Different sort of pyramid syndrome

A Scrum of Scrums (SoS) is a mechanism to coordinate a group of teams so that they act as a team of teams. Powerful tools often have side effects that, if not countered, can do more harm than good. There are several “anti-patterns” that organizations adopt that negatively impact the value a SoS can deliver. In Scaling Agile: Scrum of Scrums: Anti-patterns Part 1 we explored The Soapbox, The Blame Game and Surrogate Project Manager, which three typical anti-patterns. Two other common anti-patterns are the Three Bears and Pyramid syndromes.

The Three Bears Syndrome. In the children’s version of the classic fairy tale, Goldilocks broke into the three bear’s house and sampled three bowls of porridge. One bowl was too hot, one bowl was too cold and one was just right. Many organizations determine what the right cadence is for SoS meetings for the organization regardless of context. The problem is that context is really important. Much like the story of The Three Bears, having too many meetings steals time from getting work done, while too few SoS meetings can keep work from being accomplished by delaying issue resolution and decisions. When the number of meetings is just right, work flows through the process with minimal delay caused by the need to wait for coordination or decisions. The most common version of this anti-pattern is the required single daily SoS. Many times organizations rigorously require SoS meetings on a daily basis because they believe that what is good for the daily stand-up/Scrum meeting is good for the SoS. Daily sounds like a good cadence, but some projects, for example projects with a handful of teams whose work is only loosely coupled, might not need a daily SoS. Alternately, projects with a large number of very tightly coupled teams late in the development cycle might need multiple SoS meetings on a daily basis. Another variation of this anti-pattern is seen in organizations that reduce the SoS cadence (usually coupled with lengthening the duration the meetings when they do occur) for projects with distributed teams. In real life, this is the opposite of what is needed, the complexity of projects with distributed teams typically demands more coordination, not less.

One possible solution is to empower the SoS to regulate itself.

  • Allow the SoS to self-regulate its own cadence based on the need of the project. A coach should facilitate the SoS in negotiating a minimum floor for when they will meet. The minimum should then be reviewed periodically so that people attending the SoS can change the meeting cadence as the need for decisions and project risk wax and wane.

Pyramid Syndrome. One of the more exciting features of the Scrum of Scrums technique is the ability to scale up the meetings up like a pyramid or a hierarchy. For example, a REALLY big project might have 10 to 20 teams. 20 teams with 7 members (Scrum teams are typically 5 – 9 people) which would equate to approximately 140 team members. 140 overall team members is still below the common interpretation of Dunbar’s Number. SoS meetings should be limited to the same size as a typical Scrum team (5-9) with smaller groups typically being better to ensure quick coordination. A project with 20 teams using SoS meetings of 7 people would require 3 SoS meetings for the teams and a 4th with a representative from each of the team-level SoS meetings. In some cases the ability to create layers of SoS meetings allows organizations to believe they can create megaprojects with hundreds of team members. Megaprojects and programs leveraging normal SoS techniques would need many layers of SoS meetings. Each meeting takes time and requires shuttling information between teams (with potential fidelity loss). A few years ago I observed an organization in which the some SoS attendees lost several hours a day to SoS meetings. Projects requiring SoS meeting of three or more levels are too large. One possible solution is simply to split the project or program into smaller chunks.

    • Split projects or programs up so that the number of team members involved stays below the approximate limit suggested by Dunbar’s number (150 people).

The Three Bears and Pyramid Syndromes are two additional anti-patterns that can plague Scrum of Scrums. None of the five anti-patterns we have explored are insurmountable. The solution for problems with how SoS meetings are work generally first requires diagnosing the problem and then coaching to help replace bad behaviors with good behaviors.