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If You Give Something a Name…

As a dad to two girls under two years old, I am way more keen on what babies are into than I probably ever cared to know. Who would have guessed the killing that kids-oriented videos are making on YouTube?? Many of those videos have billions of views! Yes, that’s billions with a “B”. But when I think how many Little Baby Bum videos my daughters have made me watch these last two years… I suppose I’m not surprised.

Aside from videos and toys, my daughters really love books, and one of their favorite series of books (and now TV show) is If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The series has been around since I was a kid myself, so I’m sure many parents are all too familiar with this series. For the uninitiated, the original If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is all about a boy and a rambunctious, playful mouse where the boy gives a mouse a cookie, and that leads the mouse to keep asking for extra things in a series of “if, then” statements that takes the boy and mouse on quite the adventure.

And it all starts because, well, the boy gave a mouse a cookie. (Which makes me think, if they boy wouldn’t have given the mouse a cookie, it would have led to a very boring and short book.)

What I’m sure the author didn’t realize is that she was onto a strong business concept with writing this book. Before we get into that, I want to talk about an analogy I love that author / speaker Rob Bell regularly uses to talk about progress, and that has to do with cars. Cars are great for getting us from point A to point B at a much quicker rate than walking, so progressively speaking, cars have literally and metaphorically moved society quite a bit in the last 100 years.

But cars aren’t perfect, and the infrastructure around cars isn’t perfect. Take Los Angeles, for example. The roads there can get traffic jams so bad that the speed offered by cars no longer becomes convenient, and you can literally walk along the side of the road faster than cars stuck in an awful traffic jam. Which, of course, makes you ponder… what good cars are for then?

That’s obviously an extreme example, but I hope you get the point: Progress is great until the things built up around the progress get in the way of what you originally intended.

With that in mind, let’s return to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. When the boy initially gives the mouse a cookie, I bet he didn’t intend the consequences it would have. I bet he thought, “Well, I’ll just give this mouse a cookie, and we’ll go on about our day, business as usual.” (Yes, that 8 year old boy would have thought that phrase “business as usual.”) He probably didn’t realize it would trigger a chain of events that he might not have wanted to start in the first place.

And so we finally get to the crux of this post: if you start solidifying things by giving names to them, be they processes or roles, then you open the door to self-sustenance.

You might be wondering, what do I mean by self sustenance? Well, if you consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the natural human tendency toward maintaining equilibrium, it means that people will do things either rationally or irrationally to sustain their existence. (Which is why it’s a pain to initiate change.) We’re seeing this right now with the whole marketing revolution. Everybody wants to sustain this idea of traditional advertising through billboards and TV commercials, but the reality is that those aren’t nearly as effective anymore as they were in the past. (I’m going to stop this tangent here and instead recommend Seth Godin’s newest book, This Is Marketing, for more on the topic.)

Marketing is something that is undergoing a revolution to an already existing system, so let’s talk instead about a different example that is pretty recent in the world: the role of the scrum master. As a Certified Scrum Master and Certified Scrum Product Owner, this is one time where I actually feel qualified enough to speak about something! The scrum master role is very misunderstood, so let me give you the conceptual idea as passed down from the founders themselves: the scrum master is essentially a servant leader role on a team that helps ensure work continues to progress smoothly by removing obstacles and helping to keep the peace.

I very intentionally emphasized “role” because it was never intended to be its own full time position. The intention was that a software developer or business analyst or whoever would continue to do their regular work, and at times they would wear this scrum master hat to help the team in that capacity.

Here’s where the trouble has started and where the Mouse and car analogies come in. Because many companies now are throwing their weight into agile practices, many are setting processes and expectations around the scrum master role that it’s almost defeating the purpose of the role in the first place. For many companies, the scrum master role has become more of a project manager / project coordinator role rather than a hat that a person on a team temporarily wears at times. We have whole industries now around establishing “agile frameworks”, including the Scrum Alliance (ironically), SAFe, DAD, XP, and more.

And what happens when your team becomes so well-oiled and optimized that a scrum master really isn’t needed anymore? Companies haven’t done a good job at answering that, so these scrum masters continue to hold retrospectives and communities of practice and more that become very analogous to walking along the side of a heavily trafficked road. What was once progressive is now a barrier. What was once helpful is now hindering.

Okay, I’m ragging on the scrum master role a lot, but that’s just because I’m overly familiar with that role. (And purely speaking, I still find value in the original concept for the scrum master role.) The concept pertains to all other roles and processes.

So, what do we do to combat this?

The first is to not formalize something in the first place, but I honestly don’t find this to be a helpful answer. Keeping everything super ambiguous and giving everybody a general “associate” title just isn’t helpful. You do need to draw lines somewhere. That said, my suggestion is to give a level of ambiguity to roles that allows for flexibility for a person to freely move between different capacities of roles.

So, friends, consider what you are doing when you first give that mouse that cookie. You may have the best of intentions in the beginning, but you may find yourself in a world of adventure you never intended for down the road. Consider these things the next time you formalize a role or a process. Ask yourself, what could possibly go wrong? And if you can, ambiguitize (new word I just made up!) that role / process enough to intentionally leave room for flexibility.

That’s it for this post! Catch you in the next one.

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