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The Hazard of Too Many Hats

The Hazard of Too Many Hats

As someone who has spent nearly 12 years on Agile teams, I have seen many people who have been expected to wear multiple hats… including myself. The thing that most people fail to understand with this conundrum is the hazard of too many hats for an Agile Team.

Context Switching is Difficult

Have you ever played the game of context switching? If your answer was no, please play now. This is what you will need:

  • A piece of paper
  • A writing utensil
  • A stop watch

Here is how to play:

  • Fold the paper into thirds and then unfold allowing the creases to be your column separators
  • In each column we will write a letter, a number, and a roman numeral
    • In the first column you will be writing letters A through J
    • In the second column you will be writing numbers 1 through 10
    • In the third column you will be writing roman numerals I through X.
  • Start your timer for 30 seconds and start in column one with the letter A, move to column two with the number 1 and column three with Roman numeral I – keep doing this pattern of working through the letters, numbers, and Roman numerals until your timer stops
  • How far did you get?

Now do it again but this time do each column one at a time. Start in column one and write letters A-J, then column two numbers 1-10, and column three Roman numerals I-X. Which format allowed you to get the farthest?

Since I am pretty confident your answer will be the same as the vast majority of people who do this activity, I want you to think about why it was easier for you to do it the second time. Was it because you were allowed to focus on one thing at a time rather than switching your brain from letters, to numbers, to Roman numerals? (the answer is yes)

How Does this Correlate to The Hazard of Too Many Hats?

If you allow an Agile Team the ability to focus on their singular role (Scrum Master, Engineer, Product Owner, etc.), you are providing your team the clarity to do their role without needing to context switch or fight against themselves. You may be thinking, why on earth would they fight against themselves?

Example: Dual role of Scrum Master and Product Owner

As a Scrum Master your focus is to coach the team on being autonomous and their most efficient selves. This means you have guardrails in place that protect your team from being over allocated or taking too much on. Additionally, you ensure the team only commits to what they can based on any other factors such as operational work in conjunction to project work.

As a Product Owner your focus is to build out the Product Backlog with meaningful stories which role up into Features and then into Epics. This work is critical in ensuring the team can complete projects without a lot of back and forth or confusion. Which leads into having a more satisfied customer (could be internal or external). The Product Owner wants to ensure the team can complete as many items in the backlog as possible.

As you can see from these examples, if you are wearing a dual hat of Scrum Master/Product Owner you may end up over allocating your team or focusing too much on getting things done quickly rather than trying to provide the biggest benefit to both the customer and the team.

Please Note: I have seen this done many times and it CAN be successful; however, from my experience a team is most successful when they are allowed to focus on their singular role. The difference in success is often between a mature team that feels comfortable wearing multiple hats and teams who really need those dedicated roles, but can’t get them because of things like “why can’t Sally just do both?”… meaning, “we don’t want to increase the budget.”

In Closing

Agile Teams who are provided the environment where they are able to focus on their role are typically the teams with the most autonomy and overall engagement. Based on the activity you completed through this blog, you may see that context switching makes you feel stressed and disorganized which leads to a level of disengagement. Whereas having the focus you need, provided you with the sensation of success through completion of the task which leads to a more engaged individual.

Engaged employees will always provide the biggest benefit to an organization.

Supplemental Content: What are Stories, Features and Epics?

  • Stories are short segments of work that typically take one hour up to five days to complete.
  • Features are a group of stories that are required to complete a segment of work and typically take a month to complete.
  • Epics are the largest piece of work in a team’s Backlog which is compiled of Features and takes about a quarter of a year to complete.

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