Titles Don’t Matter to the White Walkers

Game of Thrones is back for its final season and I couldn’t be more excited. As the battle for the iron throne continues, there’s an even bigger threat to the Seven Kingdoms as the Night King and his army move in. In Episode One of Season Eight, Jon Snow gave us (and Sansa) an important reminder by saying, “You want to worry about who holds what title? I’m telling you: it doesn’t matter.”

This hit home for me as a reminder that within our agile teams…titles don’t matter as much as we think either.

Don’t stare directly into Bran’s eyes!

To clarify, we do still have roles within our teams such as Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development Team Member. What I’m talking about is the titles that we get hired as such as Senior Software Engineer or Principal Developer or Junior Dev. It doesn’t matter if you are a Junior Code Monkey or a Principal Senior Badass Guru Engineer. Your ideas and your opinions are equally valuable as everyone else on the team. That’s what being a self-organized and cross-functional team is all about.

The sooner we can adopt that mentality and start treating our teammates like they are equals, the sooner we’ll be taking out team to the next level. We can influence our teams by encouraging openness, respect, vulnerability, and constant reminders which all lead to increased trust. Let’s dig into what we can do to start moving our teams in this direction.

Let’s start with one of the values of Scrum: openness. What we see a lot is the more senior development team members wanting to direct the more junior-level members without any willingness to listen (let alone encourage) the junior member’s opinions/input. They think they junior members know nothing like Jon Snow. They think because they have the higher title that their ideas are always the right ideas. Their ideas aren’t always better. Even if they are better, the junior-level developers should still have equal opportunity to propose different ideas or challenge their senior’s ideas and the good senior-level engineers should be encouraging this.

Acting like you know nothing like Jon Snow is better for your team than acting like you know everything like Cersei Lannister

A senior-level engineer who believes they can’t learn anything from their junior teammates is a fool and is toxic to their team. All teammates should be open to the ideas and thoughts peers, regardless of titles. Work out the problem together and come to a mutual agreement of how to tackle it. Remain open to all feedback to your ideas. This will build stronger relationships within our teams and increased trust.

Oh look, another value of Scrum. Respect goes hand-in-hand with openness. Once we’re open to everyone’s ideas, we have to be sure to respect them. Take the time to understand the ideas and then work through them as a collaboration by asking positive questions such as, “interesting. how would that work in this scenario…?”. Try to stay away from the conversation feeling like a debate where each team member is trying to prove why their idea is better. Remember, the goal is to agree on the best idea as a team, not to prove that your ideas is the best idea. Usually we see our more junior-level teammates stay quiet during these discussions.

We can show our respect for their input while at the same time encouraging openness by asking them direct questions such as “Sansa, what’s wrong with this plan?” or “Aria, how would you approach this?”. After a few discussions like this, they’ll realize that their opinion matters and they’ll start playing a more active role in these discussions without having to be called out like that. We can take this even further by making sure we compliment teammates when they come up with good ideas or good points in these discussions. Making these quick callouts is another way to encourage open participation and shows our respect for their ideas.

Next time you’re in a technical discussion, try to pay attention to who hasn’t said anything about that topic yet. Ask them directly what they think about it or if they have any ideas.

This is where things get a bit harder and more uncomfortable, but vulnerability is perhaps one of the most important and quickest ways to build trust within a team so we can start forgetting about those pesky titles. It’s especially important for the more senior members to break down the power dynamic of the team to by showing vulnerability. It’s as easy as admitting mistakes and asking for help from time to time. It conveys the message that we’re all human and we’re all in this together. Just because someone has a senior-level title doesn’t mean they do no wrong. It also has the “lead-by-example” effect that encourages the rest of the team to exhibit similar behavior in the future.

Sometimes the easiest action item is the most blunt one. We’ve talked about taking actions that send the message that “we’re all equals and everyone’s opinion matters” through subtle cues of being open, respectful, and vulnerable. In addition to those, sometimes it’s just helpful to blatantly call it out. Remind the team by saying things like “all of our opinions matter” or “forget about titles, what do you think?” Peppering those reminders into conversations from time to time can really help train the team to inherit that mentality.

TIP: In the next week, find a good time to tell your team that titles don’t matter. It sounds silly, but will go a long way.

Another easy way to constantly remind the team that titles don’t matter is to include the whole team in design sessions and technical discussions. Teams and leadership usually has a tendency to “protect the rest of the team’s time” by only including senior-level individuals in these types of meetings and discussions. This sends the wrong message to the team and further wedges the titles apart. Through your words and your actions, make sure you’re reminding the team that titles don’t matter.

The scrum guide states “The team model in Scrum is designed to optimize flexibility, creativity, and productivity.” Nothing in the Agile Manifesto or the Scrum Guide says anything about Senior Engineer and Junior Engineer being any different. By focusing on titles and shutting out the ideas of our more junior-level peers, we’re hindering our team’s overall flexibility, creativity, and productivity while at the same time hindering trust within our teams. So let’s stop. Let’s remind our team members that titles don’t matter. That we’re all on the same level. That your ideas matter just as much as mine so we want to hear them. Soon we’ll see trust and team morale grow and our teams will be taken to the next level (so we can defeat the Night King and his army…or whatever other problems our teams are trying to solve).

Enjoy the infographic below. Print it out and hang it up as a constant reminder of the values we’ve discussed above.

Does your team share any of the struggles mentioned above?
Have any tips on how to handle this issue?
What other lessons can we learn from Game of Thrones?

Join the discussion! Leave a comment below.

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