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Updated: Feb 26, 2021

There are a lot of people who have difficulty understanding what Serious Play and me being a Scrum Master actually means. I understand completely and trust me, it can be difficult to explain too! Not because I’m doing things that are necessarily very complex or difficult to understand but simply because it involves a lot of different things and has an impact on a lot of different issues and layers that are all somehow interconnected and – most importantly, if I’m being honest – because I’m sooooo, so, so incredibly enthusiastic about what I do that I tend to get so carried away when talking about my work that it ends up being this complete information overload. So, I decided to start a new blog series to help me explain what I do in bite size bits and pieces called: MY ROLE AS…..

Part of being a Scrum Master is being a Facilitator. And as a Facilitator, I make sure that a team is able to go about their business, work together, stay on track, stay motivated and stay focussed on working towards the same goal. As I mentioned in my previous ‘My Role as….’-blog, I not only spend a lot of time observing my team when playing a game to make sure the game’s running smoothly and to be able to debrief them properly afterwards but also to get to know my team better. Team reading through games, I call it and being able to easily read a team is what makes a good Facilitator.

How do you get to know people? Talking to them is always a good start, but the thing is, when you’re talking to people they are also talking to you and focussing on you and on the image they want you to see. Which sometimes means that instead of giving you honest answers to your questions, they’ll give ‘political ones’, or ‘polite ones’, or ‘socially acceptable ones’. You get my drift. When people play games, they’re not focussing on you but on playing the game and if you’ve chosen the right game, people tend to loose themselves in it. That’s when they drop their shield and you get to observe the real person who, in a way, is giving you the honest answers to your questions. If you want to know more about the dynamics of a team? Play a game that’s all about interaction. If you want to test their problem solving skills? There’s plenty of games that will help you there. And if you want to know how people feel about things, try the free association games such as the Rory’s Story Cubes I discussed in my last ‘Game of the Month’-blog.

Which is why I prefer to start working with a new team on Fridays, we’ll do a few sessions together because that’s what they’re expecting and end the afternoon with some fun by playing a game. And it works every time. Someone will come up to me, most likely with a beer in hand, saying: what a good idea, playing a game at the end of the day. What a nice way to relax,’ Uhuh….. for you maybe. I’m not relaxing at all. I’m taking in all the team dynamics. I’m getting to know who’s competitive, who’s the thinker of the group, who’s the clown. That first game will tell me a lot about my new team and together with the brief that I’ve been given it will help me come up with my master plan.

One of the Scrum Pillars is ‘transparency’ and games are a good way to create transparency in relations. Both positive and negative:

Who gets along well with each other and who not so much, or not at all?

Who allows others to walk all over them and who’re the ones walking all over them?

Who bends the rules?

And what is the response of the rest of the group?

Who’s annoyed?

Who’s wishing they thought of it first?

And if one person starts bending the rules, will others follow?

For a long time, it was believed that kittens played so they could learn how to hunt but research has shown that that’s only partly true. Cats who grew up without playing will still be able to hunt. That comes natural. But what playing teaches them are social skills. And that doesn’t only apply to cats but dogs as well, for instance. Puppies who have been raised surrounded by stable adult dogs will learn how to read a pack through play. Socially accepted behaviours are encouraged and will result in others wanting to play with them. Other behaviours will result in a growl from the older dog and if the puppy persists in a ‘warning bite’ to make sure they get the message. Animals - and humans - learn social skills through play.

And knowing to read the interaction during a game, is an essential tool for a Facilitator. Say someone cheats during a game and someone gets angry because of it.

Who’s the one cheating?

Who’s the one getting angry? And more importantly, why?

What does that tell you about their relationship?

This information can help you understand why a team is not functioning the way it should be and which issues need to be addressed. I could go on and on about this, maybe even write a book about it. There are so many things you can learn from watching people play games.

When I started out working as a Scrum Master I thought that as a coach I should be coaching individual people to work as a team. But over the years, I’ve come to realise that you’re not coaching people but coaching relationships. It’s not about going back and forth between individuals and getting them to better themselves. It’s all about working on and improving the relationship between them.

So, when you’re working with a team that’s a lot of different connections you have to keep track of and work on. Hey, being a Scrum Master is a lot of work! It’s also why a Scrum Team shouldn’t consist of more than nine people. Otherwise, it’s impossible to keep track of all the different connections.

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