Overzealous at Contoso.com

Overzealous at Contoso.com

Contoso is a software vendor that provides administrative, clinical, and radiology software to healthcare providers. In the late 1990s, a number of dot-com companies were funded to initiate Web-based alternatives to Contoso’s products. These new competitors intended to encroach on Contoso by initially offering patient-to-physician portals. These portals would facilitate patient and physician healthcare interactions, including prescription services, healthcare queries, appointments, and online medical advisories. Contoso viewed the portals as Trojan horses through which these competitors would later start offering administrative and billing services as Application Service Providers to Contoso’s customers.

To counter this threat, Contoso formed a dot-com subsidiary, Contoso.com. This subsidiary would offer its own patient-to-physician portal, with the difference that its portal would be linked to existing Contoso systems. Several projects were quickly initiated, including development projects, marketing projects, and a public relations project. I was the ScrumMaster for several of these projects, including the public relations project. The public relations project’s goal was to increase the marketplace’s awareness of Contoso’s new strategy and to get current and potential customers to see Contoso.com as an alternative to the other new dot-coms.

Being Right Isn’t Everything

The public relations project was very aggressive. In its first Sprint, a public relations firm was hired and a public relations plan conceived and approved. In its second Sprint, Contoso.com and the public relations firm began executing the plan, a key element of which was to make various analyst firms aware that Contoso.com was alive in the Internet space and was a purveyor of Web services. Several analysts had issued reports on this space and not mentioned Contoso in any of them. Many of Contoso’s customers were interested in these services but weren’t aware that their own vendor was a potential provider.

After considerable effort, the public relations firm was able to set up an all-day session with Contoso.com management and some key analysts. We were to present our plan, our offerings, and our timetable. Our hope was that by the end of the day, these analysts thought of Contoso when they thought of Internet healthcare and healthcare portals.

At the Daily Scrum the day prior to the analyst meeting, one of the team members reported an impediment. I could tell it was going to be a big one from the looks on the faces of all the team members. The vice president in charge of Contoso.com had called for a mandatory offsite meeting the next day. All hands were to be on deck, and all prior commitments were to be canceled. I was incredulous. What could be more important than our Sprint goal, to get Contoso.com visible as a viable alternative to the other dot-coms? The team told me what was more important: the vice president was concerned about morale at Contoso.com and was holding a picnic to improve everyone’s mood.

I knew that this was a mistake. The offsite was an impediment to the Sprint. Ironically, it was more likely to hurt team morale than help it. I was certain that the vice president was unaware of the analyst meeting. Otherwise, why would she have insisted on everyone’s attendance? To my everlasting amazement, it turned out that she was well aware of the analyst meeting. She even went so far as to ask me to call the analysts and cancel it. She required complete participation at the offsite out of concern that allowing anyone to be absent would encourage everyone to skip out. Unfortunately, I got pretty heated as I was expressing my opinion of this policy. She refused to let the analyst meeting proceed and showed me out of her office.

I was seeing red. I was the sheepdog, and a wolf had attacked the flock. I quickly escalated this impediment to the senior managers. I was sure that they would see the fallacy of the decision and advise the vice president to reconsider. I hadn’t anticipated that they would view teamwork as more important than progress and that they would see the sheepdog as an impediment. I was let go shortly thereafter.

Lessons Learned

The ScrumMaster’s job is to protect the team from impediments during the Sprint. However, the ScrumMaster has to operate within the culture of the organization. My mistake lay in failing to recognize the value of teamwork to this organization. I had been a consultant for so long that I’d forgotten how much some large organizations cared about not rocking the boat and keeping the corporate family together.

The ScrumMaster walks a fine line between the organization’s need to make changes as quickly as possible and its limited tolerance for change. Whenever possible, the ScrumMaster makes a case and pushes the necessary changes through. The results are often greater productivity and greater return on investment (ROI). However, sometimes these changes are culturally unacceptable and the ScrumMaster must acquiesce. Remember that Scrum is the art of the possible. A dead sheepdog is a useless sheepdog.