Diffusion of Responsibility in a Scrum Team

Diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon that can occur in any work setting including on a Scrum team where each team member feels that they are not individually responsible for the outcome of the product they are working on and thus they may not put in their best effort. It can show up in any meeting accompanied by long silences when questions are asked by a Product Owner, Scrum Master or perhaps a senior developer who takes on more than their fair share of the work. In a remote world, this problem can easily be compounded by keeping cameras off in meetings. This can easily become a destructive anti-pattern in a Scrum team because it can lead to decreased accountability, reduced motivation, and ultimately a decrease in team performance.

What is Diffusion of Responsibility?

Diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals feel that they are not solely responsible for something because there are other people involved. This can lead to a decrease in individual accountability and motivation, as each person involved assumes that someone else will take care of the task. Perhaps the best real world example of this was the case of the crimes committed against Kitty Genovese in 1964 in Queens, New York. This phenomenon is also called the bystander effect, and while this case was particularly tragic and noteworthy, the effect happens all the time in many scenarios.

In a Scrum team, this can be particularly problematic because it can lead to failed Sprints, additional defects, and decreased overall team performance. Members of a Scrum team are equally and directly responsible for the outcome of their work. There is no place for a bystander on a Scrum team’s roster.

Causes of Diffusion of Responsibility in a Scrum Team

There are several factors that can contribute to diffusion of responsibility in a Scrum team. Some of the most common causes include:

  1. Immature Team: When the team is newer or hasn’t progressed to being a “performing” or “high performing” team, individual members do not take personal ownership of all of the work within a Sprint. High performing teams understand that the body of work is owned by the entire team and every member is directly responsible for the outcome. Examples of traits seen in immature teams:
    • Lack of Trust: When team members do not trust each other, they may not feel that they are working towards a common goal and thus may not feel individually responsible for the outcome.
    • Lack of Communication: Poor communication can lead to confusion and decreased accountability, as team members may not understand what they are responsible for.
  2. Group Size: The larger the team, the more likely it is that diffusion of responsibility will occur. When there are many team members, each individual may feel that they are just a small part of the team and thus not responsible for the outcome. This is why the Scrum Guide recommends teams to be between three and nine members.
  3. Ambiguity of Goals/Unrefined Work: If the goals of a project or a Sprint or the acceptance criteria of a product backlog item are not clear or well defined, team members may not feel a strong sense of responsibility for the outcome.

Tips for Overcoming Diffusion of Responsibility in a Scrum Team

To overcome diffusion of responsibility on a Scrum team, it is important to address the underlying causes and take steps to increase individual accountability and motivation. Here are some tips for doing so:

  1. Strive to Mature: Make sure that each team member understands what a high performing team looks like. One of the best ways to do this is to occasionally take Agile team maturity assessments.
  2. Encourage Collaboration: Foster a sense of teamwork by encouraging team members to collaborate and work together towards a common goal. This can be done through team-building activities and open communication.
  3. Refine Clear Acceptance Criteria: Make sure that the acceptance criteria of the epic, feature and product backlog items are well refined and understood by all team members. This will help to increase motivation and accountability.
  4. Foster Trust: Build trust within the team by promoting open communication and a positive work environment. This will help to increase the sense of accountability and motivation among team members.
  5. Recognize Contributions: Make sure to recognize and reward the contributions of each team member. This will help to increase motivation and accountability.

Parting Thoughts

Diffusion of responsibility can be a major issue in a Scrum team, but it can be overcome by addressing the underlying causes and taking steps to increase individual accountability and motivation. By keeping the goals of the product in the team’s mind, having the team relentlessly refine their backlog items and by having the team assess their own maturity from time to time, we can start to address the underlying anti-patterns associated with diffusion of responsibility that can easily slump even the most talented group of developers.

To the Agile professionals out there who have experienced this – I’m curious as to how these problems were addressed and overcome on your teams. Feel free to reply here or on my LinkedIn article.

1 thought on “Diffusion of Responsibility in a Scrum Team”

  1. This reminds me of the difficulties experienced in high school when my children were assigned to a group project. It seemed that they complained about some of the same problems that you described. Good article

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