One of the key strengths of the Agile manifesto is the principle is that the team is self-organising. From these first principles we can anticipate that team roles will emerge from organising in this kind of way, rather than by way of a contrast, the roles being assigned by management. When we say ‘team roles’ we are not referring to technical roles such as Developer, Tester or Product Owner or Scrum Master, rather, we are referring to sociological functions; that enable the team members to ‘perform’ to high quality or best-in-class standards.
This ‘division of labour’ if you like between product delivery/execution and team sociological and/or psychological needs goes back a long way in team theory, and many of us can recall Belbin’s Team Inventory from his seminal book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’ back in 1981. His typology was based on teams from a broad range of industries and included eight roles such: Chairman, Shaper, Plant, Monitor-Evaluator, Company Worker, Resource Investigator, Team Worker, and Completer-Finisher. Later, the notion of the Specialist was added.
Sharpening our focus more specifically on Agile IT teams, one recent study researched 58 Agile practitioners from 23 software organizations in New Zealand and India. What was fascinating is that they discovered that the roles, if and of themselves, emerged from the self organising processes underpinning Agile. To be fair, we might expect this, but this empirical evidence over a four-year period, adds to our body of professional knowledge. The authors used open-ended interviews to allow the research themes to develop (rather than impose their schema on the research) and they report finding these roles: Mentor, Coordinator, Champion, Promoter, and Terminator/Finisher. (see Hoda et al (2013) in Software Engineering, IEEE Transactions, Vol 39 (3).
From a Business Psychology perspective, what I found interesting was some of the similarities between the Mentor role and Jung’s archetype for what he called the ‘wise old man’. This role is characterised, or represented as a kind, ethical and often older Father-type ‘figure’ who draws on his deep knowledge and experience of people (what we might refer to in the 21st Century as emotional or people intelligence) to offer guidance, coaching, support and encouragement to help others. The coaching insights/ discussions help others to access deeper self-resilience and an improved sense of who they are, and who they might become, thereby acting as a Mentor.
Sometimes when appearing in dreams, Jung claimed that the wise old man might in some ways be seen as Other- that is to say from a foreign culture, country or set of values. In extreme cases sometimes like a liminal being of some description. I think that Yoda from Star Wars would be a more modern ‘take’ on this archetypal role. (By the way the new Star Wars trailer is very exciting! Bring-on December!).
When located in a story, there is a key turning-point in the narrative, when the wise old man naturally dies, or is murdered, or at times sacrifices himself to enable the Hero to take his rightful place in the story. As you might recognise by now from one of your favourite stories… because of the additional self-knowledge, and awareness gained from his relationship with his Mentor, the Hero can claim the rightful victory before the next turn in the text.
But what about us today in our Agile world? Well, it would be all to simple to make the erroneous link that the Mentor equals the Scrum Master. We, of course, have to be careful not to make this mistake. Recall that from the first principle of self-organisation, we know that these roles are not prescribed, but rather emerge from the team itself. Therefore, we can expect and anticipate that different team members, as individuals, will emerge as the ‘wise old man’ or or ‘wise old woman’ at any given time- given the team psychological and sociological needs of the Sprint in question.
To me this sounds and feels both flexible and life affirming, and ‘gives permission’ for us to see our own personalities, and strengths, in much more fluid, productive, open and transformative ways.
May the Force be with… You?
Take Care, Jason.