March 9, 2021


News for Agilists

Why You Should Not Force People to Join Scrum Events | by Leise Passer Jensen | Serious Scrum | Oct, 2020

What happens if participation in Scrum events is voluntary? What if it is not?

We sometimes observe fatigue in organisations where Scrum or Agile has been institutionalized for a while. Too many developers apparently don’t like Scrum. Some complain Scrum produces too many meetings. This hints some perceive Scrum events as meetings without relevance, value, energy or engagement.

Some people start making excuses for not showing up.

In this article I discuss my experiences where participation in Scrum events is optional:

  • Will contributors with valuable knowledge stay away?
  • Will non-team oriented people choose to not attend?
  • Will some Scrum events completely disappear?

I observe a tendency that Scrum events are not always considered worth attending by all expected contributors.

A few examples that I have experienced:

  • 20 people (!) standing in a big circle doing a Daily Scrum each ‘reporting’ or telling something. How many of those 20 people can honestly care about all the information being shared? Probably not many. Engagement is probably low.
  • I’ve been in Backlog Refinement meetings where some developers felt bored. There was nothing new for them or they felt like wasting their time teaching others how to break down and implement Product Backlog Items.
  • The Product Owner sometimes doesn’t find time to join or facilitate the Sprint Review or to do Backlog Refinement. They are too busy for Sprint Planning, but easily give priority to other meetings.

I will answer the following question:

Is there a way to prevent Scrum events from being considered not worth attending?

Make it optional to join your Scrum Events.

Yes, completely optional. No penalties for not showing up. Not one person imposing another person. No-one expected to show up because of some company policy dictating it due to compliance requirements.

Observe what happens.

Maybe some don’t show up. Maybe everybody shows up. Maybe that is a problem, maybe not, but you want to find out how people react.

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

If some of the people who are perceived to be important contributors don’t show up to the optional Scrum event, regardless of the facilitator is the Scrum Master, Product Owner or a Developer, then the facilitator and team may have a problem. But at least the facilitator gets a sign of a potential problem and an opportunity to do something about it if needed. I will go into more detail later.

Even if everyone showed up I recommend you are aware that some probably just wanted to know if you were serious about the optionality. Thus, you’ll probably have to wait and see what happens at the next optional event.

If a company experiences the fatigue I described in the beginning, or if many Developers turn away from Scrum or continue to talk about too many meetings instead of Scrum events,

-then the motivation for continuing with Scrum or agile is low.

There can be many reasons behind this.

In this article, I am highlighting one particular fact I have observed again and again turning out as a demotivating factor:

People were forced to show up to all Scrum events!

They were not even asked if Scrum was a good idea, or if they actually wish to continue with the events as described in the Scrum Guide.

Why is that a problem? Consider two scenarios:

Scenario A (invitation)
Think of an event where you are invited. It is up to you to accept or decline.

Does that give you a feeling of freedom? Of acceptance? Autonomy? Do you feel your opinion and ability to judge matters?
Do you feel motivated or demotivated

Scenario B (imposition)
Now try to think of another event where you are invited, but you cannot decline. I will ask you the same questions as before:

Does that give you a feeling of freedom? Of acceptance? Autonomy? Do you feel your opinion and ability to judge matters?
Do you feel motivated or demotivated

Usually, people answer they feel highly motivated and respected in scenario 1 (invitation). Most people reply they feel demotivated in scenario 2 (imposition).

My observation is backed up by Daniel Mezick in Inviting Leadership [1]. When you are invited, you are:

… in charge of what happens next.
You get to make the next move.
You can respond “yes” or “no”.
Or you can simply let time run out if there is a deadline or “RSVP” date.
You are in control of what happens next.”

So, back to why there is a problem. When Scrum events are not optional, people feel controlled, overruled and without influence and autonomy. They are demotivated.

According to the Scrum Guide, Scrum teams must be autonomous and self-organized. They are thereby free to design their own process and relentlessly improve it.

When you are invited, you decide. Deciding is engaging! And motivating. When you are forced, you get demotivated. That usually reflects during the Scrum events where I see demotivated people who start giving excuses to go to other meetings they consider of higher importance to the company.

So: Invite — don’t impose Scrum events on anyone.

But read on — there is more to this…

When participation is optional, it becomes clear immediately if something should be changed. Because if people don’t show up, it is a clear sign something is not working okay.

If participation is mandatory that is not easy to observe.

If you are a facilitator/responsible for a meeting or event and believe you first have to change the attitude and behavior of the people you invite, then I strongly suggest you re-consider:

Nothing is wrong with the attitude or minds of the people you invite. First, you change *your* perception and thereafter you change the system, processes and culture around imposition.

Therefore, change something if the perceived contributors stay away.

In my experience, it only rarely happens that people keep staying away from optional events if they know or acknowledge they are perceived as required contributors. It usually motivates us to show up because we feel more in control of our situation, as mentioned above. Being present allows us to influence what happens. Autonomy and influence are motivating factors [1].

But in case some choose to stay away anyways, here is what I do as a facilitator:

  • I welcome the situation no matter if my role is a Scrum Master, Product Owner, a Developer or other. No blame, no inquisition. People don’t have to give me a reason for staying away, and I don’t ask. I acknowledge those who showed up as well as those who stayed away and that way communicated something has to change.
  • I consider this a great opportunity. Now I can fine-tune the event and start a joint effort to find out how to turn it into an event every perceived contributor would like to give priority.
  • I am prepared to be positively surprised. Maybe we find out it is okay that not everyone is present?
  • Most importantly: I invite everyone to an (optional) Retrospective with the particular purpose to improve the process of the event(s). Or to bring forward anything that people would like to have happen. I might suggest a negative brainstorm: What does it take to ensure our Scrum events turn into something nobody wishes to take part in?

By inviting people to the optional Retrospective, the odds are high we decide together what it takes for every contributor to show up curious, interested, and energized at the optional event. At least that is my experience.

When in doubt if ‘Scrum events by Invitation’ is something you want to introduce, then think about the worst thing that can happen:

Perhaps the Scrum Team will come up with a better process for them than suggested by the Scrum Guide. In that case, and as long as the Sprint Goals are achieved, Continuous Improvement has proven its worth.

Now back to my initial questions on my experience with what happens if participation in Scrum events is optional:

  • Would perceived contributors stay away from an optional Scrum event?
    No, that is not what I observed. Most people who are aware of why others need their presence are willing to show up — provided they were not already demotivated by being forced.
  • Will non-team oriented people choose to not attend?
    Yes, often they choose to stay away if they feel uncomfortable at Scrum events. I have had success with suggesting to non-team oriented persons that they choose to not work in teams. That they should prioritize a job where teamwork is not the norm. But I have also sometimes agreed with a person with such a profile that they could be on call during a Scrum event, where the team’s progress depends on their presence. That becomes a give-and-take situation.
  • Would Scrum events completely disappear?
    This is a tough one. I have never observed this, but I don’t rule out it could happen. But imagine the worst case: The Scrum teams would then have innovated and discovered better ways that work for them. Again, this confirms that Continuous Improvement has proven its worth.

But wait — there is an important shortcut I would like to recommend:

Most facilitators of meetings/events I talk to find optionality scary.

They are afraid everything will get out of control if they cannot decide who shows up and who doesn’t. Or maybe rather, they fear being out of control. They fear no-one will show up and can’t overview what happens if meetings are not mandatory by convention. I experience this at all levels in the hierarchy, from teams to executives.

We should acknowledge that fear. We should start small.

Neuroscience and Behavioral Science suggest that

If you want a big change, then go for the small changes (Morten Münster, [2])

To increase your chances of success be selective and not too ambitious:

  • Maybe start by choosing just one of the Scrum events that you consider most important and make it optional for the team once.
  • When you and the others feel safe, then eventually move on and make more events optional. Watch, evaluate together and adjust. Maybe you discover the Scrum events are not needed because something else works better.

I would choose the Daily Scrum because it’s pretty important for the team to re-plan daily. Everyone must wish to take part in that activity.

When you are invited, you decide. Deciding is engaging. Enforcement is demotivating.

So, my invitation to you is:

  1. Make all Scrum events optional. If that is too scary, then start with making only one optional and learn from that.
  2. Continuously Inspect and Adapt all Scrum events to make sure people wish to give them priority and show up.
  3. Welcome any ideas the Scrum Team may come up with as a means to increase engagement. Even if the Scrum events might eventually be substituted with something better.

Scrum has been around for 25 years. The Scrum Guide has been updated over the years and will soon be released in a 2020 version. How have the events evolved?

The Scrum Guide 2017 says nothing (yet) about opt-in participation in Scrum events (opt-in: people may choose not to take part — without giving a reason).

Isn’t it weird:

When nothing is stated about optionality in invitations, most of us automatically conclude that we must be there?

No doubt we are probably expected to show up since the meeting ended in our calendar. But why is participation automatically considered mandatory unless otherwise stated?

I wish you good luck with experimenting with optionality and Inviting Leadership.

Please share your results and experiences with me and the rest of the Scrum community.

Thank you for reading. Appreciate any comments you may have.


[1] Inviting Leadership, Daniel Mezick, 2018

[2] Morten Münster, Jytte vender tilbage, 2020. Münster is referring to the German doctor Ernst Weber who founded experimental psychology

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