Overcooked is a cooking simulation game in which the players attempt to rapidly prepare meals to specific orders under a time limit in kitchens filled with various obstacles and hazards.

Screenshot von Overcooked's level 1

Overcooked, the agile game

I discovered this game via my mentor Udo Wiegärtner at the Manage-Agile conference in Berlin. I played only 2 rounds, but the amount of learnings in this timeframe was simply through the roof. We were 4 players, and one "observer" (think Scrum Master):

  • Round 1: After the first 10 minutes round, we realized that we were all focused on the controls and not on the game mechanics. Long story short, we failed miserably and served NO customer... at all!
  • Round 2: After the second 10 minutes round, we realized we were still focused on the controls. We had done barely better. Our Scrum Master asked us what we observed in the realm of game mechanics. We had no idea.

There was the first learning for me: as long as the team-members don't master their craft (controlling the character on screen via the gamepad in this case), they cannot rise to the meta-level and observe what is going on around them. For a few months, this was all I had learned through this game ; until last week.

The curse of the blind Scrum-Master

Our Overcooked-Scrum-Master was able to help us effectively, because he was constantly observing us. He was pulling from his experience in games, in processes and in coordination, to try and make sense of the game-mechanics. Since the level we played was easy, he was able to grasp this quickly and tell us what to do. Now what would have happened if that Scrum-Master hadn't been able to observe us playing?

Last week, the coronavirus-outbreak finally hit our shores and Germany went under lockdown. All over the world, teams are forced to work remotely, leaving Scrum-Masters baffled, unable to observe their members anymore. As disorienting as it may seem, this is a good thing! Hear me out.

Just let go!

When my kids learned to ride their bikes, I was running alongside them, observing their stance, their reactions, helping (while pretending not to do so) and giving them tips and tricks all along. When we coach teams to become more agile, we tend to do the same. We sit with them. We spy on them. We listen to conversations. We observe movement patterns. We trick them to fall into the pit of success... all the while pretending we are not doing anything, hoping that we will soon be able to let go.

For my kids as well as my teams, there is a point where I have to let go. For my kids, it was easy: they soon could ride faster than I could run. But for my teams unless they reach hyper-productivity and rebell against me, I have to police myself to stop doing so. Or I become the micromanager that was spat on months before the transition started. That's where the remote-part comes in handy.

Being remote prevents the Scrum-Master to babysit the team. They have to find a different way: they have to coach.

Hi, I'm a Scrum Detective

Instead of being there when the murder happens, and being able to either save the victim or correct the shooting posture of the murderer, the Scrum Master has to work like a detective. They discuss with the protagonists after the facts. The truly listen. They collect data. Build a graph. Connect the dots. They build a mental model of what is happening.

Detective Board
Detective Board
  • Instead of spying and overhearing, the remote Scrum Master has to establish effective one-on-one meetings.
  • Instead of jumping-in and micromanaging, the remote Scrum Master has to act like a detective.
  • Instead of jumping in when they see a problem, the remote Scrum Master has to acts after the facts.
  • Instead of correcting behavior while it happens, the remote Scrum Master must guide the team members in their own feedback loops.

This is a step away from synchronicity, into asynchronicity. And it is normal if it freaks you out! It is a big change.

Isn't that coachy-coaching?

Yes it is. With asynchronicity, the Scrum-Master loses their operative power to react. What is left is influence and manipu... heu... coaching. This leads the Scrum Master to make their work explicit instead of implicit. This leads the Scrum Master to reinforce the inspect-and-adapt loops instead of micromanaging the team-members. And this is a good thing.

If you are in this situation, I advise the following:

  • Try to verbalize what really annoys you, what you are missing
  • Then instead of finding a way to emulate the past behavior in a remote context, as yourself why you felt the need to do this in the first place
  • Finally, address this "why" instead

Who's in for a Certified Scrum Detective certification program? 🤢🤮  

Board Picture by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

White House Picture by Jacob Morch on Unsplash