Treat your team like a horse

I was born and raised on a horse farm in the central part of Denmark. From early on I was introduced to working with and handling sport horses. A horse is, by nature, an animal with a handful of basic instincts helping it to survive and react in its natural environment. As with most other animals, a horse does not understand the words coming from your mouth but reacts to your tone of voice and physical appearance. My experiences can be summed up this way:

A horse rider is responsible for ensuring that the challenge is understood and enacted. The rider does this by ensuring that the horse adheres to the instructions, challenges, and competition rules.

This has helped me in my daily work and is underlined in a 2007 study by Lena Forsberg of Luleå Technical University in Sweden. Forsberg researched the power to lead and manage shown by a group of riders working and handling sport horses. This research showed that working with horses gave a better understanding of:

  • Communication, both verbal and nonverbal, between horse and rider
  • Collaboration without issuing commands but instead animating the horse to work with the rider
  • Taking care and nursing the horse to improve the will to collaborate
  • Being collaborative but also understanding that the horse and the rider will not have the same motive and goal for the work
  • Competing or finishing complex tasks with the required focus of both horse and rider — both get nervous or anxious, but for different reasons

One of the conclusions that Forsberg draws is that people who have worked with horses makes better leaders. A horse can be a dangerous animal if not handled correctly, which means that one must be clear when communicating and able to react fast and firmly in any given situation.

Why is this relevant in the context of Scrum? If we look up who takes care and nurses the development team, we find the following text describing the ScrumMaster in Scrum:

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules.Scrum Guide

Sounds familiar? It sure does! It’s straight up the same definition as the one I gave earlier for a rider. Let’s revisit the points made by Forsberg in the context of Scrum and the Scrum team:

  • Communication, both verbal and nonverbal, with the Scrum team
    It doesn’t matter what you say if your body language contradicts this (or vice versa). Always be constructive and preferably use appreciative language.
  • Collaboration without issuing commands, but instead supporting the Scrum team in working together
    One of the cornerstones of Scrum is the empowerment of the Scrum team. Within the defined goal and vision, everyone should be able to complete the work collaboratively.
  • Taking care and nursing the Scrum team improves the will to collaborate
    The key demand of the ScrumMaster, as a servant leader, is to help the Scrum team. This is done by identifying and handling outside interactions, assuring that only the ones that are actually helpful get through to them.
  • Though being collaborative, the Scrum team will not have the same motive and goal for the work
    This is a vital element in teamwork — to know the reasons behind actions of the team members. Some people go to work as a part of their next career move, while others do it to pay the rent. All reasons are legit, but it’s important to understand and respect them.
  • Completing or finishing complex tasks and the required focus of the Scrum Team — everyone gets nervous or anxious but for different reasons
    Is your product owner nervous about reaching a deadline? Is the development team nervous in the sprint review? Understanding why your Scrum team acts as they do will enable you to help them become a high-performing Scrum team.

Being a ScrumMaster is not an easy task. It’s not something that everyone can do. Some people are great ScrumMasters and some might want to try a different role. Just remember, kids down to the age of 4 or 5 years can handle a horse — what’s your excuse?