For those involved with project planning, such as project leads and Scrum masters, asking the right questions during Agile team meetings and receiving the team’s input can be transformative. These questions encourage teamwork and show your team members how to think through challenges using the Agile framework.
But how you shape these questions is important since the questions that project managers ask during Scrum meetings set the tone for your team’s activity.
Why you need to ask questions during Agile team meetings
Our question philosophy goes deep into the soul of Scrum. A decentralized, no one’s “the boss” spirit promotes collaborative, cross-functional, and self-managing teams. As such, no one team member is telling everyone else what to do. Team members instead share observations, ask questions, state proposals, and self-organize in order to reach collaborative group decisions. Meetings are not directed in a top-down format but are instead facilitated.
When team members can freely share their own input in Scrum meetings, the entire team benefits. Your team feels less defensive if a particular problem is under discussion—and the focus can remain on solutions instead of blame. Questions invite this level of direct response and contribution from team members. Declarative statements are about the speaker, but questions create discussion.
Creating a collaborative environment in your Scrum meetings has benefits that last beyond your daily huddles:
Build trust: Without trust, you can’t always be sure your team feels comfortable telling the whole story. Is there a potential problem, an “elephant in the room,” that no one wants to address? Your team needs trust to confront these issues transparently and early before they become bigger problems.
Promote creativity: Questions can invoke creative, unique solutions to problems. With the right approach, you can ask good questions that give your team ideas and lead to breakthroughs.
Establish healthy dynamics: You can encourage a team environment of openness, welcome, and diversity. No one should have to wonder if their input is valued.
Foster independence: By stepping back from directly problem-solving on your team’s behalf, you can grow your team’s skills and confidence. Instead of being frustrated by micromanagement, your team is empowered.
Increase inquiry: Curiosity, not defensiveness of past decisions or mistakes, should guide your team. Questions build an inquiring spirit.
How to ask better questions
Delivery of the question is key—check where you are “coming from” first. In order to ask better questions, you need to start with the end. How will the question land with the others? Questions should grow and extend your team’s capabilities, motivate fruitful discussion, and inspire teammates to think and act purposefully.
Asking better questions is an art form that takes practice. Here are some tips to think about as you foster positive productive Scrum meetings:
Set the intention
Choose words that demonstrate your true intent and that invite your colleagues to go deeper. For example, ask “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have any questions?”
Asking “what” instead of “do” accomplishes two things. First, it shows that having questions is not only okay—it’s ideal. Second, asking “what” demonstrates that your intention is to provide guidance and facilitation in finding answers to questions.
Use active listening
As you learn more about how your questions are “landing” with others, you may find you have some work to do in developing your capability to actively listen and practice your inquiry and curiosity.
Avoid veiled barbs
Questions with an ulterior motive designed to implicate your team do more harm than good and can undermine your goals for Scrum meetings. If you are headed into a meeting but harboring feelings of defensiveness or frustration, be careful not to direct negativity into your questions.
Be a coach
Professional coaches shape their questions around empowerment, discovery, and clarity. These questions support openness, expanding dialogue rather than limiting it or shutting it down. Short, direct, and developed for the context, these questions generally start with why, what, and other “w” words instead of “do” (for example, “How would you finish this?” instead of “Do you think finishing this is possible?”).
Ask for clarification
Practice mirroring back to your team what you just heard, discussing it until you reach a point of alignment as a group. For instance, asking “I don’t see it yet—can you help me see it?” is an alternative to use when you think you disagree or haven’t made up your mind yet.
You can (and should) still question assumptions held by teammates. A good starting point is to ask questions that reveal mindsets, experiences, and approaches informing the assumptions. Even if an assumption seems wrong at first, it may be correct or have elements of truth that are germane to the discussion.
To put these ideas into practice, consider creating a question agenda for your Scrum meetings instead of choosing assertions for each section of your meeting.
Agile question pitfalls to avoid
Given what we know about crafting better questions, let’s consider some potential pitfalls and how they might be avoided or addressed.
Having no direction for your questions or not knowing what to ask
If you’re not sure what to ask, you can work from variations of these three questions, as recommended by the Agile Alliance:
- What have we completed since the previous meeting?
- What will we finish before the next meeting?
- What are our potential obstacles?
From there, with your questions covering these three areas, you can ensure that your questions are opening discussion of what’s already done, what must be done, and how you’ll get there.
Lacking a definition of “done”
Along with your questions, you need to know when you’re finished so you aren’t tempted to cherry-pick your sprints. For instance, you don’t want to be extending your sprints by a few days because you aren’t done yet.
Use your questions to guide your team back on track or uncover the differing definitions you’re all working towards so you can re-align again. If there’s pressure to extend deadlines or change the scope, probe for answers and find ways to productively use the new timelines.
Accepting “Scrum zombie” answers
If your team starts stumbling through your questions with “We worked on X and Y, we’ll keep working on X and Y, and everything’s fine and there are no problems,” then you may have a case of “Scrum zombies.” Your questions may not be growing your team enough if they can provide quick yes-or-no answers.
Use these tips to enliven your Scrum meetings again:
Bring them back: Get your team on track by re-phrasing and re-framing your questions. They may be telling you there aren’t problems to report, but you might notice that you’re two days behind schedule. Instead of asking “Why are we behind?” in an accusatory way, you could see if you might be working from different assumptions.
Cancel a meeting: Sometimes the zombie behavior arises because there really isn’t anything of note to report. Your team might have a problem-free sprint. If there’s no meaningful new information, you can cancel the meeting, shorten it, or cover it with fewer questions.
Encourage participation: If there’s a morale slump or some other unidentified reason your team’s dialogue isn’t what you’d expect, it’s time to investigate. Make sure you understand where your team is coming from and if you’re fully informed about their progress with the sprint. You may need to get creative with your questions to tease out how the project is going.
These zombies can come back to life, but you’ll need to do a little more homework. Remember, task completion is more important than spending effort—if your team’s answers are reflective of effort and not accomplishment, it’s up to you to find out what’s happening during the sprint.
Guide meetings through your questions
Developing effective questions to ask during meetings may take some additional prep time beforehand, but it’s worthwhile when you’re able to get a better handle on your team’s accomplishments, improve their results, and grow through each sprint.
With the right questions—and an intelligent diagramming platform—in hand, your team can become more agile.