'Three Buckets': a simple way to clear the air in Scrum Teams

When you're a Scrum Master, you're bound to run into situations where frustrations have been building up for a while. When working with the team, you can cut the tension in the team with a knife. Instead of trying to cover up frustrations or sweet-talking them, the best strategy is to bring them out into the open in a safe, controlled manner. Only then can you help the team resolve their deeper issues and grow as a team.

Facilitating these kinds of 'tension-release'-sessions is difficult and scary. But they're massively important in creating the kind of trust, openness, and transparency that are vital to Scrum. By bringing issues out into the open and venting associated emotions, we signal the team that we are willing to work out our differences. Even if the session itself may be tough, it will set a powerful precedent.

Three Buckets

A simple format that I've developed over the years is called 'Three Buckets'. I use it to give everyone the opportunity to share their biggest frustrations while also highlighting what is working well. From there, we identify improvements to limit further frustrations. Despite initial tension within the teams I've worked with, teams always appreciate how powerful this format is in clearing the air.

Preparation

Make sure to brief the team ahead of time about this session and its purpose. Springing a session like this as a surprise is a B.A.D. idea. I usually timebox the session to 120 minutes.

Prepare three buckets and label them (respectively) with a large exclamation mark, a small exclamation mark and a heart. Put the buckets in a row on the table, surrounded by post-its and markers. I've found it helpful to put some candy and fruit on the table as well; it helps to lighten the atmosphere a bit.

Steps

  1. Welcome everyone. Re-iterate the purpose of the session. Don't beat around the bush; share your observation that there are tensions in the team and that you'd like to talk about them to see if they can be resolved. Re-iterate core values; don't interrupt each other, respect everyone's perspective and put an effort into trying to understand each other. Also emphasize that we may not resolve all the differences in one sitting, but that it does help move in the right direction;
  2. Briefly explain how to best provide feedback. Just saying 'Tim is always an ass' is not helpful because it's too subjective. Instead, focus on asking 'What does he do to make you feel that way?'. The SBI-model is very helpful here. Ask people to begin by explaining the situation as it was, then describe the behavior they observed and the impact that it had on them. This helps to separate facts from interpretations. If people have trouble formulating their frustrations in this manner, ask questions to help them do so;
  3. Ask everyone to write down frustrations they have on a post-it, fold them up and put them into one of the buckets. Huge frustrations go in the bucket with the large exclamation mark, smaller ones go into the bucket with the small exclamation mark. Also ask everyone to write down one or two things that are going well, fold them up and put them into the bucket with the heart;
  4. Starting with the bucket with the large exclamation mark, ask people to take a post-it out of the bucket, unfold it and read it aloud. The person that wrote the post-it can clarify if needed. Discuss the frustration, giving the writer the opportunity to explain what happened (using the SBI-steps). Chances are that you'll have duplicates in the bucket, which is perfectly fine;
  5. For each frustration, try to identify improvements to avoid that frustration from resurfacing. Sometimes just voicing the frustration is already enough. Write actionable improvements on post-its and stick them on a wall to keep them transparent throughout the sessions;
  6. I prefer to completely empty the bucket with the largest frustrations before moving to smaller frustrations, and finally to things that are going well. But we sometimes change the order depending on how the group feels. Sometimes we skip over the smaller frustrations entirely or take a few post-its from the 'Going well'-bucket in-between to bring the positive into focus for a bit. This really depends on what the group needs and how the energy-level is. But do make sure to end the session on a positive note;
  7. Round up the session by going through the improvements you identified with the team. Ask the team how the session was for them. Did it help them clear up frustrations?

Other tips

  • Acknowledge that people may feel tense and nervous, including yourself;
  • If emotions run particularly high during the session, use short breaks to calm people down before proceeding;
  • Don't break off the session halfway. The worst thing you can do is break off the session, leaving all the tensions in the open without resolution;
  • As a facilitator, you are not responsible for the outcome. Your responsibility lies in creating a safe-enough environment where people can voice frustrations and find solutions;
  • Don't facilitate this session if you are involved in certain frustrations;
  • You can add more buckets to help participants self-select how urgent a frustration is (like three buckets with '!', '!!' and '!!!' and on with a heart);

Good luck facilitating your own 'Three Buckets'-session. I'm looking forward to hearing about your experiences, lessons learned and - most importantly - if it helped to clear the air.

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Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic