The Scrum Master: Appreciating the Reticulist.

This week my attention has been turned to, and reflecting on, systemic influence and the ways by which as Scrum Masters we are seeking to develop relationships of mutual trust, respect and with that foundation or ‘ground’ firmly in place that we can effectively seek to co-create more Agile organisations. These thoughts returned me to something that has shaped my professional practice, or praxis; and this is called the boundary spanner.

It is fair to say that the traditional way of describing the boundary spanner is an ‘agent’ that works collaboratively across multi-organisations, or agencies, so as to improve customer experiences through redesign etc. However, to what extent can ‘system influencers’ that work across different departments, Divisions, or service areas gain insights from this applied model? What can Scrum Masters learn, if anything?

Boundary Spanner

One of the core competencies of the boundary spanner is the notion of the Reticulist. Stated simply, this is the wisdom of the network and the judgement of how to best (and by best I mean ethically) influence and make judgement about the ways to which to influence a complex network of other actors or humans.

Friend et al (1974) rightly notes that such judgments are fraught with personal and professional tension because they are bound up in personal, professional and organizational concerns. Questions arise such as:

  • What is the best intervention?
  • At what level?
  • And in what form?

Of course, as the Agile Manifesto makes clear for Scrum Masters we value ‘relationships over process’ and there is an important clue!

Friend (p.365) goes on to say that such actions or interventions will need to be“guided by other motives at the more personal level such as the desire to be liked or esteemed by his associates” thus adding to the complexity! I have found it best that as a maxim we must be kind- but not colluding, if less effective methods and/or decisions are being made that run counter to our ends in mind.. aka #Agile.

Next, it is fair to say that the evidence-base suggests that reticulists are expected to deploy political skills which Friend strongly advises “must include a sure grasp of modes of behaviour relevant to different types of relationship between agencies and between actors”. An added value insight.

Degeling (1995) suggests that reticulists should command an appreciation of the interstices of power; so as to appreciate the systemic coupling, interdependencies and where fissures are likely to occur. Thus there is a call for us to be ethical as well as skilled at identifying the strategic points wherein intervention and influence are best placed. Thus, and this is key it seems to me, Scrum Masters (as a professional group or community or collegiate) will combine a strong commitment to change through the cultivation of linkages between key individuals with common interests and power, rather than adopt a passive/aggressive role of organizational representative. Reticulists are “individuals who engage in networking tasks and employ methods of coordination and task integration across organizational boundaries”. 

Next, Alter and Hage, (1993) note that large-scale change needs strategically placed individuals who use their interpersonal skills and relationships to keep pathways open at all levels in the hierarchy. It seems to me that ‘evolution trumps revolution’ (I cant stand the sight of blood!) and that we are therefore looking to develop relationships whereby we can ‘bring people with us on the Agile transformational journey’?

Consequently, Large-Scale Scrum it logically seems to imply requires experience and practical understanding of organisational power-relations. Thus, to be successful a collegiate set of Scrum Masters need the proverbial ‘wisdom of Solomon’ to ethically build coalitions between strategically located players who are committed to finding new ways forward on specific Agile concerns, ideas and ways forward.

Challis et al (1988) note that such people are not located at the top of the formal organizational hierarchy, but typically, have good access to it. Thus, the implication is that for Scrum Masters to be successful they will need to keep a ‘tight:light’ praxis that enables them to be “less bound by normal and accepted channels of organizational behaviour and are encouraged to be a little unconventional”.

Challis then also adds this as a kind but equally important word of warning- their “position and status within the hierarchy is such that they do not represent an explicit threat to top management, but are tolerated in the expectation that they can deliver solutions to complex problems“.  Of course, Scrum Masters need to deliver solutions. It is in our very DNA! To this end, it would be fair to say that describing a problem is for analysis…solving it requires a Scrum Master(s).

Take care.


Yes Minister! Survival Skills for Public Sector Leaders?

Yes Minister



“Yes Minister” is a totally hilarious sitcom (full of wit and loaded with satire) and in my view one of the best of very British TV programmes. It was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. According to Wikipedia it was first transmitted by the BBC between 1980 and 1984 and was split over three, 7-episode series. It had a huge critical and popular success. The series also received a number of awards; including several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Best Sitcom poll. Quite a success story!

It was so popular that the BBC very wisely produced a sequel entitled “Yes, Prime Minister”, and this ran between 1986 to 1988. In total there were 38 episodes which is a significant achievement by today’s standards. What I have also learned is that several of the very best episodes were then adapted for BBC Radio, and later a stage play was produced in 2010.

So what is it all about? Before I describe it can I just say that one of the main reasons I find it so fascinating and entertaining is that I have family, friends and old school chums that are currently civil servants and they all testify that the key themes and ideas resonate with rich authenticity.

As you might have guessed Yes Minister is set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the (fictional) ‘Department of Administrative Affairs’ in Whitehall, London. So the programmes substance or dynamic interplay, is the ways by which the British civil service ‘comes-up against’ Ministerial politics, policies and tactics. Stated simply, Ministers want to get things done quickly whereas the culture of the civil service is risk averse and cautious. Therein sets the tension!

With the scene set it..the series follows the hilarious ministerial career of The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, who is superbly played by Paul Eddington. You cannot but ‘howl’ as his various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or even effect quite simple departmental changes are frustrated, or subtly opposed, by the British Civil Service, and in particular his Permanent Secretary Sir Appleby (who is skillfully played by Nigel Hawthorne).

Jim Hacker’s Secretary is a chap called Bernard Woolley who is played by Derek Fowlds. What is equally amusing is the ways by which he is constantly caught between a ‘rock and a hard place’ of the dynamics between his commitment to his Minister, Jim Hacker, and then his loyalty to the Civil Service. The pressure from the latter embodied and enacted all too skilfully by the commanding presence from Sir Humphrey. As the Psychologist, Jung, once remarked the most emotive and memorable human albeit psychological drama’s can be traced to a ‘triangular dynamic of relationships’.

So what can we learn as we apply this to us and leadership development and even leadership career longevity?

What strikes me is that in this series the civil service acts as an effective ‘buffer’ between key public sector and business leaders and the Minister. This acts as a form of relational protection and, of course, ‘saves face’ when disagreements might arise. What do I mean by this? Well, putting this bluntly what any public sector leader does not want is any Minister having to put things very directly to them ‘mano a mano’ in any form. This is process failure!

This latter ‘end point’ reminds me of the proverbial ‘kiss of death’. Consequently, a wise, mature and ‘grounded’ public service leader would be actively looking for and rightly understanding any Ministerial ‘clues, hints and points’ from which to ‘get under the message’ so as to prevent the process failure noted above from actually occurring. And, in this same way, an effective and bright civil servant would also be looking to make active facilitation to this same end.

So, my advice is.. when the Minister speaks- pay full attention and when he provides ‘hints and tips’…pay even more attention. #survivalskills