The Single Throat to Choke In Agile

Anthony Mersino
May 29, 2017

I have a client that has been using Agile and the Scrum Framework for the last 3 years.  Let me restate that, this client has been using A.I.N.O. (Agile in name only) for the last 3 years.  I am working with him to implement Scrum and eventually embrace a full Agile Transformation.  With him and his team I have to refer to this as implementing a "more disciplined Scrum" because unfortunately, everyone believes they are already using Scrum

Scrum Master Role

Anyway, the client is having some difficulty with the roles, in particular for the Scrum Master.  He seems stuck on the idea that there needs to be a single throat to choke and keeps asking if the Scrum Master is responsible for quality, or for on-time completion, or status reporting, or many other things.  Unfortunately, I find this pretty common as most people want to project on the Scrum Master a myriad of responsibilities because they cannot imagine how a high performing Development Team might operate.  In most cases, I respond that it is the Development Team that is responsible.  To which he replies, "If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible.  I need a single throat to choke."

Putting aside the ignorance of Scrum for a moment, I am astounded at the idea that making one person accountable carries only the negative side - who to blame and punish if things go wrong.  There is no corresponding statement about "single soul to bless" or "single bank account to shower with financial rewards".  We don't care about who to thank as much as who to spank, or who to stroke over who to choke.
It says a lot about the organization when the orientation is to failure, blame, and punishment.  It seems really popular today to talk a good game about failing fast and learning from failure, but most organizations are hard-wired to take people out when they fail and to make failure a negative experience.  This all but ensures there will be more failure since most people will invest more energy to avoid accountability, create paper trails and CYA rather than focusing their energy on getting the job done successfully.

Empowered Agile/Scrum Teams

Similarly with blame and punishment.  Even though no one acts alone and anything significant is accomplished by a team, there is still the idea that we need to find a single person to blame when things don't go as expected.  If we have to find one person to be accountable, then we really don't have those empowered teams that are described in the Agile Principles.  So are we really Agile?
Finally, there is punishment.  Punishment doesn't motivate - it only creates fear.  Fear of punishment kills creativity, experimentation, and learning.  So if you want to stifle your organization, keep a focus on punishments.  Even vague threats of punishment can be helpful to keep the fear going. 
I think it is time to make a shift.  Can we retire the statement "Single Throat to Choke"?

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.