agile scrum team in a circle

“Is Your Scrum Team a Circle… or a Wheel?”

What makes an effective, successful Scrum team?

There’s isn’t a single, simple answer to that question.  But there are a few indicators that consistently give insight into how a team is progressing on its Agile journey.   One of the most useful is how the team communicates and whether they operate as a Circle or as a Wheel.

Picture your team’s morning Scrum, with team members facing one another in a common space.   How does the discussion proceed?   Does each team member speak in turn, relating their activities to all the other team members? As the team’s daily plan coalesces, does conversation bounce back forth between various team members? Does everyone contribute in roughly equal measure?  Do you get the sense of an Arthurian round table – a group of equals committed to a common cause?

If your answer to those questions is “Heck, yeah!” – then congratulations are in order.  Your Scrum team operates as a Circle, and has ingrained the concept of “self organizing.”  They’ve learned how to balance communication and contributions across the group. They’ve learned that they own their experience and control their destiny.

But what if the team operates as a Wheel?  In this case, although the team may stand in  a Circle, they communicate in hub-and-spokes fashion.  When team members speak, it’s less to the entire team and more to one individual.  Scrum is less a roundtable discussion and  more of a report: one person (the hub) is driving the meeting, and the team members are talking more to that person than to each other.

What if you’re not sure whether your team is operating as a Circle or a Wheel?   Then it’s time to collect some data!   Invite someone from outside the team to attend one or two Scrums with a notepad.  Ask them to record the number of times each person speaks.  While doing this, they can also notice where the participants tend to look when they’re talking.

When you look at the data, the diagnosis is usually obvious.  Here are two real-world examples.

agile circle

In this Circle, team members contributed in roughly equal amounts. Certainly some people are more verbose by nature, and from day to day some activities require more coordination than others. Still, effective teams understand the importance of consistently gathering everyone’s input.  Another aspect that’s difficult to capture in this diagram is the direction of the communication: that is, most participants were talking inclusively to the rest of the group.  Discussion bounced freely around the Circle as people asked questions and offered opinions

agile wheel


Here’s a classic Wheel in operation.  Of the nine participants in the Scrum, one person accounts for one-third of the communication. That individual – the hub – drove the meeting by querying the rest of the team and by adding commentary to virtually every interaction.  Unsurprisingly, the result was that the rest of the team addressed most of their comments to the hub and there was less free-flowing conversation among all the participants.

The Wheel is an anti-pattern that undermines many Scrum teams’ best efforts. Most often the person acting as the hub is doing so with the best of intentions.  Frequently it’s the Scrum Master acting as hub, but it may also be a technical leader on the team.  It may even be a close stakeholder, like the Product Owner or a functional manager.  Ironically, the hub often believes they are helping the team – by encouraging them, or trying to promote efficient meetings and productivity.

But here’s the rub:  The “self-organizing” principle in Scrum means exactly that.  Teams must learn how to establish their own practices and manage their own workflow.  They need to hold themselves accountable to their shared goals.  Any individual acting as a hub can only be an impediment to the team’s self-organization.

To the extent a hub is setting the team’s agenda, s/he interferes with the team’s evolution to self-management.  If the hub is focused on managing the work in process, there’s no need for the team to do it for themselves.  If the hub works to mitigate conflicts in the team, then the team won’t build a practice of communicating honestly or find ways to resolve differences constructively.  Perhaps most importantly, anyone acting as a hub is inevitably a bottleneck for continuous improvement; no matter how smart or experienced, no one person  can be more creative, imaginative or insightful than a healthy team.  As long as we condition our teams to rely on one person, we undermine their potential to grow.

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