Actively Doing Nothing

(this article is for a series of posts of which some might be published in the upcoming book “97 Things every Scrum practitioner should know” in the O’Reilly series, which will be edited by Gunther Verheyen)

Actively Doing Nothing (is actually hard work)

What do Scrum Masters actually do, all day long? This is a hard question as the behavior of a Scrum Master is very contextual. It depends greatly on the maturity of the team, the experience of the Product Owner, and the amount of dysfunction in the organization. I use the “five tools of Scrum Masters” for clarifying what a Scrum Master does, when he does that, and why,

  1. A Scrum Master asks questions.
  2. A Scrum Master educates.
  3. A Scrum Master facilitates.
  4. A Scrum Master actively does nothing.
  5. A Scrum Master interrupts (in exceptional cases).

These tools require little clarification, except probably the tool I probably use most: actively doing nothing.

What is actively doing nothing?

Actively doing nothing means that when you observe non-optimal dynamics or plainly wrong behavior within your team or organization, you chose to not do anything at that moment.

A way to clarify actively doing nothing is to contrast it to its opposite: passively doing nothing. Passively doing nothing means you do nothing and you don’t care. However, actively doing nothing means you care, you carefully observe what is happening, and decide… to do nothing.

For example, you notice two people from two different teams are having a minor conflict about which team ought to do what. You observe and listen carefully, ask yourself whether this will cause permanent team damage, and if not, … you chose to do nothing.

Why would you do that!?

By actively doing nothing, you actually do something. You create the space for the team to take responsibility for the situation they are in. By doing something, anything, you are taking the responsibility away from them, and you prevent the team from solving that problem, you prevent the team from growing as a team. Therefore, as Scrum Master, I often observe the situation, think about the team and organizational dynamics, and consider whether not doing anything would cause harm. In most cases it doesn’t. If it doesn’t cause harm then often there is an opportunity for team self-learning and growth. Thus I force myself to not do anything other than to actively continue my observation.

Actively doing nothing might be followed up with actively doing something. For example, ask questions to help the team reflect to solidify the learnings they have from resolving that situation. Or, ask questions to help the team to reflect on what they could have done differently so that next time they might be able to resolve the situation. Asking questions is often followed up with two of the other Scrum Master tools, (1) facilitation when questions lead to interesting discussions and potentially decisions, and (2) education when the questions lead to a learning moment.

Actively doing nothing is hard!

Yes, doing nothing is hard and this often comes as a surprise. Why would doing nothing be hard? Because, as a good Scrum Master, you care about your team and you want to help them. You want to resolve the pain they are in by jumping in. However, a good Scrum Master realizes that this will not benefit them in the long run. Building a team means you need to create the space for the team to resolve issues themselves, learn from it, and grow.

A potential problem with actively doing nothing is that it will look like you are doing nothing, and not adding any value. Many of the teams I was a Scrum Master of joked that I don’t do anything. They noticed the team worked better when I was there, but they often couldn’t see why. Indeed, it seemed like I was… actively doing nothing.

Go out and become a better Scrum Master by actively doing nothing.

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