I was aimlessly watching a movie on TV recently, and after about 20 minutes or so it went to an Ad break, I cannot bear TV adverts it is like scratching nails on a blackboard for me and knowing the breaks are quite long I switched to another channel and saw another movie that drew my attention. I watched that for a while – until the next Ad break and switched back, this went on for most of the movie(s). By the end I realised that I had watched enough of both movies to claim I had watched them, but had missed so many crucial plot events that they both felt hollow and disappointing.
What is so interesting about this experience is that it is such a good metaphor for being a Scrum Master of two teams. I’ll come back to this in a bit.
There have been many studies on multi-tasking and context switching (I believe there is a distinct difference – think the difference between juggling and plate spinning) and one that I read recently – http://www.infoq.com/articles/quantifying-impact-agile suggested that if you split someone between two tasks/teams there is a loss of 20% productivity, 3 teams 40% loss etc. I suspect that this is an implicitly accepted value by management and considered an acceptable loss. But it is my opinion that only applies to work that can stack or be put on hold.
If someone is split 50/50 between two teams answering emergency calls say, if they are not there when the call comes in then the call is missed. If the call centre is for the fire service, the loss in productivity and availability is consequential.
Back to being a Scrum Master for two teams. The prevailing view in the industry is that a Scrum Manager can effectively support two teams (some even believe three), but the prevailing view amongst Scrum Masters is that to be truly effective you can only support one team.
My experience is that I cannot context switch this job. It is not possible for one team to pause while I deal with the other, the sprint goes on relentlessly, problems do not wait for me to return, and often problems lurk until I leave to manifest. While I am giving attention to one team I am ignoring and neglecting the other, when I try to remain aware of both I run myself ragged and finish up giving neither attention. I was even asked to take on a third team – which I refused saying I couldn’t give them the attention they need.
So what is the answer? The obvious answer is to say that if money is no object and recruitment was instant and effective and new starters hit the ground running the answer is to hire a good Scrum Master for each team. Sadly that is not the case, there are three development teams and only one Scrum Master and although they are attempting to recruit another, the sad truth is that good Scrum Masters are very hard to find, and underlying all this there is a limit to the budget. A real-world problem that is not easy to solve with a text book response.
That is a little doom and gloom, and most of the time I can support two teams and I think I do a good job. One team is more mature than the other and so I generally split my time 70/30 and both teams seem to be improving (my definition of success). My problem is that I know I could do a great job if I could focus on just one. But is it worth the total neglect of the other?