Agile Teams as Black Boxes

Learn why treating a Scrum team as similar to a black box is an important Agile practice.

The Agile practice of Scrum explicitly treats the Scrum team as a “black box.” If you are an organizational leader, you are allowed to see the inputs to your teams and the outputs from your teams, but you are not supposed to be very concerned with the inner workings of the teams.

In Scrum, this idea is implemented by saying that the team takes on a defined amount of work (the sprint goal) at the beginning of each sprint. The team commits to deliver the work— no matter what—by the end of the sprint. Then, for the duration of the sprint, the team is treated as a black box—no one gets to see inside, and no one gets to put more work into the box during the sprint. At the end of the sprint, the team delivers the functionality it committed to at the beginning. Sprints are short, which means managers don’t have to wait long to check whether a team is meeting its commitments.

This description of the team as a black box has been exaggerated somewhat to make a point, but the essence is important. Based on hundreds of conversations with managers and other leaders, I believe that treating teams as black boxes leads to healthier, more effective management. Managers should not be reviewing minute technical or process details. They should be focused on making sure the team has clear direction, and they should hold the team accountable for performing to that direction. They do not need to be aware of moment-to-moment decisions or mistakes in how the team is proceeding toward its goals. Being overly concerned with details is antithetical to a number of key principles, including decriminalizing mistakes and maximizing the team’s autonomy.

Appropriate “black box” concerns for a leader include clearing roadblocks (impediments), shielding the teams from avoidable disruption during the sprint, coaching teams through conflict resolution, addressing priority conflicts among projects, supporting staff development, hiring new team members, streamlining organizational bureaucracy, and encouraging the team to reflect on its experience and learn from it.

Is your organization willing to create Agile teams?

An Agile anti-pattern is adopting Scrum without creating truly self-managed teams. If management pays lip service to self-management while continuing to direct and control the team at the detailed level, the Agile implementation will fail. Organizations should not adopt Agile unless they are willing to, ready to, and committed to establishing and supporting self-managed teams.

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