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.