Staying in Your Lane

Staying in Your Lane

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I was coaching someone new the other day. I knew they had a broad and deep non-software background and were pivoting into a Scrum Master role. It was their first job as a Scrum Master, and the hiring company was taking a leap of faith in hiring them. But I knew they had deep skills that would translate into the Scrum Master role and that they would do well. 

That is…if…they would stay in their lane.

They had ~20 years of experience and had held organizational leadership roles in their previous companies. Given that, I knew it would be a challenge for them to, how to say it, be a Scrum Master. Especially when they encountered organizational, leadership, and broadly impacting impediments.

They also seemed to have a very proactive, fix-it mindset. I thought this would be hard to throttle in the context of Scrum Mastery in an early-stage and chaotic agile transformation, mainly if they were focused on doing things “right.”

We explored it quite a bit, and they said they were already finding it challenging to stay in their lane. We explored the drivers for it and strategies for setting up personal guardrails. Especially since they were very new to Scrum and agile ways of working, I advised them to focus on better understanding software delivery in agile contexts. This would establish a baseline of experience they would need to empower their instincts as a Scrum Master & Coach.

But that being said, I didn’t want them to turn all of their rich historical experience off. Indeed, their company hired them for those strong and transferrable skills.

But my client conversations made me think about this in more general terms…

And as I thought about this coaching experience, I wondered if this was a more generic challenge for all of us in change leadership roles, such as Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and other change agents.

Was staying in your lane a thing? And, if so, what would be my generative guidance around it?

My first thought was, is staying in one’s lane a personality trait or base characteristic? That is, are there folks who are more—

Lane Stayers – more comfortable simply doing their job well? Who doesn’t want to cross lane lines or do more than is expected of them? Consider them heads-down, pragmatic, and focused. While they observe broader and systemic issues, they view it as someone else’s job to handle them. 

There’s a shadow-side that these folks can be too focused and miss important responsibilities they can and should be tackling.

Lane Shifters – uncomfortable working narrowly. Instead, they have a broad-brush view of the organization’s goals and view their role to attack impediments wherever they find them. While they certainly do their job, they are often looking outside the core constraints of their roles, as it’s their job to make everything better. 

There’s a shadow-side that these folks can spend too much time chasing shiny objects outside of their control or power dynamics. It can even become professionally dangerous if they stretch too far and don’t focus on their primary job.

I’ve worked with and coached both of the above types. And, to be clear, one isn’t better than the other. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and their vision and focus are quite different.

I also believe you need both of these perspectives (people) in your teams to complement one another while looking for folks who can effectively balance both.

Taking this one step further, I believe there are cultures that primarily want, encourage, and support Lane Stayers and those who prefer Lane Shifters.

Everyone seems to want Lane Shifters, or at least they say they do. But in practice, those are only words, and the culture isn’t supportive.

The thing you want to be cognizant of is your base characteristic and the base cultural dynamics of your current (or future) organization. The point is, it’s really hard to survive as a Lane Shifter in a Lane Stayer culture and vice versa.

What are your thoughts regarding this notion of staying in your lane?

  • When is it good and proper? And when is it a problem?

  • Are there particular roles where one stance is preferred over the other?

  • Should you be capable of doing both when the situation calls for it?

  • What are the danger signs of leaning too hard one way or the other?

  • How do you develop yourself to be able to be both a lane stayer and a lane shifter?

  • And finally, what are your best ways to detect which way your organizational culture is leaning?

Stay agile my friends,


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