The Listening Tree in Scrum

I wonder what you would think if you read this in a colleague’s calendar: Weekly one-on-one with my tree.

What if you were asked these questions?
How often were your team members facing an issue, and you could not listen to them just in time?
How often did you hear some half-true issues faced by a team member named by someone outside the team?
How often did the retrospectives not showcase the real issues?
If “quite often” is the answer to the above questions, then read on.

Earth is blessed with life, and the trees are an important part of the earth. Most of the land animals and birds are directly or indirectly dependent on the trees for feeding, making homes, or laying eggs. Humans are included — we have lived close to trees for a long time, eating their fruits and for using their wood for fire, weapons to hunt animals, and build homes.

The trees were the center of many ancient civilizations, with names like “the wishing tree” or “the listening tree.” Ancient civilizations believed that some trees had supernatural powers, such as being able to listen to human beings, fulfill their wishes, or solve their problems.

The ScrumMaster should act as the Listening Tree for the team.

What? A tree? I do not mean that the ScrumMaster should possess supernatural powers. Let’s discuss this analogue a bit more.

Modus operandi
Consider the following situation:

You are a developer working on a Scrum team, and you are unhappy about something in the office: no salary raise, rude manager, an uncooperative colleague, uninteresting work, etc. The root cause of your unhappiness can stem from a truth, or it can be merely a feeling. However, you are not comfortable talking to anyone on the team or even outside the team because of the office culture or politics.

What will you do?

You can talk to a friend in the office; however, the friend versus colleague definition is always a risky affair at the workplace (read: cutthroat competition).

Again, what will you do?

Here is my (new) solution:

Go outside onto the office patio, choose a tree, and mark it as your listening tree. Every time you are unhappy about something, approach that tree and start talking to it. Sounds foolish? Umm . . . actually, it’s not.

Once you share your problems with the tree, the tree will not do anything. It will stand still. However, the burden is taken off your shoulders. You will be relieved. You will understand one thing: It is not the tree that is going to solve the issue. Only you can solve your issue. The upside is that the tree will not use your words for any political mileage for itself (read: It’s impartial, neutral, unbiased).

If your manager yells at you for whatever reason, go outside and scream at the tree, and the tree will listen to you wholeheartedly. This way, you talk to yourself, viewing the issue from a fresh, unbiased perspective (with free oxygen).

Similarly, the ScrumMaster should constantly listen to the team members in an unbiased way, through different channels, such as surveys, one-on-ones, emails, team meetings, or chats. Most of the time, issues arise because of the absence of a venting channel, and they can often be resolved when someone merely listens.

Also, the ScrumMaster should not try to resolve issues (spoon-feeding). He or she should inculcate a culture of self-organization and open communication whereby team members “try” to resolve the issues themselves in the first go-around. If the issues persist after these attempts, then the ScrumMaster can jump in.

The tree and the Empowerment Dynamic
This strategy is aligned with the Karpman Drama Triangle and the newer Empowerment Dynamic (TED).

Karpman Drama Triangle and Agile
Karpman Drama Triangle and Agile


The Karpman Drama includes the following roles:
Persecutor – The person holding the most power, or an attacker.
Rescuer – The person with the most responsibility, or those who excel at win-win negotiations.
Victim – The person in conflict who is the most vulnerable and often helpless.
When you align this model with the Scrum framework, the roles are defined as follows:
Persecutor – The manager or product owner
Rescuer – The ScrumMaster
Victim – The team
The manager or product owner switches from the role of the Persecutor to the Challenger. This means that he or she will challenge the team by bringing new user problems.

If the team feels that they are the victims of the process, product owner, or leadership, and they reach out to the ScrumMaster without even trying to resolve the issues on their own, it is a sad state of affairs. Instead, they should behave more like a Creator (of the resolution) and align in a way that provides the best solution for the team, yielding maximum customer satisfaction and driving better business goals.

Also, the ScrumMaster should behave like a coach rather than a Rescuer, as this helps the team continue to self-organize and progress.

By using this approach, the trio (product owner, ScrumMaster, and the team) works in harmony toward a common goal for success. This approach is not found in any Scrum or Agile book. However, I’ve been implementing it for a couple of years, and it is working magically for me and my global teams. Disclaimer: This does not mean that the ScrumMaster should forget his or her other duties; however, this definitely complements the role.

Measuring the TED approach
How do you measure whether this approach was successful? It is easy to measure the effect. You can use a variety of techniques, such as the Happiness Index, Niko-niko calendar, retrospectives, or by talking to the team members directly.

If you see a team member discussing an issue with a tree, do not be surprised, as the tree really is helping the person. The same philosophy is used in meditation and the theory of consciousness.

Have you ever tried this approach? If not, it is worth a try! Please share your experiences with the Listening Tree approach.

Final note: I love coaching people, teams, and organizations to achieve high levels of performance in an Agile environment, and I am a curious learner. I would be happy to connect with you. Please drop an email or leave a comment; I will get back to you! Thanks!

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