members
  2. Mentoring young talent
  3. Collaborating with remote members
  4. Team behavior

We have found that focusing effort on getting these practices right, and being mindful in how we practice them, has made a significant difference to our team culture

Onboarding new team members

The purpose of our onboarding process is to be inclusive and make new members  a part of our team culture.

There was a time when it took a week to configure our development machines to work successfully in our environment. Thankfully those days are a distant memory now. However, we still take care to make sure that new team members are not left to fend for themselves. We try to make their transition as smooth and easy as possible.  Besides spending time walking through our detailed development or QE practices, we also provide new members with the “big picture” view. Team members who have worked with the company for a long time go over the history and evolution of the product, significant milestones, development and deployment processes and last but not the least, the “jargon” of the company. Nothing can be more frustrating for a new engineer at a backlog grooming to hear terms that are company specific which do not make sense to somebody outside the company. Just think of how many times you found yourself wanting to ask “What does XYZ stand for?” but didn’t? Our onboarding process give the engineer context and understanding of decisions made during the development of the product.

Mentoring junior engineers and interns – cultivating an environment of respect

We are fortunate to have interns rotate through our team on a regular basis. We also get the occasional new hire who is a junior engineer. These are opportunities for the team to be infused with the fresh ideas and energy that these new engineers can bring. They often challenge assumptions and question traditions (“sacred cows”) within the organization, and they are more likely to do that if the culture makes it safe to do so. New engineers need to feel that their voices are being heard and that they are valued members of the team. The stereotype with interns is that they are often relegated to menial tasks and believe me, working on bugs that nobody else in the team wants to work on is not exactly exciting work.  Our team has taken a conscious decision to allow our interns to work on juicy projects along with a mentor or “buddy” who is available to provide guidance throughout their stint.  Working in two week sprints also means that they have the satisfaction of seeing their work deployed to production and used by our customers even if they are with us for a month or two. We share our time freely with our interns always being willing to listen to their suggestions, giving them credit when we incorporate their suggestions for improvements.  When their suggestions are not feasible, we explain the reasons why they aren’t or when trade-offs are involved, we explain the rationale for the trade-offs. We know we have done a good job when an intern who has a choice of companies to select after graduation chooses to work for our company and if possible, our team!

Bridge the remote barrier – distributed can still be together

Distributed teams are the norm nowadays. Technology has made it easier to communicate and collaborate with remote team members.  When team members are distributed evenly between remote locations, communication is usually not a problem since the company has the infrastructure and process to handle it. However, when there are a couple of team members who work remotely from home and the bulk of the team works from an office, it is very possible for the remote team members to feel isolated and left out.  We recognize this and try to keep everyone in mind as we plan meetings or activities:

  • Google Hangouts are set up for all meetings
  • we use collaborative tools such as Screen Hero when we pair program.  
  • During retros, we position cameras so the remote folks can view the entire room.
  • We take pictures of the board during our retros and post them in our HipChat room.  

We sometimes have spontaneous water-cooler discussions which lead to Eureka moments. When this happens, we make sure we contact our remote teammates and share the ideas with them and solicit their opinions.  Management provides a travel budget so they can travel, and we plan activities when remote teammates are in town.  And, it is not just all about work.  We maintain friendships and a sense of kinship by calling our teammates during or after work, checking in, to find out how they are are doing on a personal level.  Although technology and team practices can help ensure that remote team members are able to collaborate effectively, they cannot by their self-eliminate a sense of isolation creeping in. Sometimes a courtesy call can make all the difference.

A team that plays together, stays together – it is more than just work

This is a no brainer but it is worth mentioning, we plan activities “outside of work” that give us a sense of team and camaraderie. We volunteer as a team at a local farm that donates its produce to charity. Sometimes we do a potluck meal during our sprint planning instead of ordering delivery. A diverse team implies that there are cuisines from all over the world to savor and broaden our horizons. Bowling, team dinners and backyard parties give us the opportunity to know each other better and bond after work. We all understand about family commitments and busy schedules, and we try to do these with a reasonable frequency.  


The team volunteering at Gaining Ground, a local nonprofit organic farm

So what has this meant for us? Scrum is not just the mechanics or the process, the team is key!

Our team has suffered from minimal attrition in a competitive job market. We would like to think that besides the nature of the work and company benefits, the team culture plays a large role in this. Minimal attrition has meant that we have continuity in our team and extensive product knowledge that helps us troubleshoot production issues quickly or handle new requirements with minimal lead time. It has helped develop a trust and kinship amongst team members which is reflected in our ability to voice our disagreements freely during team meetings. Differences are always with opinions and not with individuals.  I’ve been told by relatively new engineers in our team that they feel empowered to share their opinions and that their voices count. This is in contrast to other companies at which they have worked in the past, where an architect or senior engineer’s opinion could not be challenged or questioned.  

It goes without saying that a team’s culture is often a reflection of the company’s culture and a team is not an island to itself.  However, it is incumbent on each Scrum team to foster a culture that makes it fun and challenging to work.  Whether we like it or not, we spend more time with our teams than our families on a given work day and while we are working, we might as well develop a culture that allows us to enjoy our time together.

Coach’s Corner

Peter Drucker said that: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Mainly he meant that whatever the company strategizes to do, will fail if it doesn’t align with the culture. One of the challenges in agile implementations and change transformation in general, is just that; making the new way of work part of the organizational culture. Or in other words, make sure that the new approach embeds itself in the culture.

It is a well known secret, or maybe not so known… that one of the reasons we are so adamant about the daily scrum – the 15 minute stand-up – is the cultural change impact. We use daily stand-ups to change how team members and stakeholders interact and collaborate; rather than a one hour project weekly status meeting that is a waste of time for the participants, starts late, ends even later and has a long ‘action item’ list as a deliverable; Agile stand-ups are time boxed, always start on time, focused and concise; the goal – get the team members on the same page and remove impediments – that is the culture of an agile organization. Thus, a change to the culture, impacts the behavior and enables a lean, value driven strategy.

This team, that Raj is describing, has taken the culture element of agile to a whole different level; observing from the side – and sometimes providing an insight – I was fascinated by how they’ve been able to build, grassroots, a culture of respect, teamwork, collaboration, mentoring and above all a fun place to work!


  1. That is a well written article there. Scrum development is still one of the most opted for approached in the software development industry today.

Leave a Comment