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On the trails for Epictetus or why Scrum Masters are no “white threads”


Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, ranks among the most famous Stoic philosophers in ancient Rome. Once arrived in the eternal city as a slave, he came into contact with the Stoic theories and began to teach these theories. The Stoics got their name from the Stoicism, the most influential school of Hellenistic philosophy throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD. If we had the possibility to start a time travel, the Stoicism would be a rewarding destination for every Scrum Master. The Stoic philosophers adopted the idea to identify their place in society, to live it by seeking for wisdom through emotional self-control and with the help of serenity and calmness. Considering the conditions of that time, Epictetus was nearly a rock star of this philosophical reflection. Primarily, his theory had a look at ethical questions. The difference between him and most of his “fellow philosophers” was that he focused on the practical implementation of philosophical ideas: Today one would say: Doing as a way of thinking! Inner freedom and a moral autonomy of each human being are two of the centrepieces of his theory.

I would like to invite you continue our journey into the past a little further and to seek for aspects in Epictetus theories, which could be rewarding for the daily life of a Scrum Master.

“Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.” (Epictetus)

There could be no better action recommendation in an agile environment. In times of “faster, higher, and further” it seems almost scorned to commit oneself to the small things and to become good in these small things. Scrum is still understood as a kind of sure-fire success. True to the motto: Perform scrum and everything will be fine – immediately, of course. A good Scrum Master should counteract this misbelief. Scrum Masters are process keepers. A good process entails a higher productivity. Thus, there must not be something more important for an attentive Scrum Master than monitoring the process. Experiments? Process deviations? Variations? Amendments? Yes, but later. The formula for success is: basics, basics, basics. What are “basics”? Stick to the time box, fulfil commitments, encourage self-organisation, eliminate impediments and – at the end of each Sprint – supply a working piece of software.

What applies for one Scrum team cannot be bad for a whole company! What is the use of all efforts to introduce scaled teams, if the Scrum process does not work within the team? Who would come up with the idea to use frameworks such as SAFe (=Scaled Agile Framework) or LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) as a driving force within the agile daily life, if Scrum Masters and Product Owners do not even know which responsibility is linked to which role? Actually, this does not make any sense but is – nevertheless – part of the agenda.

“Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” (Epictetus)

Without communication everything is nothing. Talk is silver, silence is golden and listening is the main prize. The basis of a good conversation is listening (not talking!). Successful Scrum Masters are therefore also good listeners. When I write about listening, I do, by no means, think about the “Wackel-Dackel-Syndrom” (transl. as “Wobbler-Syndrome” à giving a hasty “yes” to a question, when a “no” would rather be your preferred answer). A remotely controlled nodding, a friendly smile … And all this only to fulfil the reflex that is unfortunately accepted by the society to spread social lubricants. This should under no circumstances be confused with an approval, not to mention be related to the hope of having a conversation partner with empathic listening skills. Listening is a craft only mastered by just a few. Listening means paying close attention, looking precisely, being emotional, engaging yourself, accepting the situation, giving the counterpart room for both his world and perspective and staying with yourself at the same time, listening to your inner voice, not yielding to the first resistance, know-it-all-attitude or intolerance but building a bridge to the person you are listening to. All of this makes it possible for your counterpart to present himself safely and authentically. Good listeners observe their counterpart, react with response, mirror expression or verbalize emotional content of experience towards heard content and non-verbal messages. Especially facial expressions provide us with reliable information on the emotional charges of a counterpart. Seven mimic objection signals such as frowning, sniffing with the nose, pursing the lips, make it possible for an attentive observer to read the facial expressions of the counterpart like an open book. However, the mimic does not reveal, why a certain feeling or mimic expression is shown. Despite that, a good ability to recognize emotions increases the chance that your counterpart feels (at least) well understood, appreciated on eye level and remembers the conversation (and maybe that applies to you, too) in a very positive way.

An insider tip for all listeners and observers: A few weeks ago a new facial expression was discovered in a behavioural scientific study: the so-called “Not-Face” – a mimic signal for objection, a signal for a “no”. Try it out yourself! Stand in front of a mirror and say “No” by using your mimic. No! In a study with 158 test persons from different cultures more than 96 % did so by frowning their eyebrows. More than 70 % lifted their chin, pressed their lips together and/or pressed together one corner of their mouth. Saying “no” with mimic expressions combines three emotional partial expressions: anger, disgust and contempt.

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. (Epictetus)

Perception creates reality. Scrum does not concern. Concepts and opinions about Scrum, which many people in companies still have, give, however, food for thought and make worry lines or anxiety states transparent. The rumors are numerous. People who use Scrum do not have to plan anymore. Scrum is chaos. Scrum is anarchy. People who use Scrum, should directly close the cover. The list could be continued infinitely. At the same time, it proves that existing concepts and opinions about this thing called “Scrum” scream for help. Scrum Master, this is your job! Create transparency, explain the process and do not stop. Do not get tired, to channel and bundle the concepts and opinions of the people in your teams, in your organization. Give them a deeper understanding: Scrum works!

… I would be the purple, that small and shining thing, which gives a Lustre and Beauty to the rest. Why do you bid me resemble the Multitude then? … (Epictetus)

With this line Epictetus puts the role of a “Scrum Master” in a nutshell. The cited “dress” means a worn tunica in the ancient Rome which was normally made of a white fabric. Purple threads in the white fabric were rather rare and special.

Scrum Master are the purple threads in an organization. They are not better, but different. Scrum Masters seek for changes and a continuous improvement. Scrum Masters rely on the process. Scrum Masters act with an attitude that submits their own action to the success of the team – according to the Scrum values such as openness or courage. Scrum Masters make the difference and the difference shines purple.

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