Scrum master’s impossible triangle

Inspired by Vekantesh Rao’s article on Thingness and Thereness, I saw a Penrose triangle as an excellent model for visualizing the key loci on which the organizational life of a Scrum Master unfolds. For organizations that have more than one Scrum Master, these loci are the Scrum Community (Community), Team, and Organization. Important things happen at the vertices of a triangle, but the edges are just as important. I think that it would not be an excessive generalization to apply all the following to Agile coaches, and in general to those who are engaged in organizational change.

The line between the Community and the Team can be called “Agile – to every team”. This is where the Scrum Master and the team he works with are identified and self-identified. This is where the selection of approaches, tools, and metrics takes place, and the main question in this area is “How to bring the greatest value to each team”. On the line between the Community and the Organization – “Changing the organization for the better” exploration of the organization’s ability to make changes to increase adaptability happens. By answering the question “What are we doing to improve the organization?” in this space organizational change goals and change actions are imagined and embodied. The line “Team – Organization” with its “Be the best – together!” slogan it is determined by the question “What to do to make us the best organization?”, here we realize what a value is and explore ways to build relationships with stakeholders and customers.

In most cases the starting point is Community. To take the role of a Scrum Master you don’t just need to be part of the community but go from there to either a Team or an Organization. This is, of course, a simplification: with experience, the Scrum Master understands how to stay aware of all three edges simultaneously, but at any given time the focus of their activity is on one of the edges, so let’s consider that the Scrum Master chooses only one direction. This is not an oversimplification: often a novice Scrum master does just that.

Moving to the team is pretty much emotional. It is about good interpersonal relationships, about friendship and about positive emotions. There is, of course, room for process changes and discipline, but often to move in this direction it is enough to be a “nice guy” for the team. The movement in the direction of the organization is inevitably more objective. Here, of course, it is important to be a nice guy, but this is no longer enough (unless you work at Google) to make any progress. Here you need to justify the changes that you propose via logic, link them to the organizational facts and show the results, actual evidence of increased efficiency and effectiveness because of your changes. We can say that the Community-Team line is about being somebody “I – them”, while the Community-Organization line is about doing something, “I – it”.

By choosing the direction I also choose my predominant point of view, and at the same time I choose ideological opponents. If I get far enough along the “I – they” line, I will begin to perceive those who are on the “I – it” line as soulless, callous pragmatists who put processes and metrics above the interests of people. Those who will be far enough on the “I – it” line will see me as a team animator, naive and unaware that the happiness of the team is impossible without the success and financial stability of the organization. At the same time, even if we find ourselves on different sides of the barricades, we remain interconnected, both through the Community and through the relationship between the Team and the Organization, which inevitably affect one another.

Impossible triangle sculpture, East Perth, Western Australia

The Penrose triangle is also a great fit here because it is an impossible figure. The continuous connectivity among the three loci is an illusion preserved only from specific point of view. A significant part of most Scrum and Agile trainings, as well as Agile conference speeches diligently support this point of view as the only possible viewpoint making a given illusion of the Penrose triangle seem real. A slight shift of the viewpoint causes the observer to detect a gap in one of the vertices. Where exactly this gap will occur depends on your experience and the context of the organization you work for. It can be said that the collision with organizational reality forces you to shift your point of view and discover a gap. The strength of the belief that one’s point of view is the only viewpoint possible determines how effectively a person will resist reality, to some extent protecting the illusion from destruction.

In my case, the gap is at the Team vertex and it was revealed when my illusion that you can focus on the happiness of the team members, be a nice guy, and then turn round the corner and go into the area of organizational change, where you will immediately be rewarded with the fact that every organizational change you propose will be accepted and implemented. So, the space of organizational change turns out to be incomprehensible, negative, and hostile and you either hide in the Team, reducing your ambitions and gradually becoming full of resentment, or you return to the community and try to be someone more pragmatic, moving in the “I – it” space.

From this point of view, the transition from Team to Organization has a gap between the desire for universal happiness via the supremacy of team members interests, and the inevitable limitations and conflicts because of organizational changes aimed at objective results and efficiency. To cross this gap is to radically reshape the relationship with the rest of the organization.

If there is no gap between the Team and the Organization for you, it must be in one of the other vertexes. You may be incredibly careful in protecting your point of view to keep the illusion in place, but once you are in the right conditions, you will inevitably see this gap, and this insight will lead you either on the road of constant self-deception, or on the road of personal transformation: accepting the gap you expand your worldview, rising to new heights of professionalism and becoming a more complete person.