Protecting Your Team Does Not Mean Protectionism

Protectionism is the economic practice of protecting domestic production and trade by making it more difficult or expensive to trade with other countries. It is also manifest in office politics when one team or department refuses to work with another because they’re afraid of losing control over their own little kingdom. Whatever the pros and cons of protectionism are at a macroeconomic level, it is almost always a bad idea in the workplace because it keeps you from building bridges with other communities within the company and isolates you from individuals with skills that can enrich your team. Enriching your team = higher quality of work = higher likelihood of success.

When I became the scrum master in one particular team, someone from the customer’s team was pushing to have one of their developers join us remotely. I wasn’t happy about it; not because I had anything against that developer (I hardly knew him), but I felt that the person who was pushing for it was overstepping his bounds and I wanted our co-located team to gel before adding another variable to the work. In the interest of good relations and giving that person the benefit of the doubt, I grudgingly agreed to have the remote developer join our team but kept him at arm’s length for a few sprints.

That was an immature mistake. The remote developer became a valuable member of our team and helped us identify issues in code that he wasn’t even working on. He was originally focused on QA tasks but made himself available to help with coding, which we needed more of, and having him on the team helped us learn more about the QA side of things through osmosis. Having him on the team also enriched our retrospectives as we looked for ways to use his role in our continuous improvement efforts. All in all, the benefits outweighed the logistical challenge of integrating him into our team.

As scrum masters, part of our role is to protect developers from undue external pressures and distractions so they can focus on doing the work in the way they think best. But we should not confuse protecting the team with isolating the team, or engaging in workplace protectionism. This can limit how cross-functional our teams are. Of the three pillars of empirical process control that are used in scrum (transparency, inspection, and adaptation), inspection and adaptation require us to objectively evaluate what is best for the team and how to integrate it into the team’s processes, regardless of where those improvements come from. Practicing scrum with that mindset of humility and willingness to accept improvements from sources outside of your immediate team will help your team do better work and make you a more effective servant-leader.